Not so neat: The rise of the NEET generation.

Millions of Americans age 20 to 24 fall into the NEET category: “Not in Employment, Education or Training.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some interesting fault-lines in the socio-economic fabric of  the United States.  One of these relates to young adults — those between the ages of 20 and 25. What we find paints a potentially disturbing picture of an economic and employment situation that may not be easily fixable.

A recently issued economic report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) focuses on the so-called “NEET rate“– young Americans who are not employed, not in school, and not in training.

As of the First Quarter of 2021, the NEET category represented nearly 4 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 24. This eye-popping statistic goes well beyond the particular circumstances of the pandemic and may turn out to be an economically devastating trend with a myriad of adverse ripple effects related to it.

Look at any business newspaper or website these days and you’ll see reports regularly about worker shortages across many sectors — including unfilled jobs at the lower end of the pay scale which offer employment opportunities that fit well with the capabilities of lower skilled workers newly coming into the workplace.

At this moment, pretty much anyone who is willing to look around can easily find employment, schooling, or training of various kinds.  But for millions of Americans in the 20-24 age cohort, the  job opportunities appear to be falling on deaf ears. Bloomberg/Quint‘s reaction to the CEPT study certainly hits home:

“Inactive youth is a worrying sign for the future of the [U.S.] economy, as they don’t gain critical job skills to help realize their future earnings potential.  Further, high NEET rates may foster environments that are fertile for social unrest.”

… Daily urban strife in Portland, Minneapolis and Seattle, anyone?

It doesn’t much help that younger Americans appear to be less enamored with the basic economic foundations of the country than are their older compatriots.  A recent poll by Axios/Momentive has found that while nearly 60% of Americans hold positive views of capitalism, those sentiments are share by a only little more than 40% of those in the 18-24 age category. 

Moreover, more than 50% of the younger group view socialism positively compared to only around 40% of all Americans that feel the same way.

The coronavirus pandemic may have laid bare these trends, but it would be foolish to think that the issues weren’t percolating well before the first U.S. businesses began to lock down in March 2020. 

And more fundamentally, one could question just how much government can do to reverse the trend; perhaps the best thing to do is to stop “helping” so much … ?

More information about the CEPR report can be viewed here.  What are your thoughts on this issue?  Please share your views with other readers here. 

COVID Casualty: Office Gossip

Nearly everyone dislikes “office politics.”  But does day-to-day employee gossip rise to that level?  And have we lost something actually beneficial in the wake of remote work limiting our in-person interactions?

Ever since we were children, most of us have been conditioned to regard gossiping as a negative trait that any caring person should avoid doing. 

At its core, the definition of the term is “people speaking evaluatively about someone who isn’t there.”  But gossip can also relate to talking about rumors and conjecture regarding topics that go beyond just people.

Historically, gossip or the rumor mill in the office often served as a means by which anodyne-sounding corporate announcements would be subjected to a healthy degree of “whispered conversation and conjecture.”  Or, as one DC-area employee put it in a recent Wall Street Journal article, ”You hear the surface story, and then you learn what the real story was – and that’s the gossip.”

In the months since mandatory office workplace lockdowns have been imposed, the gossip mill has fallen on hard times.  Instead of serendipitous conversations happening in the lunchroom, in hallways or following group meetings, many workers are spending their days with just one person – themselves.  Or they might be interfacing via Zoom meetings with the same handful of people from their core work team, where it’s always the same information being recycled among the same group of people.

Even for employees who have returned to working at their corporate offices, hybrid schedules often mean that there are far fewer daily interactions happening with other employees.

On one level, the reduction in gossiping may be reducing workplace “drama” and helping people focus better on their actual work tasks.  Although the evidence is murky, productivity studies do appear to show an uptick in employee productivity since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, in a recent survey of ~500 employees and business owners conducted by international legal consulting firm Seyfarth Shaw, the item that respondents missed the most after a year of remote working was “in-person and grown-up workplace conversations.”

