Bob Neal

President Jimmy Carter said in 1979 that America faced a “crisis of confidence.” It became known as the “malaise speech,” although he never used the word “malaise.”

His Independence Day address tackled employment, the energy crisis, inflation and a troubling frame of mind he saw in the American public, a strong “crisis of confidence.”

No one at the time thought Carter clairvoyant, but his concerns might ring even truer today than they did 42 years ago.

Today, as the shroud lifts from 16 months of pandemic — may it not descend again as the Delta variant multiplies infection rates — we are moving to a new normal, yet we’re still dealing with employment, energy, the possibility of inflation and, maybe, malaise.

The new normal is becoming evident in one of Carter’s areas of concern, employment.

Around here, you don’t have to drive far to see “Now Hiring” signs outside businesses, businesses that a few months ago were closed or had pivoted, if they could, to take-out and online ordering and curbside service. If I had a dollar for every “Now Hiring” sign I’ve seen this summer, I could quit looking for a part-time job.

Employers need workers, but the unemployment rate is 5.9 percent. That’s nearly 10 million people looking for work. Yet, in April, 4 million Americans, a record, quit their jobs, just as restrictions on gatherings were about to be lifted. At that rate, in just 40 months all of America’s workers (160 million) would quit their jobs.

Anthony Klotz, a management professor at Texas A&M, calls it “the great resignation” and believes that before the pandemic, “Individuals stay(ed) at their jobs because they can’t afford to leave.” Even, he says, if they work in a “toxic workplace.” Now, there is a pent-up demand to change jobs as employees are no longer “scared to change.”

A study by Microsoft showed that 41 percent of workers worldwide want to change jobs. A disproportionate number of those are in the fields of technology, finance and hospitality.

What’s going on? Twenty state governments thought they saw the problem in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which added $300 a week to the unemployment checks of people laid off during the pandemic. So they canceled the extra $300 early on.

Yet, The Washington Post reported this week that in June those 20 states “had the same pace of hiring as the . . . states that kept the extra $300-a-week unemployment payments.” That finding came in studies of state-by-state data by the Labor Department, by the Census Bureau and by Gusto, a payroll-processing company.

The Gusto study, though, did find a shift. People older than 25 went back to work when the $300 disappeared, but teenagers got fewer jobs. Bosses wanted seasoned help, not first-timers. Net result: no change in employment, just a shift in workers’ ages.

Klotz has a different idea. The pandemic “gave us time to think about our lives,” he told the BBC — to think about something better. And drawing the $300 a week while we think.

Zeynep Ton, a professor at MIT, agrees. She says the shutdowns allowed people to consider what it means to have a job that’s worthwhile.

She says employers have not responded as well as workers have to the virus. “They’re still designing work for humans as robots rather than designing work for human beings.”

So workers ask, “Is it worth it to risk my life and health to be paid at minimum wage?”

But Ton doesn’t necessarily agree with Klotz that more job openings and resignations will shift power to workers. Though they are often paying more, Ton says, bosses haven’t really changed their mindset. “Unless they change that mindset, I don’t believe we’re going to move along.”

Changing the mindset, Klotz said, will mean employees get options to design their relationship to their jobs, such as working from home, at least some of the time. We may be seeing some of this in Maine as about a third of house buyers are coming from out-of-state and some of them will work remotely from their new houses here.

To change the mindset, Klotz advises employers, “Talk (one-on-one) to employees and see how they’re feeling.” And “see how employees feel about the culture of the organization they want to have.” Klotz cautions that “every organization’s culture is different, so there is no blanket prescription.”

We’re still in the early stages of this new normal in the workplace. It’s not just whether white-collar folks go back to the office — I’m betting most will — but the opportunities to choose one’s work, the nature of the work itself, the pay for work, the relationships between boss and employee. All appear to be changing.

Bob Neal interviewed Jimmy Carter in 1971 when Carter was governor of Georgia. Next week, Neal may take up Carter’s “crisis of confidence.” Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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