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What's the root cause of the labour shortage?

3 min read

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Socrates, facing his own death on charges of corrupting the youth, famously proclaimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. Explore. Experience. Contradict. Voltaire, in his satire Candide, wrote 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin' — we must tend our own gardens. Isolate. Protect. Be productive.

During times of peace, prosperity, and comfort, one may be less inclined to introspection. When we're safe and happy, it is easy to continue as-is, to tend our own gardens. When we are confronted with hardship, unhappiness, and despair, many seek to understand why.

Through the past 18 months, many have found their prosperity and comfort disrupted. Entire industries experienced rolling shutdowns, profound uncertainty, and rapid changes to their modus operandi. Some industries saw explosive growth in demand without a corresponding growth in labour force — healthcare, or shipping. Others saw their market collapse: restaurants and hospitality.

As servers and cooks languished on their couches awaiting stimulus to pay rent, healthcare workers strained to their breaking point and beyond, burdened by enormous responsibilities and crushing workloads. More and more people across every sector of the economy have begun to ask that most Socratic of questions: why?

What is the reason we give the bulk of our lives to labour? The economist Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that within a century, the workweek would be only fifteen hours long. Advancements in technology and technique would continue to increase productivity until humanity could reap the rewards of its brilliance: more time for our families, our hobbies, and passions.

Instead, we work about the same hours as we did then, despite each hour of labour being more productive than ever. The allure of more is strong; who among us hasn't wanted a nicer car, a bigger house, or a longer vacation? Perhaps this is how we got here, working the same hours as we did in 1940 despite our tremendously improved output: turning that excess production into a tidal wave of consumer stuff. But I digress.

Climate change, drought, disease, famine. The 21st century is one of urgency. It's one of diminishing hope. In today's context, it ought not surprise us that workers don't want to return to low-paying, stressful, and unfulfilling work. Some blame 'generous' government benefits allowing people to stay home longer. Others blame low wages and poor work conditions providing little incentive to return.

A full accounting of the labour crisis is complex. In many cases, COVID prevents free movement across borders, forcing businesses to look for local workers where they used to employ migrant workers. Aging populations in most industrialized countries also point to an inevitable labour shortage, merely hastened by the pandemic.

I wish I had the solution, but I don't. Small businesses can't afford to cut hours by 50% and pay triple what they do now. Our society built itself around the 9-5, Monday to Friday workday. Workers will need to return eventually, one way or another. More than anything, this emerging labour crisis points to structural problems in the working world.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say. We've seen that play out during this pandemic, as businesses rapidly restructured their processes in the face of sudden and extensive change. When we consider this labour situation, we should take the same outside-the-box approach.

This isn't about greedy business owners grinding employees to dust, nor is it about entitled welfare recipients turning their noses up at good work. These are rallying cries of division and distraction. We have liveability problems that affect everyone. It's time to explore solutions.

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