The Job Hoppers

In 1977, Johnny Paycheck released Take This Job And Shove It, a country tune about a factory worker who quit his job after his woman left him. The song struck a chord in those of us who were working at the time and became a kind of popular anthem about worker dissatisfaction and boldly telling off the boss as you walked out on your old job.

Recently, many workers apparently have taken Johnny Paycheck’s lyrics to heart, because Americans are leaving their jobs in record numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2021 the “quit rate” among American workers hit a new high of 3 percent. In the leisure and hospitality sector of the economy, the quit rate in September was 6.4 percent. In all, more than 20 million workers quit their jobs between May and September, 2021.

Experts are trying to determine what’s causing the increase in quitting, and employers are trying to figure out how long it will last–and what they need to do to attract new workers to fill the vacancies. Some experts think that the COVID pandemic is a factor, with workers leaving because of concerns about contracting the virus (or, alternatively, unvaccinated workers quitting in the face of vaccination requirements)–but the quit rate has been steadily increasing for the past decade, since long before the pandemic hit.

It seems pretty clear that a combination of factors are at play, such as better information about available jobs, a financial cushion created by stimulus payments that allows disgruntled workers to quit and look for another job without starving, remote work options that have opened up jobs for faraway employers, and a general perception that there is a strong job market and finding a new, better job is not going to be difficult. The latter point is important: one reason for the decade-long growth in the quit rate is that the rate hit historic lows during the Great Recession, when workers held on to their jobs with both hands. It’s therefore not surprising that the current rate is a lot higher than it was in 2009.

In the American economy, there’s always going to be movement among jobs. Economists speak of “entry-level” jobs for a reason: people enter the workforce, take a low-paying job, and then start looking for a better one. Employees have never been shy about looking for a better position that allows them to move up the ladder, find a fulfilling career, and live a happy life. And people who are chronic “grass is always greener” job-hoppers early in their working lives often settle in to long-term positions when they create families and assume family-related obligations.

The big issue now seems to be whether there is an attitudinal shift among workers, making them more likely to be dissatisfied and quit. And employers wonder whether these elusive workers are focused on benefits, or work conditions, or home-life balance, or concerns about individual well-being, or just the issues involved in having a boss, period. When you’re trying to fill holes in your workforce and build a corps of employees that doesn’t have constant turnover, these are crucial questions–and right now, the answers aren’t clear.

Here We Go Again

You’d think that, after the crash of the housing market, the failure of banks, the stock market plunge, and the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that still is affecting the economy in many parts of the country, modern Americans would have learned a painful but lasting lesson about taking on too much debt.

It looks like you’d be wrong.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on household debt says that Americans are collectively approaching the record level of debt that we had accumulated in 2008, and probably will break through that record this year.  According to the report, by the end of 2016 our collective household debt, which includes everything from mortgages to credit cards to student loans to car loans, had risen to $12.58 trillion, which is just below the 2008 record of $12.68 trillion.  Even worse, last year our debt load increased by a whopping $460 billion, which is the largest increase in a decade.  Mortgage loan balances are now $8.48 trillion, which accounts for about 67 percent of the total debt load.  And the total amount of debt increased in every category being measured.

The experts say there’s reason to think that 2017 is different, because there are fewer delinquencies being reported now — about half as many as was the case in 2008 — and fewer consumer bankruptcies, too.  Who knows?  Maybe the banks that are extending all of that credit are a lot more judicious in their loan decisions than they were in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and maybe Americans have become much more capable of juggling enormous amounts of personal debt.

And maybe we’ll all live happily ever after in the Land of Narn.

It’s a good illustration of how people have changed.  Anyone who lived through the Great Depression was permanently scarred by the experience; they became forever frugal, suspicious of any kind of debt, and relentlessly focused on building up their savings and paying off that mortgage so they and their friends could hold a “burn the mortgage” party.  The lessons they learned during the Great Depression were still motivating their decisions decades later.

The “Great Recession” clearly hasn’t had the same kind of lasting impact.  It seems that modern Americans just never learn.