Berkheimer: Are Gen Z workers gaining in uphill battle?
For The Aspen Times
It appears we are seeing some minor shifts in favor of today’s young workers because American workers have been sliding behind the pace of corporate production and profits with mounting inequality for more than four decades.
For nearly 50 years, we have seen corporations, big and small, skimp on worker wages and benefits. But production figures soared as worker incomes stagnated, slowly losing buying power while costs of housing, child care, health care, and leisure have skyrocketed.
I have considerable empathy for Millennials, now ages 26 to 44, who apparently have suffered the most. They are considered fiscally fragile as more than a third are unemployed or underemployed, and many are reported at high levels of stress and depression.
With the uphill battle younger workers face today, I see little mystery in why we have experienced “The Great Resignation,” “quiet quitting,” younger men leaving the workforce, fewer and later marriages, a drop in the birth rate, a steady middle class decline, and a rise in homeless numbers.
As a result, financial adviser Suze Orman remarked recently during a CNBC broadcast that 67% of workers cannot afford an emergency $400 expense, and that 74% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck.
I can remember, when buying that first house back in the 1960s, young families were advised that rent and mortgage payments should be limited to one week’s pay — or no more than 25% of monthly income. Just try getting by with that amount today.
Nationwide Retirement Institute has noted that Americans monthly expenses have outpaced the growth of personal incomes. Institute Senior Vice President Kristi Rodriguez remarked that “households are spending more, not as much because they want to, but because they have to, with increased costs for essential items.”
And the personal savings rate has plunged to 2.4% from a pandemic peak of 33%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, while Americans also take on more debt.
More consumers are relying on credit cards to get by as balances jumped 15% in the third quarter of 2022 — the highest year-over-year increase in more than 20 years. That propelled total credit card debt to $930 billion by year’s end, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Those are rather condemning reports for a country that’s supposed to be the leader in the free world. Younger workers have good reasons to question that claim.
For instance, if other developed nations — with Gross Domestic Products less than one-fifth of ours — can afford paid sick leave for short-term illnesses, why can’t the U.S.? In addition, the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not require paid parental leave.
But to return to my hint of optimism, our youngest generation — Gen Z — appears to be somewhat more demanding in what workers want from employers. They want disclosures and commitments on remote work and salary range before they accept jobs.
And some workers, spoiled by total remote work during the COVID pandemic, are balking at employer demands to return to the office two to four days each week. Many, instead, are wanting the opposite — two to four days of remote work weekly or perhaps a rotating week of work in, after a week of remote.
Interest in unions
Research indicates both employers and workers realize many benefits of the mixture, which will lead to compromises because — despite layoffs in the tech industry — our nation has a worker shortage of several millions. And that shortage likely will grow.
I suspect we will see compromises coming on better pay, improved benefits, and work flexibility as a result of both labor shortages and a growing interest in unions.
A Forbes article suggests that union-skeptical employers “should reconsider” anti-union attitudes.
It adds: “They may discover a unique opportunity to redefine the traditional contours of employer/employee bargaining. In particular, workers and businesses should take this moment to partner around the issue of education and forge new agreements about employer-provided training and reskilling.”
Also, the worker shortage is expected to grow considerably worse as a result of declining immigration.
Despite any claims to the contrary, net-legal immigration to the U.S. has been declining for a quarter of a century. Since 1998, net immigration has fallen every single year and is down 57%, according to data from the United Nations.
And finally, if the dysfunction ever ends in Washington, D.C., perhaps we will see our federal government become more active in the effort to reverse the inequalities of recent decades.
Darrell Berkheimer is a retired California journalist whose career spans nearly 60 years. He filled editor positions with newspapers in Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico. He also is the author of several essays books. Contact him at email@example.com.