Read enough think pieces about the labor market and you’ll come away with a bad case of the kids-these-days: Millions have left their jobs! the headlines trumpet. No one wants to work anymore! Quiet quitting!
Not so, say a cohort of new books by labor and leadership experts. Those job-leavers aren’t sprawled on the couch, enjoying a life of sloth and indolence; they’ve found new jobs with better compensation, flexible hours, or more desirable work environments. By at least one metric, the tactic is paying off: according to the ADP Pay Insights report from October, workers who’d changed jobs in the past year earned an average of 15.2% more than they did the year before—almost twice the year-over-year lift of 7.7% seen by those who’d remained in their positions.
New books delve into the evolving workplace, and what a shift in the balance of power means for employees as well as for those who sign their paychecks.
The sin of wages
There’s more at stake than a few unhappy workers, according to Michael Lind, whose previous books include 2020’s The New Class War. In Hell to Pay, an April release from Portfolio, he asserts that democracy itself is at risk. “If you want to keep the stability of our current political system, you have to fix the wage crisis,” says Portfolio executive editor Bria Sandford of Lind’s premise. “Corporations have colluded to suppress wages in legal ways, claiming that the invisible hand of the free market will determine the right wages—and it’s a lie propagated on purpose” to keep wages from rising. This wage suppression, according to Lind, has in turn contributed to a host of societal ills, including a fierce political divide and even the declining birth rate.
Workers’ lack of bargaining power manifests across the employment spectrum, from the unlivable wages and surveillance that plague warehouse workers to the office spaces rife with TPS reports and all-hours email flurries. Recent books including 2021’s Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen (an “insightful and timely survey,” per PW’s starred review) set the stage for a transition in the latter arena—one that sees employers taking their employees’ needs into account.
In an interview on Petersen’s Culture Study Substack, Future Forum v-p Sheela Subramanian observed, “We’re still in the beginning of the shift from command and control to leadership with trust, and playing out what that will look like in the coming years.” According to Future Forum’s research, 57% of “desk workers” are open to looking for new jobs in the next year, largely motivated by a desire for greater autonomy and flexibility.
That impulse may be at odds with the prevailing American notion of the dream job, a concept Simone Stolzoff interrogates in The Good Enough Job (Portfolio, May 2023). When people conflate their occupations with their identities, he writes, it’s to the detriment of both their jobs and their mental health. Instead, he advises valuing the job that fits one’s life rather than the job that speaks to one’s passions.
The book is coming out “at a moment when idealism is colliding with the demands of professional life under capitalism,” says Merry Sun, the book’s editor. To address this, she adds, the author explores several questions: “Why does work take such a psychological toll? Why are we feeling pushed to work endlessly? How do we push jobs that are substandard to be good enough? Where’s the boundary—what’s good enough, in terms of effort and achievement?”
Bread and roses
What will it take to change the modern workplace? The modern union, according to new books by authors with experience on the factory floor or engaged in the history of labor movements.
“No workers are unorganizable—just unorganized,” says Verso editor Rosie Warren of the central message in Troublemaking by Lydia Hughes and Jamie Woodcock (Apr. 2023). The authors, both union veterans, consider elections and political engagement just two legs of the stool; workplace organization, they say, is the critical third. With Starbucks and Amazon employee unionization efforts making headlines, there’s a renewed interest in the practicalities of organizing, Warren says, with less focus on theory and more on action.
Recently published graphic nonfiction tackles the need to change labor practices at a systemic level. Comics journalist Sam Wallman, in Our Members Be Unlimited, draws on his experiences as a warehouse worker at Amazon and elsewhere. He also dives into the history of labor unions, and how they’ve evolved over the years as the meaning of “work” has changed.
“Union labor is thought of as very old-fashioned, hard hat and high beams, working on industrial stuff,” says David Golding, senior editor at Scribe, Wallman’s publisher. “Modern workers are increasingly in call centers, on motorbikes, at home. But if these workers stick together, they can increase benefits for themselves; if they don’t, they get stuck with whatever conditions are most convenient for management.” PW’s review called the book “a convincing, transfixing graphic history of the impact and future potential of unions.”
In the recent Icon release Class, University of Brighton sociologists Laura Harvey and Sarah Leaney and illustrator Danny Noble depict how evolving societal stratification has transformed how workers view themselves and their identities within public life. The topic of class has become increasingly important as work practices have worsened, says Icon publisher Duncan Heath, adding, “If your job is temporary or precarious, where do you fit now in society? Everything has become more blurred and fluid because of changes in working practices, the gig economy, the precariat.”
You’re not the boss of me
As some opportunities for better work and higher pay improve, job seekers will have more choices, and, leadership experts say, companies will need to make significant changes in both recruiting and retaining talent in order to stay competitive. Zeynep Ton, president of the Good Jobs Institute—a nonprofit that seeks to help leaders improve worker experience—found herself frustrated at the number of executives who knew what to do to fix their retention problems but had a bevy of reasons why they couldn’t: complexity, cost, shareholder resistance.
With The Case for Good Jobs, which Harvard Business Review Press is releasing in June, Ton aims for a “systematic dismantling of the ‘yeah-buts,’ ”says Scott Berinato, senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Ton argues that the C-suite needs to focus on good wages, rather than market wages, which she says are “the wrong metric,” Berinato explains. “They’re not liveable. So you may be on par with your peers, but your peers’ pay structures are mediocre too.”
Melissa Swift, a leader at human resources consultancy Mercer, offers direction for companies struggling to make their workplaces more enticing to an increasingly mobile workforce in the January Wiley release Work Here Now. “Employees are facing complex challenges in the integration of technology into their day-to-day work lives,” says Wiley senior editor Zachary Schisgal. “It’s important to create employee roles that are human-centered, where there’s consideration for the employee’s experience.” Swift’s book urges leaders to consider the humanity of their workplace practices in chapters such as “Tech Dreams, Tech Nightmares: Couples Counseling for Humans and Technology.”
Leadership educator Joe Mull takes a similar tack in Employalty (Page Two, May 2023), describing the enterprise-level changes—beyond necessities like pay raises and fripperies like foosball tables—needed to retain employees. He suggests that building jobs around people is more effective in making them happy than squishing people into predetermined jobs. “His message is that your employees are people; be good to them and they’ll be good to you,” says James Harbeck, who edited the book. Employee commitment, Mull writes, is the result “when people get to do their Ideal Job, doing Meaningful Work, for a Great Boss,” and he guides readers through setting up the scaffold for those three levers to work in sync.
With any luck, the great reshuffling will be remembered as the time when dignity, good treatment, and fair pay became the American workplace’s greatest recruitment and retention tactics. These authors point the way.
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