Apr. 6, 2010
The Changing Face of the American Workforce
Though the U.S. economy is showing signs of slow recovery, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at close to 10 percent. In January, the jobless rate for adult women fell to 7.9 percent, and the rate for whites declined to 8.7 percent, but most major worker groups-adult men (10 percent), teenagers (26.4 percent), blacks (16.5 percent), and Hispanics (12.6 percent)-showed little change, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With so many people out of work, experts are debating the long-term consequences for America's economy. Have workers, be they employed or searching for a job, permanently altered their views and expectations of work, or are the changes brought about by the current climate of economic uncertainty temporary? Will the workplace return to "normal" once the economy improves?
Knowledge@ Emory discusses these and other questions with Rick Gilkey, professor in the practice of organization and management at Goizueta Business School and associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University's School of Medicine. Gilkey has researched how the brains of executives operate and is a contributing author to Organizations on the Couch: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Understanding Organizational Dynamics and the editor of The 21st Century Healthcare Leader.
Knowledge@Emory: Is this recession affecting people differently than previous ones?
Gilkey: I think so. This is obviously the most serious recession any of us have seen in our lifetimes. So it is making people incredibly cautious and conservative about financial and career management issues. For example, people come into our Executive MBA programs with more conservative strategies about changing careers - right now it's harder to change industries or functions quickly so they see the MBA as a degree that adds value in the long run even if it doesn't produce immediate quantum leaps in their career options.
In a more positive way, the recession is engendering a certain amount of entrepreneurialism. There is less confidence and trust in our institutions, so even people in secure jobs are worried. We're seeing companies such as GM, Ford, and Chrysler, which used to guarantee jobs for life, making implicit psychological contracts that said, "Even your kids and grandkids will be able to work here," no longer able to offer that kind of continuity and security.
These kinds of changes in the nature of work and employment have always been going on but they are now true to such an extent that it's a sea change. These have moved from being underlying issues to being a defining reality.
Knowledge@Emory: Do you think such changes to the workforce are permanent?
Gilkey: There are two views. One is that the effects of the economic recession have been so profound, they will leave a permanent mark. This is visible, for example, in upscale restaurants. You can go to a nice ethnic restaurant, have a great meal and save hundreds of dollars, with the result that a lot of upscale places have closed down.
The other school of thought says as Arnold Toynbee once wrote, "The chief lesson of history is that men don't learn from history" and that this will be forgotten. I think any permanent changes will be a function of whether, and to what degree, our economy comes back. When we emerged from the previous recession, we were still the biggest economy in the world and growing. My view is that we won't return to the same kind of economy for a long time because we've got to deal with education and health care and get out of wars. For example I learned at a recent Defense Department briefing that, at any given time, the U.S. has 25 percent of its military deployed oversees, no other country in the world can afford that, the question is can we continue to afford that? Until we, as a nation, look at the things we are spending money on, this will impact our economy and the potential to return to the days when we had a good deal of discretionary income.
Knowledge@Emory: Many companies have increased their use of contract workers during this recession. Do you think that change is here to stay?
Gilkey: Yes I do. No place is a better example than Goizueta, by the way. A significant number of our faculty is no longer tenured. This is a big issue with the American Association of University Professors. In parts of academia, the workforce is shifting from tenured slots to non-tenured, clinical practice appointments, or contractual appointments of some sort. Like everything, it has advantages and disadvantages. In a positive way, it puts the burden on people to keep their skill sets up and remain competitive. That's not only a function of the economy, but also a function of global forces and competition. Outside of academia, there are diminishing incentives to hire people on a permanent basis, and seniority-based systems are dead and gone or dying.
Knowledge@Emory: What does the inability to rely on a permanent job do to a worker's psyche?
Gilkey: People will be much more identified with their skill sets or their competencies than with their job titles, both in the professional world, but also in the blue collar world. For instance, a worker might now think, "I used to be a good machinist, so maybe I can make solar panels." It's leveraging that "have gun will travel" mentality.
Knowledge@Emory: Another current trend is that many people are cobbling together two part-time jobs or one full-time and one part-time job to make ends meet. How does this affect workers psychologically?
Gilkey: I'm hearing more and more people say, "I'm working more hours for less money." I think this is going to change people's lifestyles. They are going to take a harder look at whether they need that new car or that expensive vacation. Again, spending all your discretionary income is a losing game, and it's going to have an effect on people's lifestyles, as well as on schools, because parents won't be available to work with their kids and help with the schools. Juggling two jobs or needing to work long hours erodes family life in all kinds of ways.
For older and blue collar people in particular, changes in work patterns and lifestyle are going to be common. I don't think we're going to have the kinds of retirements we thought we would have. I don't know anyone my age who is planning to retire before 70, and that is also going to change how we think about retirement.
Knowledge@Emory: How does this impact our definition of success?
Gilkey: One plus amidst all the trials and tribulations of the current economy is that people may well redefine success as significance rather than material wealth. What we create, contribute and ultimately leave behind may well become the new markers and criteria for success. This will prompt us to ask ourselves some different questions - have I made a better world? For whom? And How?
Knowledge@Emory: What changes do you see ahead in the nature and structure of work?
Gilkey: Good question, and I don't know how to fully answer that. I think people are going to do many more jobs over the course of their lifetimes. The education business is going to boom, as people will have to be retrained and re-skilled throughout their lives. Flexibility is going to become absolutely essential. Given those demands, one big imperative is to pay attention to those who are disenfranchised-the number of black males not graduating from high school, for example. Otherwise, whole populations will be lost and as a result, our economy and ability to compete will suffer.
Since we are talking about a world of even greater divide between haves and have-nots, one of the things this is going to do is to force us to think about education as a necessity and a way of bringing people who are currently outside the system into it, to ensure we have a population that is educated and competent to carry the economy forward. We need workers at all levels to be productively engaged. This is social justice, but it is also economic reality.