The Great American Un-resignation

Economics Ideas and Issues Workers

            New Orleans     Doggone it!  It’s never easy to find the reverse gear on opinions that have become comfortable and well-worn.  I loved calling this concept of the Great Resignation of workers reacting to the pandemic by leaving their jobs and sometimes the entire workforce a “silent strike.”  I’ve written about it, talked about it, and trumpeted this phenomenon as part of the great moment of worker action and resistance that we are seeing in the United States now.  Now, Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist and regular columnist for the New York Times, has popped my bubble, upending opinion with facts and data.  Darned! It’s small comfort that Krugman is also crying mea culpa, but misery loves company, so let’s face the facts, that he has made it impossible for us to ignore.

First, he points out that recent data on Americans in their prime working years – 25 to 54 – are “still below” the participation rate on “the eve of the pandemic, but it’s back to 2019 levels, which hardly looks like a Great Resignation.”  Retirements?  Krugman says that the data indications the grey heads 55 to 64 have come back “rapidly into the labor force.”  In fact, quoting another economist, he argues that, yes, there were a lot of quits, but they were moving to better jobs and higher pay, making it more a “Great Reshuffling” than a Great Resignation.

So, what’s the deal?

Part of it comes down to a big heaping load of workers becoming self-employed or going gig with “self-employment going up by a lot, around 600,000 more workers than the average in 2019.”  Good luck to all of them, but that’s less a resignation than jumping from the frying pan into the fire!

The other part is perhaps more important in our hyper-partisan land of division, and that has to do with curtailed immigration.  We shut the borders in large measure because of the pandemic, although the Trump administration had been beating on this drum and forcing down the numbers throughout his term as well.  Less immigrants means less workers and more labor shortages that, coupled with other factors, could definitely explain a million fewer workers.  It’s not over.  For example, I’ve been reading urgent bulletins from the National Restaurant Association which underline this concern.  They are so desperate about the shortage of immigrants for back of the house and kitchen work that they are trying to get their members and Congresspeople who will listen to them to create a bracero program of sorts to give immigrants temporary visas to staff their operations.  Might be easier to raise pay, but you get the point.  Krugman argues that we need to open our doors to more immigration once again, but concedes that’s as much a non-starter politically, as it is a no-brainer, economically.

Bottom line:  reduced workforce numbers are not going to change soon, so leverage remains for American workers with employers.  We may have the name wrong, but we’re still in the game.  It may not be a silent strike, but it’s still important as part of the movement moment.