Read enough musings on the job market and you end up with a bad case of kids these days: Millions have quit their jobs! the titles blow. Nobody wants to work anymore! Stop quiet!
Not so, say a cohort of new books by business and leadership experts. Those who have quit their jobs aren’t lounging on the couch, enjoying a life of idleness and indolence; they found new jobs with better pay, flexible hours, or more desirable work environments. In at least one metric, the tactic is paying off: According to the October ADP Pay Insights report, workers who changed jobs in the past year earned an average of 15.2% more than a year earlier, nearly double the year on year increase of 7.7% seen by those who remained in their positions.
New books delve into the evolving workplace and what a shift in the balance of power means for employees and those signing payroll.
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, says democracy itself is at risk. “If you want to maintain the stability of our current political system, you have to resolve the wage crisis,” Portfolio executive editor Bria Sandford says of Lind’s foreword. “Companies have colluded to suppress wages in legal ways, claiming that the invisible hand of the free market will determine just wages – and it is a lie propagated on purpose” to prevent wages from rising. This wage suppression, according to Lind, has in turn contributed to a host of social ills, including a ferocious political divide and even a declining birth rate.
Workers’ lack of bargaining power manifests itself across the employment spectrum, from the unlivable wages and surveillance plaguing warehouse workers to office spaces filled with TPS reports and round-the-clock email barrages. Recent books including those from 2021 Out of the office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen (an “insightful and timely survey”, per PW extension)’s starred review set the stage for a transition into the latter arena, one where employers consider the needs of their employees.
In an interview on Petersen’s Culture Study Substack, Future Forum VP Sheela Subramanian noted, “We’re still in the early stages of moving from command and control to leadership with confidence, and we’re interpreting what that will look like in the coming years.” According to research by Future Forum, 57% of “desk workers” are open to looking for a new job in the coming year, largely motivated by a desire for more autonomy and flexibility.
This impulse may be at odds with the prevailing American notion of the dream job, a concept Simone Stolzoff questions in The work quite good (Portfolio, May 2023). When people confuse their occupations with their identities, she writes, it comes at the expense of both their jobs and their mental health. Instead, she advises valuing work that fits into your life over work that speaks to your passions.
The book comes “at a time when idealism is colliding with the demands of professional life under capitalism,” says Merry Sun, the book’s publisher. To answer this, she adds, the author explores several questions: “Why does the job take such a psychological toll? Why do we feel compelled to work endlessly? How do we push jobs that are bad to be good enough? Where is the line: what is good enough, in terms of effort and results?
Bread and roses
What will it take to change the modern workplace? The modern trade union, according to new books by authors with factory experience or engaged in the history of workers’ movements.
“No worker is disorganized, only disorganized,” says Toward editor Rosie Warren of the core message in Make a mess by Lydia Hughes and Jamie Woodcock (April 2023). The authors, both union veterans, see elections and political engagement as just two legs of the stool; workplace organization, they say, is the third critic. With employee unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon 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 essay addresses the need to change working practices on a systemic level. Comics reporter Sam Wallman, in Our members are unlimited, draws on his experiences as a warehouse worker at Amazon and elsewhere. He also dives into the history of unions and how they have evolved over the years as the meaning of ‘work’ has changed.
“Union workers are considered very old-fashioned, hard hats and flashlights, working on industrial stuff,” says David Golding, managing editor of Scribe, Wallman’s publisher. “Modern workers are increasingly in call centres, on motorcycles, at home. But if these workers stick together, they can increase the benefits for themselves; if they don’t, they’re stuck with the cheapest terms to run. PW extensionThe review by called the book “a compelling and rousing graphic story of the impact and future potential of unions.”
In the recent version of Icon Class, University of Brighton sociologists Laura Harvey and Sarah Leaney and illustrator Danny Noble describe how the evolution of social stratification has transformed the way workers see themselves and their identities within public life. The theme of the classroom has become increasingly important as working practices have deteriorated, says Icon editor Duncan Heath, adding: “If your job is temporary or precarious, where do you fit now in society? Everything has become more nuanced and fluid due to changes in working practices, the gig economy, the precariousness».
You are not my boss
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 to stay competitive . Zeynep Ton, president of the Good Jobs Institute, a non-profit organization that seeks to help leaders improve the work experience, found herself frustrated by the number of executives who knew what to do about their retention problems but had a variety of reasons why they couldn’t: complexity, cost, shareholder resistance.
With The case of good jobs, which the Harvard Business Review Press will publish in June, Ton aims for a “systematic dismantling of ‘yes, buts,'” says Scott Berinato, senior editor of the 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 are not livable. So you may be on par with your peers, but your peers’ pay structures are also mediocre.
Melissa Swift, leader at HR consultancy Mercer, offers guidance for companies struggling to make their workplaces more attractive to an increasingly mobile workforce in the January Wiley release Work here now. “Employees are faced with complex challenges integrating technology into their daily work lives,” says Zachary Schisgal, senior editor at Wiley. “It’s important to create human-centric employee roles where the employee’s experience is taken into account.” Swift’s book urges leaders to consider the humanity of their workplace practices in chapters like “Tech Dreams, Tech Nightmares: Couples Counseling for Humans and Technology.”
Leadership educator Joe Mull takes a similar approach Occupation (Page Two, May 2023), describing company-wide changes, beyond necessities like pay raises and frills like foosball tables, needed to keep employees. He suggests that building jobs around people is more effective at making them happy than squashing people into predetermined jobs. “His message is that your employees are people; be good to them and they will be good to you,” says James Harbeck, who edited the book. Employee engagement, Mull writes, is the result of “when people succeed in doing their ideal job, doing meaningful work, for a great boss,” and guides readers through creating the scaffolding for these three levers to work. in sync.
With any luck, the great reshuffle will be remembered as the moment when dignity, good treatment, and fair pay became America’s greatest recruiting and job retention tactics. These authors point the way.
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A version of this article appeared in the 11/28/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the title: Take this job and love it