The young people opting to reject work may just regret it
The job market is booming on both sides of the Atlantic. Vacancies in the UK are at an all-time record, while the number of people in employment is back to the pre- pandemic level. In the US, the
most recent data show nearly 11 million unfilled vacancies, also the highest ever. But many people, particularly the young and well-educated, don’t want to take the jobs on offer. Instead they would prefer to “lie flat”.
If you have not come across the expression, this has nothing to do with flying business class. It is a social phenomenon that started in China, has spread to America and seems to be evident here in the UK too. The Brookings Institution in Washington explains that “the ‘lying flat’ movement calls on young workers and professionals, including the middle-class Chinese who are to be the engine of Xi Jinping’s domestic boom, to opt out of the struggle for workplace success, and to reject the promise of consumer fulfilment”.
What began as a reaction against the stresses of life in modern China – and of the government’s drive for global economic leadership – became in the US a more general rethinking of priorities as a result of the pandemic. It also seems to have moved socially up-market, away from the grind that faces the Chinese middle class, to the more comfortable circumstances of young American professionals. Objectively it is a lot less stressful to work for a large US enterprise than it would be to work for a Chinese one - working hours are shorter for a start. But many young Americans complain of stress, and according to the New York Fed, a much higher proportion of under-45s are considering leaving the workforce compared with over-45s: 2.3 per cent vis-a-vis 0.9 per cent.
In the UK the evidence is more anecdotal. There is an argument that it is the behaviour of employers that is leading to the “Great Resignation”. Wired magazine has picked this idea and argued that this is happening across Europe, for example in Germany, as well as the UK. I’m not sure how important employer action is in this, though, particularly given that the number of people in jobs is back to pre-pandemic levels, even though the numbers of self-employed are still well down. But what is pretty much beyond dispute is that a lot of people, mostly young and welleducated, are choosing to drop out of the workforce across the developed world.
While it can be dismissed as self-indulgent, the ‘lie flat’ movement is a reaction to aspects of society, including excessive materialism, that we should all question
What are the long-term implications of this?
Well, it is certainly intriguing that this movement should start in China. That is a first. Up to now it has usually been that social movements start in developed countries, usually in the US or Scandinavia, and then move to the emerging world. This is the other way round. As China becomes more important in economic terms, we should expect more ideas to start there and move to America and Europe. I expect, too, ideas from India will also influence us more and more as that country is likely to become the world’s third largest economy in about 10 years’ time.
Next, there has to be a concern that people are making career decisions without fully appreciating the implications. People who choose to drop out of the workforce don’t count the costs they will have to shoulder later on. What people do in their twenties and thirties has a big part in determining their lifetime earnings. We know that people who lost their jobs in the 1980s when unemployment soared have suffered all their lives. We are rightly worried by youth unemployment, though maybe not as worried as we should be. A House of Commons paper last month noted how the pandemic had hit the young particularly hard. It was about 16-24 year-olds not being able to get jobs, not about 25-40 year-olds choosing to leave them. It may be that the strong job market will last for a few more years, and that people who drop out for a bit will be able to clamber back. But unless they are lucky, or talented, or both, they will be pushed to get back at the same level that they would have reached.
The nearest historical parallel is perhaps the Swinging Sixties, when the baby boomers rejected the strait-laced social attitudes of the 1950s. For the icons of that era, or at least for those that lived to tell the tale, there seems to have been little personal cost. Last December Bob Dylan sold rights to his songs to Universal Music for $300m (£216.5m). The Stones did all right too. But that is the pinnacle. Too many of the young people, including those who were literally laid flat by drugs, paid a huge price for the decisions they took then.
What is happening now is of a different league to what happened in the 1960s. While it can be dismissed as self-indulgent, the lie flat movement is a reaction to some aspects of society, including excessive materialism, that we should all question. I just worry that too many people will discover that what seems a wise choice now may seem rather less prudent in a few years’ time.
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