For senior leadership, office gossip has been one way to rely on a kind of “early-warning system” about corporate initiatives or directives.  In every office there seem to be a few people who have the pulse of the organization – it might be an executive assistant or some other staff support functionary – who other people feel comfortable confiding in and who in turn can communicate “the upshot” to the top brass.  While difficult to quantify, that sort of dynamic really counts for something.

Of course, human nature being what it is, office gossip is never going to go away completely.  But Skype or Zoom calls feel forced, and typing out thoughts or conjecture on IMs or e-mails is borderline-weird and feels inherently risky.  

On balance, do you welcome the decline of face-to-face “gossip conversations” with colleagues — or do you suspect that a useful guerilla communications conduit has been lost?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

The consequences of COVID on office space leasing.

One of the many ripple-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the effect it’s had on the demand for commercial office space. 

In a word, it’s been pretty devastating. 

The numbers are stark.  According to an estimate published by Dallas-based commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE Group, Inc., as of the end of 2020, nearly 140 million sq. ft. of office space was available for sublease across America. 

That’s a 40% jump from the previous year.  Not only that, it’s the highest sublease availability figure since 2003, which means the situation is worse than even during the Great Recession of 2008.

Of course, it isn’t surprising to expect that more sublet space would become available during periods of economic downturn, when many businesses naturally look for ways to cut costs.  But those dynamics typically reverse when the economy picks up again.  This time around, it’s very possible – even probable – that the changes are permanent.

The reason?  Many companies that reduced their office space footprint in 2020 didn’t doing so because they we’re suffering financially.  It was because of government-mandated lockdowns.  And now they’re expecting many of those employees to continue working from home, either part-time or full-time, after the pandemic subsides. 

Employee surveys have shown that many workers prefer to work from home where they can avoid the hassle and expense of daily commuting.  It’s understandable that they don’t want that to change back again.  In many business sectors which don’t actually need their workforce be onsite to produce revenue, companies are simply ratifying a reality that’s already happened.  Accordingly, they’ve changed their expectations about employee attendance at the office going forward.

Commercial landlords are now feeling the long-term effects of this shift in thinking.  Rents for prime office space fell an average of 13% across the United States over the past year.  In places like New York and San Francisco the drop has been even steeper — as much as a 20% contraction.

For many of the lessees, it’s less onerous to sublease space to others rather than attempt to undertake the messy business of renegotiating long-term lease contracts with landlords.  Still, there’s pain involved; sublease space historically comes with a significant discount — around 25% — but with the amount of sublet space that’s been coming onstream, those discounts may well go even deeper due to the lack of demand.

The cumulative effect of these leasing dynamics is to put even more downward pressure on broader rental rates, as the deeply discounted space that’s available to sublet puts more pressure on the price of “regular” office space.  It’s a classic downward spiral.

Is there a natural bottom?  Most likely, yes.  But we haven’t reached it yet, and it’ll be interesting to see when — and at what level — things finally even out.  In the meantime, it isn’t a very pretty picture.

What are you witnessing with regards to office space dynamics within your own firm, or other companies in your business community?  Please share your thoughts below.

Changing the “work-live location paradigm” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, its long-term implications on how we will live and work in the future are becoming clearer. 

Along those lines, a feature article written by urban studies theorist Richard Florida and economist Adam Ozimek that appeared in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal explores how remote working has the potential to reshape America’s urban geography in very fundamental ways.

Just before the first lockdowns began in April 2020, fewer than 10% of the U.S. labor force worked remotely full-time.  But barely a month later, around half of the labor was working remotely.  And now, even after the slow easing of workplace restrictions that began to take effect in the summer of 2020, most of the workers who were working remotely have continued to do so.

The longer-term forecast is that perhaps 25% of the labor force will continue to work fully remote, even after life returns to “normal” in the post-COVID era.

For clues as to why the “new normal” will be so different from the “old” one, we can start with worker productivity data.  Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom has studied such productivity trends in the wake of the coronavirus and finds evidence that the productivity boost from remote work could be as high as 2.5%. 

Sure, there may be more instances of personal work being done on company time, but counterbalancing that is the decline of commuting time, as well as the end of time-suck distractions that characterized daily life at the office.

