You’ve probably seen the news story about how Fed Chairman Jay Powell wants to “get wages down” because salaries are climbing faster than they have in a long time. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t keeping up with inflation as it is . . . and the gap is making everyone miserable.
Start with the “great resignation.” A full 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in April, 1.2 million got laid off and all in all 6.6 million found new work. With 11.4 million unfilled openings, many had their pick of positions or could even write their own ticket.
Employers desperate for warm bodies to get things done have been paying up. We learned Friday that hourly compensation is up 4.4% in the past year and as an additional bonus people are working 5.4% more hours than they were before. Shifts have gotten longer. Every shift is worth more.
On the surface, that’s great. But keep in mind, in the last 12 months consumer prices are up 8% in the aggregate . . . and they’re unevenly distributed. If you work from home, it’s OK. However, if you need to commute in every day, 43% higher gas prices are eating you alive.
Put that into real numbers. The average commute now costs $35 more every month than it did before the pandemic, just to fill the tank every day. That’s a $35 hole in a household budget that’s already blowing out in the face of 9% food inflation, 11% higher power bills, an 80% spike in heating oil over last year and on and on and on.
By the time you get to 5% higher rents, it almost feels like relief. So it’s no wonder that millions of people are demanding that current employers at least keep up with the cost of living . . . or they’ll go somewhere that can.
After all, the job market has now recovered all the heat it had going on right before the pandemic struck. Unemployment is within 0.1 percentage point of the 2019 low, which is about as hot as it ever gets. To get lower unemployment numbers, you need to go back to the late 1960s. Before that, the Korean War.
But here’s the thing. While people are scrambling to make sure they can pay the bills, new hires aren’t giving employers what they really need. Productivity has cratered.
Employers are paying 8.2% more for labor than they were a year ago. The problem is that the people they’re getting are 7.3% less productive. Every hour on the clock now buys the boss only 55 minutes of output.
Are people tired? Distracted? Sick? Unsupported? Or simply less devoted to their jobs than they were before the pandemic? As far as I’m concerned, that’s the real “long COVID” syndrome economists aren’t talking about, the stealth drag that will start showing up in earnings reports later this month.
So far, the market doesn’t seem to mind. And people who are getting paid more than they were a year ago are managing to keep themselves above the inflationary tide even if their bosses aren’t getting results. But it’s a vicious cycle. Constantly rotating worker responsibilities in exchange for longer shifts and higher pay is a waste of skilled labor.
It burns people out. They will go elsewhere, one way or another. We’ve got millions of people like that now, working longer shifts to make ends meet. When they burn out, it gets even worse.
The 1990s boom survived on productivity gains. What we need is a new approach to work similar to the dot-com revolution, when computer networks made it possible to run a business with fewer people and still get more done. The people displaced in that era found other jobs.
And there are already bright spots. Manufacturing output is up 3% from pre-pandemic levels. Supply lines are running full speed to catch up with demand. People on those lines are demanding more and they’re getting it.
I don’t think they feel great about it. The ones I talk to are tired . . . but they’re also keeping one eye on the cost of living. And that’s why the hottest job market in ages feels so miserable. You can write your own ticket. But so can everyone else, leaving you working harder just to keep up.