Compartmentalization, or Why the Labor Economy is Broken

We are on the precipice of a whole new paradigm when it comes to who works where, how, and for how long. There may be many people who fear such upheaval and would rather just sit tight with the system we have because they had been able to hang on by the skin of their teeth and don’t want to risk falling into the abyss of poverty, but there are MANY more who are willing to take that leap into the unknown because they realize not only how the old system was taking more from them than they were able to give, but also that it was doing the same to others. We all deserve something better and I’m convinced that we are going to get it, possibly without the Build Back Better Act even being passed.

In case you hadn’t noticed, a major disruption has hit the US labor economy over the past few months. “The Great Resignation,” as it has been called, is continuing as more and more people come to terms with the broken and exploitative nature of the relationship they have with their employers. Almost anyone with any savings and/or marketable skills is reassessing their current employer and many are making the leap, deciding that better opportunities lie elsewhere, including with other employers, in starting a business, in taking a sabbatical to write a book or in dedicating full-time attention to care-giving in one form or another.

The truth is, employers have all become too complacent, assuming that an endless supply of cheap labor would be locked in forever, that America’s peer-pressure, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ social norms would be enough to force people to center their lives around work, be thankful for any scraps they could get because they would need the money to buy the latest “fast fashion” trend or iPhone the second it came out.

It turns out, however, that like our “just in time” logistics model, our labor economy was stretched too thin to be resilient to the shock that is Covid.

Very specifically, I want to call out how little has actually changed in the workplace from the time that would be the conservative “golden age:” the 1950’s. First off, white men are typically in charge. And they usually got there by working 60+ hours per week and they absolutely, positively expect the same level of dedication from you if you want to “be a leader” or “advance in the company.” I am not a researcher and I have no data to corroborate this, but I would bet that there is a fairly strong correlation between number of hours worked and likelihood of promotion in today’s business world. If you are not one to put your job above all other priorities in your life, including family, travel, friendships, artistic endeavors, home maintenance, personal development, you will not advance in your company. Period.

Just as in the 1950’s, cisgender, heterosexual white men will generally have no problem with this arrangement precisely because they are expected to dedicate most/all of their time to work while their wife stayed home, cared for the kids and kept the home and family fires burning full time. There was a clear division of labor that allowed the men to flip a switch, on for work, off for home, and things worked out great for them. This was until the ’70s and ’80s when it became untenable to support a family in a single income. I won’t get into detail about the policy changes that contributed to this shift, but they aren’t dissimilar to arguments you hear now in opposition to the Build Back Better agenda, or the idea of social infrastructure as something to write policy about.

When women went to work, the childcare industry grew immensely, so that families could outsource some of the care responsibilities and the women could focus on both a job/career and the more traditional home/family/care-work. The amount of money that gets paid into daycare and early-childhood education, even accounting for the low pay offered to staff in this sector of the economy, represents the amount of money NOT being paid to mothers and other caregivers of family over the years. The 1950’s economy cheated women out of their own financial security and independence twice over.

And since that time, we’ve all still been playing by the old rules. You can succeed in business if you dedicate 60+ hours per week to your job, if you sacrifice your personal/family life, if you always keep the business at the top of mind and create your identity around your company and your job, if you always conduct yourself in a “professional” manner (including on social media), if you massage your boss’s ego in just the right way, if you forge connections with just the right people, if you are in the right place at the right time, if you are constantly performing, etc, etc, etc.

There is NO surprise that we still have a dearth of successful female executives at large companies because not only do we have so many other responsibilities, but also, Covid has exposed the extent we had deviated from our sense of what is right FOR US. Maybe climbing the corporate ladder just is not worth the non-monetary cost to ourselves, our mental health, our families, our friendships, our homes, our pets, our artistic endeavors, our travel aspirations, our inspiration, our passion, our SOUL, etc.

Companies are figuring this out, slowly but surely. At least some of them are. Compartmentalization in the workplace will be effectively dead by the end of the pandemic (I’m guessing 2-3 more years, from the looks of the situation). It will be interesting to see which issue gets sorted out first, labor or logistics. I would think labor would be easier to fix; I dare say it could be fixed immediately if the men in charge could correctly identify the problem, but that’s a big if. If our entire system of labor in this country doesn’t work for more than 50% of your theoretical labor pool, smart companies will not wait to come up with more holistic and equitable pay and benefit plans, more equity and flatter organizational structures where more people can feel more empowered, hence engaged with their positions. An engaged employee is a productive employee, working to their capacity to make the company proud. But engagement cannot be forced or coerced and the result of decades of over-reliance on these tactics is the system failure we’re experiencing right now.

The best part about all this is that the market correction is happening on its own, not as a function of government intervention into the market. The federal minimum wage has not been changed from $7.25/hour, but my guess is that you wouldn’t be able to find too many businesses paying that wage these days. I believe that is a good thing.

If you are a business owner and you employ people, consider these changes as a wake up call, an opportunity to do better. If you take better care of your employees, they will take better care of you down the line. And while you’re at it, promote some women and don’t sleep on those who work fewer hours. It could be that both groups are getting just as much done in less time than their overworking peers. One COULD see that trait as desirable in seeking leaders to be promoted as well as those who are showing off by wasting their and your time.

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