As Florida and Ozimek explain further in their WSJ article:

“Major companies … have already announced that employees working from home may continue to do so permanently.  They have embraced remote work not only because it saves them money on office space, but because it gives them greater access to talent, since they don’t have to relocate new hires.”

The shift to remote working severs the traditional connection between where people live and where they work.  The impact of that change promises to be significant for quite a few cities, towns and regions.  For smaller urban areas especially, they can now build their local economies based on remote workers and thus compete more easily against the big-city, high-tech coastal business centers that have dominated the employment landscape for so long.

Whereas metro areas like Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC and New York had become prohibitively expensive from a cost-of-living standpoint, today smaller metro areas such as Austin, Charlotte, Nashville and Denver are able to use their more attractive cost-of-living characteristics to attract newly mobile professionals who wish to keep more of their hard-earned incomes. 

For smaller urban areas and regions such as Tulsa, OK, Bozeman, MT, Door County, WI and the Hudson Valley of New York it’s a similar scenario, as they become magnets for newly mobile workers whose work relies on digital tools, not physical location.

Pew Research has found that the number of people moving spiked in the months following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – who suddenly were relocating at double the pre-pandemic rate.  As for the reasons why, more than half of newly remote workers who are looking to relocate say that they would like a significantly less expensive house. The locational choices they have are far more numerous than before, because they can select a place that best meets their own personal or family needs without worrying about how much they can earn in the local business market.

For many cities and regions, economic development initiatives are likely to morph from luring companies with special tax incentives or other financial perks, and more towards luring a workforce through civic services and amenities:  better schools, safer streets, and more parks and green spaces. 

There’s no question that the “big city” will continue to hold attraction for certain segments of the populace.  Younger workers without children will be drawn to the excitement and edginess of urban living without having to regard for things like quality schools.  Those with a love for the arts will continue to value the kind of convenient access to museums, theatres and the symphony that only a large city can provide.  And sports fanatics will never want to be too far away from attending the games of their favorite teams.

But for families with children, or for people who wish to have a less “city” environment, their options are broader than ever before.  Those people will likely be attracted to small cities, high-end suburbs, exurban environments or rural regions that offer attractive amenities including recreation. 

Getting the short end of the stick will be older suburbs or other run-of-the-mill localities with little to offer but tract housing – or anything else that’s even remotely “unique.”

They’re interesting future prospects we’re looking at – and on balance probably a good one for the country and our society as it’s enabling us to smooth out some of the stark regional disparities that had developed over the past several decades.

What are your thoughts on these trends?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

Post-pandemic, will the office landscape ever be the same again?

Nearly every business or organization, regardless of thee industry segment in which it operates, has been at least somewhat impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Existential forces have been responsible for quite a few businesses having to reduce staff working hours, either as a mandatory or voluntary measure. In a world of tough choices, often that action was the most reasonable way to cut costs while preventing redundancies and furloughs.

Months into the pandemic and with more restrictions being put in place again for the foreseeable future at least, what began as a short-term fix to weather the economic pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak now has some employers rethinking the possibilities of how they can restructure jobs to “work” effectively outside of the traditional work-week model.

In doing so, employers are responding to a growing appetite for part-time and flexible working as people re-evaluate their own work/life balance situations.

The economic benefits of allowing a higher proportion of staff to choose reduced hours on a more permanent basis could be beneficial for companies already operating on historically thin margins.  While it’s too early to see widespread policy changes happening, some companies are already actively planning to offer more part-time and flexible work to meet the desires of those who no longer wish to work a traditional 8-hour day/40-hour work week.

Among the numerous repercussions of the “coronavirus economy,” one may be the growing realization that office employees actually can take back some control of their time – that they can still do good work while structuring their work days, weeks or months differently. 

Any lingering stigma once associated with working fewer hours, working from home, or leaving the office early to pick up children has pretty much disappeared.  Employees doing any of those things are no longer the exception – and hence there’s no longer the guilt associated with bending or breaking the rules of attendance at the office.  And that’s before factoring in the economic attraction of saving thousands of dollars per year in commuting and other travel-related costs.

