As you wait for your coffee … | WORLD
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As you wait for your coffee …

Is the labor shortage signaling a culture change?

A server/bartender at Tap & Vine in Wallingford, Conn., serves drinks to customers. Aaron Flaum/Record-Journal via Associated Press

As you wait for your coffee …

It likely happened again the last time you went to get coffee. You found yourself tapping your foot impatiently as two overworked baristas tried to serve the same flood of customers that a team of four would have normally handled. On the door, large signs declared “Help wanted!” and promised formerly unimaginable starting wages and signing bonuses.

This same story has played out across the country for months, as labor shortages have impacted almost every industry and every level of the economy. And despite the growing need for workers in so many sectors, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, with new hiring reports consistently disappointing and bewildering economists. While frustrating, the labor shortage crisis may indicate a rethinking of the work-life balance.

For many analysts on the left, what we are witnessing is not a crisis at all but simply the market doing its work. Free market theory states that demand balances supply until the price rises high enough to entice more suppliers—in this case, suppliers of labor. Whereas employers often have more negotiating power than their workers, the pandemic has reversed this relationship, giving employees more bargaining power and thus the ability to demand higher wages—the wages we now see advertised in desperate store windows. To the extent that there is a problem here, liberals would argue that employers are being stubborn and are still not raising wages as much or as quickly as the market demands.

For many on the Right, however, the real problem is that the market has not been able to do its work; it has been perverted by perverse government incentives. Repeatedly extended pandemic unemployment benefits, together with over-generous emergency stimulus checks, have left many former workers with little reason to rejoin the workforce. If people are paid to do nothing, they will demand considerably more pay to do something. Continued mask mandates and vaccine mandates in many industries have still further disrupted the labor market, as many who might otherwise be eager to work would rather stay home than submit to such indignities.

Of course, for workers in many industries—especially in hospitality and travel—the pandemic has simply made work far more stressful and far less rewarding. It’s little surprise that many burned-out workers are taking their time to reconsider where and how they want to work and looking for work that isn’t just a job but a vocation—a calling where their skills and passions align.

These are surely all genuine factors, and the current disruption should be an important reminder that the economy is complicated, and it’s much easier to observe a problem than to find a solution.

But perhaps there is also a brighter side, some extent to which our culture is going through what we might call a “Mastercard moment”—a widespread recognition that, as the classic ad always put it, “there are some things money can’t buy.” The joys and struggles of parenting, the fulfillment of serving one’s community, and of course, that most precious of all resources, time, are all things that money cannot buy. For decades, the rat race of contemporary American life drew more and more people ever more deeply into the workforce, steadily reducing the ranks of stay-at-home moms and raising the average age of childbearing.

Forced to stay at home for once, many working parents rediscovered that there was more to life than work. Little surprise, then, that they’ve been slow to respond to ever more generous wage incentives. Moreover, as many families adjusted their lifestyles to cut costs while out of work during the pandemic, some have found that they no longer need as much income as they once did to make ends meet.

From this standpoint, at least, the current labor shortage can offer some encouragement for Christian conservatives. For decades, we’ve sounded the alarm about the rise of dual-income families, about the idolatry of work over marriage and family, and about the tendency of our culture to value nothing that cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. To the extent that the pandemic, the response to it, and the resulting economic disruptions have succeeded in shaking many Americans out of their materialist assumptions, all the ugliness of the last eighteen months may have left us something to be thankful for.

So next time you find yourself grumbling under your breath about the slow service at the understaffed local coffee shop, pause and cheer yourself with the thought that perhaps the barista not serving you coffee right now might instead be at home serving her kids breakfast for the first time in a long while.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for 10 years as president of The Davenant Institute and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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