One of the themes of my Restless Project is that American consumers today are subject to major forces they can neither see, nor understand, nor plan for, and that’s a great source of day-to-day anxiety. Examples are all around us. Here’s one: Pew recently found that 46 percent of Americans spend more money than they earn every month. Here’s another: High-tech firms like Facebook have perfected the art of occasional reinforcement, triggering intermittent dopamine rushes in you that make you addicted to their products.
Maybe you aren’t so restless. Maybe things are good for you. Lucky you! This week is Thanksgiving, which is a beautiful holiday that calls out our better selves by suggesting we take time for gratitude. A time to really remember how grateful we should be to live in this era, in this free land, with these friends and family.
Gratitude is just another word for appreciating your good luck. Sincere gratefulness requires we acknowledge that, save for a few twists of good fortune, things could be very different for us. And that means things ARE very different for other people. People who are sick, or lonely, or can’t work, or can’t afford their college loans, or took bad advice when they bought a house.
Or, people who are having a hard time adjusting to the instability that comes with life in the 21st Century.
It’s easy to forget how hard things are for others, and that makes it very hard to govern a vast country like the United States. We have a serious blind men and the elephant problem when trying to agree on policy. Here’s just one example. In Seattle, you need at annual salary of $93,000 just to afford an AVERAGE, normal (median-priced) home. In Raleigh, a $54,000 salary buys you an average home. Sure, the job market in Seattle is hotter, all other things being equal. But they’re not. So many factors go into location that families can’t just move every time one region lurches forward and the other falls behind.
That’s why we need to listen to each other. Many folks have struggles you might miss, created by forces well beyond their control. Here’s one I hadn’t thought about until recently.
Retail stores are in big trouble. It’s not just Amazon, of course, but Seattle’s tech giant surely isn’t helping your local mall get full this holiday season. In response, large retailers are beefing up their online shopping experiences and de-emphasizing old-fashioned stores. In turn, that means it’s harder to get a retail store job now, but easier to get a warehouse job. That’s simple economics. You won’t have to look far to find economists who say that the digital age isn’t destroying work, it’s merely changing work. Some will even argue that it’s good for workers; those $10-an-hour clothing store jobs weren’t making anyone rich, anyway. Re-training can solve their problems!
Not so fast. Here’s how that’s playing out in real life, according to a recent story in Bloomberg:
One response to the loss of store-based retail jobs is to note that the industry is adding positions at distribution centers to bolster its online operations. While that is true, many displaced retail workers don’t live near a shipping facility. The hiring also skews more toward men, as they make up two-thirds of the workforce, and retail store employees are 60 percent women.
One fallacy of economics, but a sad reality of the Restless Project, is labor portability. I’ve already alluded to this. People can’t simply move from city to city looking for work. We stopped being nomads centuries ago. Remember, we encourage 30-year mortgages with our tax code! When a store that was a 20-minute bus ride from home closes, it’s cold comfort to find that a warehouse has openings 50 miles away.
Further, there’s a serious gender disparity in this retail-to-warehouse change. Maybe that’s just gender bias, and it will smooth out. Maybe it’s much harder for women to work in warehouses than retail — one can guess why, based on the recent news cycle — and that problem will slowly correct itself. But when? Today, right now, we are closing stores that hire more women and opening facilities that hire more men. It’s quite likely the gender disparity will last until it’s replaced by a bias towards robots, who may very well outperform men at those warehouse jobs.
I’m betting very few retail workers foresaw their own demise the first time they ordered a book from Amazon. Let’s hope that book involved robot programming. Retail workers are just unlucky right now. Your industry might be next.
This kind of deep disruption inevitably creates inevitable anxiety for American families, anxiety that’s unique to our time. If you don’t share it, count your blessings and your luck, because, trust me, it’ll be your turn eventually. Here’s a story suggesting you might need $350,000 to pay for health care in retirement. Find your sense of gratitude and empathy now, because I promise you will need it some day.