One chief marketing officer, Amanda Goetz of Teal Communications, goes so far so to declare that the 40-hour work week won’t exist in 10 years.  “The way companies operate now, there’s no need to ‘own’ someone’s calendar as long as you know they have very clear metrics and can hit their goals,” this manager emphasizes.

What are your thoughts?  How much will the recent changes be permanent going forward … or will we soon return to the paradigms of the pre-pandemic office world?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

The COVID pandemic and the race to raise digital skills.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly made its mark on many markets and industries – some more than others, of course. But one consequence of the events of 2020 appears to cross all industry lines. 

Because of the rapid adjustments organizations have been required to make in the way jobs are performed – borne out of necessity because of health fears, not to mention government edicts – workers have been forced to come up the digital learning curve in a big hurry in order to do their jobs properly.

This “digital upskilling” dynamic isn’t affecting only office workers.  It’s happening across the board – in the private and public sector alike. 

Simply put, digital upskilling isn’t a matter of choice.  If workers want to remain relevant — and to keep their jobs — they’re having to ramp up their digital skill-sets without delay.

Moreover, the new skills aren’t limited to the efficient use of mobile devices, digital meeting/presentation functions, cloud applications and the like.  According to LinkedIn’s recruitment data, highly in-demand skills over the past few months encompass wide-ranging and comprehensive knowledge sets such as data science, data storage, and tech support.

Not so long ago, there were “tech jobs” and “non-tech jobs.”  Now there are just “jobs” – and nearly every one of them require the people doing them to possess a high comfort level with technology.

Will things revert back to older norms with the anticipated arrival of coronavirus vaccines in 2021?  I think the chances of that are “less than zero.”  But what are your thoughts?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.

 

The “bystander effect” and how it affects our workplaces.

Here’s an interesting view into human nature: Experience tells us that far more people will pass a disabled motorist on a busy highway without bothering to stop, compared to stopping for a person stranded on a lonely country road.

This phenomenon creeps into the business world, too — and particularly in a situation which some of us have probably experienced at least a few times during our careers: There’s someone at work who is clearly deficient in their job. Worse yet, the deficiencies aren’t due to incompetence, but to undesirable character traits like sloth, a sour attitude, deficient interpersonal skills — or even questionable ethics.

Moreover, the behavior of the individual falls in the “everyone knows” category.

The question is, what happens about it? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”

Social scientists have a name for this: the “bystander effect.”   It means that “what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

In mid-2019, several researchers at the University of Maryland studied the topic by fielding several pieces of research. In a first one, nearly 140 employees and their managers working at a Fortune 500 electronics company were surveyed.  That survey found that employees were less apt to speak up about problems they perceived to be “open secrets.”

Two other components of the field research – one a survey of 160+ undergraduate students and the other a study involving behavioral experimentation with nearly 450 working adults – found essentially the same dynamics at work.

According to the University of Maryland research study leaders, Subra Tangirala and Insiya Hussain:

“In all three studies our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak, and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference.”

The inevitable conclusion? Tangirala and Hussain reported:

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility — or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.

They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. As issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management decreases.”

Sadly, the University of Maryland research shows that the “bystander effect” is the perfect recipe for companies to keep loping along without making HR changes — and not realizing their full potential as a result.

There’s another downside as well:  If left unaddressed, festering issues involving “problem” employees can engender feelings of frustration on the part of the other employees — along with the sense that an underlying degree of fairness has been violated because of the efforts the other workers are making to be productive employees. Unfortunately even then, no one wants to be the person to blow the whistle.

More detailed findings from the University of Maryland research can be accessed here.

What about your experiences? Have you ever encountered a similar dynamic in your place of work? Please share your insights with other readers.

A Strong Job Market and the “Gig” Economy

The two don’t go together very well.

It wasn’t so long ago that the so-called “gig” economy was all the rage. In the early 2010s, with a sizable portion of companies being skittish to commit to hiring full-time workers due to fresh memories of the economic downturn, many workers found opportunities to make money through various different gig economy service firms — companies like Uber, Lift, Postmates and others.

