By Matt Bahl, Vice President, Workplace, Financial Health Network
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by 2030, society would amass enough wealth to meet people’s basic needs and we’d be working 15-hour weeks, lamenting over how to spend the rest of our time in pursuit of deeper meaning and purpose.
I think most of us can agree that’s not the case.
In the year before the pandemic, Americans working full time worked an average of 42.5 hours per week (8.5 hours per weekday), and part-time workers worked an average of 5.58 hours per day. Burnout was the key word on everyone’s minds. But the post-pandemic workforce appears to be questioning the national appetite for those kinds of hours, and workers are thinking differently about what they want from work.
Recent national surveys show that a record number of workers are leaving or thinking about leaving their jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in April alone, a record 4 million people quit their jobs.
Employers in retail, restaurants, bars, fast food, hospitality, and other industries hit particularly hard by the pandemic are struggling to hire enough workers to meet pent-up demand. These industries, which have long provided stagnant wages, are now increasing pay and offering sign-on bonuses to attract workers (many of whom are seeking employment in other more highly paid industries). We are no longer reading about mass layoffs; we are reading about a national worker shortage. Some – including Texas A&M University Associate Professor of Management Anthony Klotz, who coined the phrase – are calling this the “Great Resignation.” But perhaps a better name is the “Great Re-prioritization”?
For those of us in the financial health space, this is what we’ve been talking about for years. You can’t separate work and income from well-being and mental and physical health, which are as essential to thriving as paying rent. The silver lining – if there is one – to the pandemic is that it revealed more facets of life to tens of millions of workers who suddenly had more time on their hands and room for introspection.
What we are seeing emerge in the labor market now is a competition for workers that feels fundamentally different. Even while politicians debate the national minimum wage, the marketplace is already effectively setting a standard as the companies that are able to hire workers are the ones offering at least $15 an hour, not $7.25. But increased wages are only part of the story. Workers are also appearing to prioritize benefits that strike a better balance between work and life: flexible work schedules and locations, support for child care and education costs, access to emergency savings, a more secure retirement, and other similar benefits that help workers focus on how work fits into their life rather than how life fits into their work.
We are at a tipping point for workers’ well-being and financial health. Instead of worker well-being representing a niche topic for a handful of pioneering companies, a new paradigm is emerging. On one side is the “enlightened post-pandemic worker,” who is inclined to prioritize meaning, purpose, family, and personal happiness without sacrificing pay. On the other side are “enlightened employers,” who understand that workers are more than economic units and who design jobs, benefits, and work culture to reflect this new ideal. Those employers who don’t level up or those that pursue a return to a pre-pandemic mode of operation may find themselves on the losing side in the long run.
For example, one major issue that became apparent in the pandemic was around child care. In a recent analysis we conducted at the Financial Health Network, we saw that low- to moderate-income frontline workers were more likely to run down their savings during the pandemic as their costs went up, some likely related to child care. Today, helping working parents with child care – whether that’s providing on-site options, flexible working hours and locations, and parent-centric policies – is just one of the frontiers employers will need to cross to attract and retain talent. Already, companies like Chobani, Patagonia, and many others have implemented these kinds of policies, making it easier for parents to prioritize what matters to them most.
Alternatively, there is increasing discussion around shorter workweeks. One example is the four-day workweek that has been underway in Europe for some time. And several prominent U.S. researchers and business leaders have discussed and studied how you could shorten the workday by 25% or more and still maintain or increase productivity simply by changing expectations on availability, responsiveness, and meeting attendance – thus, freeing people up to focus on productive work.
Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour workweek by 2030 still seems far-fetched, given our cultural proclivity for work. But perhaps work itself will evolve in a way that reflects the changing priorities of the workforce – better wages; more flexibility; benefits such as child care, emergency savings, and a more secure retirement; and more humane work expectations so that we can all prioritize what matters most in our lives.