Originally published in The New York Times
Quiet quitting. Working from home. The Great Resignation.
Whatever you want to call it, the attitude of many Americans toward work appears to have changed during the long pandemic — and, generally speaking, not for the better. This new approach threatens to do long-lasting damage to economic growth and prosperity.
Until Covid, most employed Americans had workdays that followed a decades-old pattern: Wake up, shower, breakfast, commute, spend at least eight hours in an office or a factory, commute home and maybe enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. Rinse and repeat, every Monday through Friday.
Just a fact of life for most, drudgery for many and enjoyment for a few, most often those closer to the pinnacle of responsibility and compensation.
Days were different during the height of Covid, particularly for office workers. No need to fuss about wardrobe. No wasted travel time. No hovering bosses. At least for some a less-crowded calendar of meetings.
As lockdowns eased, many Americans began to reassess their relationship with work. According to a recent Gallup poll, the share of Americans “actively engaged” at work has been falling since 2020.
Older workers in particular decided not to return to their jobs, a phenomenon that became known as the Great Resignation. If participation rates had remained constant, about 2.1 million more Americans would be in the labor force today. Meanwhile, the number of Americans working part-time for noneconomic reasons (i.e., not for a lack of available work) has climbed to near the January 2020 peak.
And all that’s despite the availability of nearly two full-time jobs for every unemployed American.
The question lurking in the minds of many with whom I’ve spoken (as well as my own): Has America gone soft?
A recent Wall Street Journal report noted that in a Qualtrics survey of more than 3,000 workers and managers, 38 percent said that the importance of work to them had diminished during Covid while 25 percent said that it had increased. (The rest said that it had not changed.)
Stimulus checks and less-than-normal spending during the worst of the pandemic encouraged these trends. At its peak, Americans had $2.1 trillion more in their bank accounts than customary; today they still have about $900 billion of “excess savings.”
Many have resisted going back to the office, setting off a tug of war with their bosses. Why are companies so adamant about returning to the workplace? Every senior executive of the several dozen with whom I’ve discussed this issue believes that operating from home is simply less productive than being in the office.
Collaboration is harder, as is mentorship. That short stroll to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question or make a request becomes a laborious process. Working remotely “doesn’t work for young kids or spontaneity or management,” Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan, said in January at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.
Nor, he said two years earlier, does it “work for those who want to hustle.” Many employers simply don’t believe that their staff works as hard from home, where distractions are many and supervision more difficult.
Even some Silicon Valley companies that were early to embrace remote work are changing their tune. Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, noted recently that staff hired during the pandemic were less productive than longstanding employees and speculated that lack of an office culture might be a reason. And Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, made a similar observation last week. “In-person time helps build relationships and get more done,” read the heading on one section of a lengthy memo to his staff.
Then there’s Silicon Valley Bank. Even as Covid faded, much of the bank’s leadership team remained dispersed around the country, which hindered communication and collaboration. The bank even warned in its annual report last month that it “may experience negative effects of a prolonged work-from-home arrangement.”
But insisting on a return to five days in the office becomes harder if workers have the choice to taking a job at another firm with a more flexible policy. As a result, many companies have reluctantly accepted that the future will involve three or four days in the office — and never Fridays.
Of course, the notion of flexible work is a form of white-collar privilege. Americans who labor in factories or in restaurants or stores don’t have the luxury of working from home (or the quiet quitting that can accompany it).
It’s fine with me for Americans to tone down or eliminate the rat race from their lives. Indeed, growing prosperity should allow for more leisure.
In 1900, the average full-time American worker toiled for about 2,900 hours per year (or 56 hours per calendar week). With industrialization, hours worked steadily declined, leading the economist John Maynard Keynes to predict in 1930 a 15-hour workweek “a hundred years hence.”
It’s been almost a century, but last year, employed Americans still toiled for an average 34.6 hours a week, roughly 1,800 hours per year.
As productivity increased since Keynes’s time, we could have cut back our hours on the job far more than we did and easily maintained a 1930 standard of living. Instead, we chose to keep working in order to enjoy greater material rewards; real incomes have increased more than sevenfold since 1900.
Now, many may be making a different choice. That’s OK, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves: Less output — whether a consequence of fewer hours or lower efficiency — eventually means a lower standard of living (or a less quickly rising one).
I’ll concede that apart from the shrunken labor force, hard data on the impact of new work arrangements is at best inconclusive, since statistics remain distorted by Covid effects. And I’ll concede that technology, particularly video conferencing, has made remote work more feasible, particularly if structured as specific days designated as remote. Lastly, I’ll concede that some of the time spent on commuting (and perhaps, personal grooming) can be considered wasted.
But we should be aware of different choices being made in other countries, particularly China, our biggest strategic adversary. The Chinese expression “996” means working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. While the Chinese government has been trying to curb this practice as part of a series of labor market reforms, in my many interactions with businessmen and investors there, I still find the prevailing work ethic extraordinary.
Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal report, the property manager JLL found that office occupancy in Asia ranges from 80 percent to 110 percent (meaning that in some cities, more staff is in the office than before the pandemic). By comparison, U.S. office occupancy stands at 40 percent to 60 percent of pre-Covid levels, lower than even Europe, which is at 70 percent to 90 percent. (Some experts believe that the higher European figures are attributable to generally smaller apartments and houses in Europe, making working from home less comfortable.)
The changing work habits have spawned a push for a codification of what may already be a reality: a four-day workweek. Legislation to that effect has been introduced in California, Maryland and other states. Proponents argue that with an extra day of rest, diligent workers can accomplish as much as they did in five days. Perhaps. But put me down as skeptical about that and much of the notion that when it comes to work, less can be more.