What those jobs offered workers were flexible schedules, reasonably decent pay, and the ability to cobble together a livelihood based on holding several such positions (while still being able to hunt around for full-time employment).

For employers, it was the ability to build a workforce for which they didn’t have to cover things like office expenses and various employee benefits — not to mentioning paying for payroll taxes like the employer social security contribution.

In the past few years, the environment has changed dramatically. With national unemployment hovering around 3.5% — and lower still in many larger urban areas — “gig” companies have found it more difficult to find workers.

What’s more, those workers who are hired are churning through the companies more even more quickly than before — many staying with these jobs for just a few months.

Tis is driving up worker recruitment costs to their highest levels ever.

In a May 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Micah Rowland, COO of Fountain, a company that helps gig companies acquire new workers by streamlining the hiring process, puts it this way:

“It [strikes] me that in some of these markets, they’re processing thousands of job applicants every month — and these are not large cities.”

In Rowland’s view, gig companies in some markets may be burning through the entire available labor market of people willing to work in roles of this kind.

It isn’t as though turnover rates aren’t high in other service sectors in the more “traditional” economy. In the fast-food industry, for example, turnover is running as much as 150% annually these days. But in the case of gig employment markets, it’s even higher — sometimes dramatically so.

With the tight labor market showing little sign of loosening anytime soon, it may be that we see some firms looking at “regularizing” employment for at least some of their workers. If it makes economic sense to hire some actual employees in order to curb recruitment costs, some will likely go that route .

There’s another factor at work as well. More of these gig economy workers are becoming more vocal about pushing back on pay and working conditions. Noteworthy examples have been recent protests by rideshare company workers in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Others have done the envelope math and have determined that once driver-owned vehicle costs of gasoline and depreciation are calculated against declining fares that have dropped below $1 per mile in some markets like Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, workers’ effective wages are significantly less than even $10 per hour.

Picking up on these worker concerns, a number of activist groups are making gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber into a “cause célèbre” (not in a good way), but loud, polarizing detractors such as these tend to muddy the water rather than bring fresh new insights to the debate.

As well, one wonders if the activism is even needed; I suspect what we’re seeing now is a pendulum swing which happens so often in economics — where an equilibrium is re-established as things come back into balance after going a bit too far in one direction. In the case of the gig economy, the low unemployment rate in many regions of the country appears to be helping that along.

Why aren’t wages moving in lockstep with the improved employment picture?

If you’ve taken a look at September’s U.S. unemployment figure – 3.5% — you’re seeing the lowest level of unemployment in over 50 years. And for particular subgroups of the population, they’re enjoying their lowest employment percentages ever — at least since records have been kept.

It’s definitely something to cheer about. But at the same time, it’s become increasingly evident that wage growth isn’t happening in tandem with lower unemployment.  And that includes industrial wages as well.

In fact, September results show the first dip in wages – albeit slight – in the past two years.

What gives?

According to Zheng Liu and Sylvain Leduc, two economics researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the cause of stagnating wages in an otherwise robust economy can be laid at the doorstep of automation.

According to Liu and Leduc, as certain tasks move more toward automation, employees are losing bargaining power within their organizations. When people fear that they could lose their jobs to a robot or a machine, there’s a hesitation to ask for higher wages as that might hasten the eventuality.

The net result is a widening gap between productivity and pay.

But does this situation apply across all of industry? Perhaps not. Last year, manufacturing expert and Forbes magazine contributing writer Jim Vinoski noted that “huge swaths of industry remain decidedly low-tech and heavily manual.”

The reason? Complexity, volume and margins are often barriers to the implementation of automation in many applications.  Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean that there’s a compelling economic argument to do so – particularly if the production volumes aren’t in the league of “mass manufacturing.”

Jobs in engineering and R&D are even less likely to become automated. After all, probably the single most important attribute of employees in these positions is the ability to “think outside the box” – something artificial intelligence hasn’t come anywhere close to replicating (at least not yet).

What are your thoughts about automation and how it will affect employment and wage growth? Please share your perspectives with other readers.