A High-Pressure Economy Could Reshape Work. If the Fed Lets It.

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Today’s 3.5% unemployment rate is lower than any time between 1970 and 2019, writes JW Mason.

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

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About the author: JW Mason is a professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York, and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

The labor market is exceptionally tight, at least by the standards of recent history. That matters for monetary policy, but its importance goes beyond inflation, or even material living standards. We are used to a world where workers compete for jobs. A world where businesses compete for workers would look very different.

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Today’s 3.5% unemployment rate is lower than any time between 1970 and 2019. While the prime-age employment-population ratio is still shy of its prepandemic level, other measures imply a labor market even hotter than at the height of the late-90s boom. Both the historically high rate of workers quitting their jobs and the nearly two job openings for each unemployed worker suggest that this could be the best time to be looking for a job in most Americans’ working lives.

How long this will continue depends in large part on the Federal Reserve, where the question often comes down to whether inflation expectations are anchored. If businesses and households come to believe that prices will rise rapidly, the argument goesthey will behave in ways that cause prices to rise, validating those beliefs and making it harder to bring inflation back down.

Curiously, there is little discussion of all the other expectations that can also be anchored in different ways, which suggest a very different set of trade-offs.

Businesses that expect growth to be weak, for example, are unlikely to invest in raising capacity—which makes strong growth much harder to achieve. Workers who feel it’s impossible to find a job may stop looking for one, making expectations of weak employment growth self-confirming. Both these expectational shifts played a role in the “lost decade” after the 2007 crash.

Today’s tight labor markets are reshaping expectations in a different direction, which could lead to lasting changes in employment dynamics. As Economist Julia Coronado observes, one lesson businesses seem to have learned is that staffing up may be slower and more difficult than in the past. This in turn makes businesses more hesitant to lay off workers, even when demand slackens.

Fewer layoffs, of course, contribute to tighter labor markets—another example of self-confirming expectations. But those new expectations also mean a different kind of employment relationship. A business that expects labor to be cheap and abundant has little reason to invest in recruiting, retaining and training its employees. Conversely, a business that can’t count on quickly hiring workers with whatever skills are needed has to focus more on developing and holding on to the workers it has. These qualitative changes in the organization of work aren’t captured in the aggregate numbers on employment and wages.

To be clear, there is not a labor shortage in any absolute terms. One thing we have clearly learned over the past year is that total employment isn’t just a matter of how many people are willing to work. Back in spring 2021, some economists argued that generous unemployment assistance was holding back job growth. When some states ended unemployment assistance early, that offered the perfect controlled test of this theory. It was decisively refuted. As the labor economist Arin Dube has shownemployment growth was no faster in the states that ended pandemic unemployment relief earlier than in those that kept it longer.

What is true, though, is that the kinds of jobs people will take may depend on their other options. For the economy as a whole, today’s high rate of movement between jobs is a clear positive. A big reason people can get raises by changing jobs is, probably, that their new work is more valuable than what they were doing before. But from the point of view of employers, this is a process with winners and losers. Some businesses will adapt, offering higher wages—as many food service and retail giants are already doing—and nonpecuniary benefits such as predictable schedules and pathways for advancement. Tight labor markets will also favor higher-productivity businesses, which can afford to pay higher wages. Those that are wedded to a model that treats labor as cheap and disposable, on the other hand, may struggle or fail.

It isn’t only employers that need to adjust to tight labor markets, of course. There is little doubt that the upsurge of union organizing we’ve seen in recent years owes a great deal to labor market conditions. When jobs are plentiful, the fear of losing yours is less of a deterrent to standing up to the boss. And people who are reasonably confident of at least getting a paycheck may begin to wonder if that is all their employer owes them.

Historically, periods of rapid union growth have followed sustained growth, not depressions and crises. During the 1972 strike at GM’s Lordstown plant—one of the high points of 1970s labor militancy—one union leader explained why the younger workers were so ready to walk off their jobs:

“None of these guys came over from the old country poor and starving, grateful for any job they could get. None of them have been through a depression …They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.”

Strikes like Lordstown are rooted not just in conditions at the particular workplace, but also in the ways a prolonged high-pressure economy shifts what workers expect from a job. Significantly, the Lordstown strikers’ demands included a say in the design and organization of the plant, as well as better pay and benefits.

Not everyone would welcome a revived US labor movement, of course, or a move toward German-style co-determination, While some people see unions as a pillar of democracy and counterweight to corporations’ political power, others see them as an illegitimate intrusion on the rights of business owners. Either way, whether organized labor can reverse its decline is a question with consequences that go far beyond next month’s inflation numbers. And it depends a great deal on how long today’s tight labor market lasts.

It might seem utopian to imagine a transformation of the workplace when the headlines are dominated by inflation and recession fears. But the real fantasy is to imagine we could reap the benefits of a high-pressure economy—faster productivity growth, a more equal distribution of income, more resources to solve our most pressing problems—without making any changes to how firms and labor markets are organized.

In his most recent press conference, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said, “We all want to get back to the kind of labor market we had before the pandemic.” Do we really all want that, or could we aim higher? But in any case simply turning back the clock isnt an option. An economy adapted to slow growth and cheap, abundant workers can’t adjust to tight labor markets without changing in profound ways.

Some may welcome an economy where chronically scarce labor means that businesses are under constant pressure to raise productivity and attract and retain employees. Others may hope for a deep recession to reset expectations about the relative scarcity of workers and jobs. One way or the other, those are the stakes.

Guest commentaries like this one are written by authors outside the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the perspective and opinions of the authors. Submit commentary proposals and other feedback to [email protected],

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