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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Non-Essential Economy

If we are honest, many of us do work that doesn’t really need to be done.

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(muse studio/Shutterstock)

Over the summer, these flyers began appearing all over town. “We are desperately seeking school bus drivers!” they say. “To learn more, call…"  

With the school year just about to start, I doubt they’re going to fill those positions. And just between us, I hope they don’t. I have this vision of Ron Paul laughing maniacally as the Department of Education collapses because they can’t figure out how to shuttle your 17-year-old to their nearest daycare center.

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But employers everywhere are having trouble filling low-wage and part-time jobs. Many businesses that survived Covid are now having to cut their hours or shut down altogether due to “labor shortages." On Tuesday, my wife and I took our daughter to visit my parents, and they offered to spring for take-out. The first three restaurants we called were closed because they couldn’t find enough help. I’m sure the same thing has happened to you, dear reader, at least once in the last few months.

But where did this “shortage” come from? 

At first glance, the numbers don’t quite make sense. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment has now returned to pre-Covid levels. The employment rate among teenaged workers is slightly higher than it was in February of 2020. 

The trouble is, those BLS statistics don’t account for “missing workers”: folks who are neither employed nor actively seeking employment. According to one government study, there are over two million missing workers in the United States today, though the real number is almost certainly higher. That means roughly one out of every hundred adults has simply decided they don’t want a job anymore. And it’s a safe bet that the majority of them are under 30. 

Hence, the labor shortage.

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Now, think about it. We’re enjoying the worst economy since the 1970s. We may soon find ourselves enjoying the worst economy since the 1930s. You would expect to see young men standing on the side of the road with signs that say, “Will Work for Food." And yet the opposite has happened. They’re actually quitting their jobs, and they’re not looking for new ones.

Last year, my colleague Micah Meadowcroft chronicled the rise of NEET culture. NEET stands for “not engaged in employment, education, or training." NEETs are young men (and women, but mostly men) who are throwing off the shackles of wage-slavery. They’re happily resigning themselves to sponging off their parents and/or the nanny state. Meadowcroft began his article by quoting their battle hymn:

Wagie wagie get in cagie. All day long you sweat and ragie. NEET is comfy. NEET is cool. NEET is free from work and school. Wagie trapped and wagie dies. NEET eats tendies, sauce, and fries.

Among those not yet brave enough to go full NEET, we now have the phenomenon of “quiet quitting”. As one TikToker explained, “you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentally that work has to be our life.”

In my years working in food service and retail (on and off from 2013 to 2017), I never met anyone who believed that work had to be our life. There were no doe-eyed loyalists whose hearts skipped a beat every time we got a memo from headquarters. 

We knew how the game was played, of course. If you wanted to get anywhere in the company, you had to at least pretend to be a company man. On inventory day, you worked a double shift. At Christmas, you wore antlers or an elf hat—and you did it with a smile. 

But we didn’t care about getting promotions, because none of us wanted to work in retail. We all expected to find a better job in a year or two. Besides, we knew our “career progress” was capped at store manager. Everyone who made more than $50,000 was an outside hire with a business degree from Penn State. So, we spent inventory day smoking behind the dumpsters. And we sure as hell didn’t wear the antlers.

Having said that, I don’t think the NEETs and quiet-quitters are rejecting the idea of hard work. They have three more worthy foes.

First is the way that employees are routinely degraded by their employers. The stupid little costumes they make you wear during the holidays are just the beginning. Ask anyone who’s worked as a sales clerk or a waiter. If a customer starts chewing you out because there’s not enough parking or their coupons expired in 2003, you’re expected to grin and take the abuse. You have no dignity. You have no rights.

Second is the fact that, for many young people, there’s little prospect of ever finding a decent job. About 20 percent of American workers are engaged in retail and hospitality. That doesn’t include other dead-end jobs like walking dogs or driving for Uber. Many of the young people who dominate these industries are saddled with debt from a useless degree they didn’t really want in the first place. Their highest goal in life is to get purple underglow on their 2011 Honda Civic. Ask them about buying a house and watch their eyes glaze over. You might as well offer to audit their thetan levels.

Third, the NEETers and quiet-quitters refuse to get excited about jobs they know are completely pointless. And here we come to the crux of all this madness. It doesn’t matter if they slack off or stay home, because their “work” doesn’t actually need to be done. Their jobs don’t give them a sense of purpose because the jobs themselves are bullsh*t.

Think about it. Countries experience a labor shortage when a third of their able-bodied young men are killed in a war or are wiped out by a disease or something. But not ours. We are the first society to experience a labor deficit simply because workers choose not to work. 

What’s amazing is that they’re getting away with it. The economy isn’t grinding to a halt. The slackers aren’t starving on the streets. Some are just bumming around their parents’ house. Others are sharing a studio apartment with four other welfare queens. 

How can this be?

The answer is pretty simple. During Covid, we began to divide our countrymen into two categories: essential workers and non-essential workers. Now that the latter have been declared officially useless, they’re starting to act like it. 

Put it this way. When the Covid pandemic began in 2020, the government began ordering businesses to close. They also beefed up welfare benefits and handed out Trump Bucks to help tide people over. In other words, they paid the pizza-delivery boy not to deliver pizzas. 

Eventually the lockdown orders began to relax, until finally they ended altogether. Now the pizza boy is asking himself, “Why shouldn’t the government keep paying me not to do my job? If my work is ‘non-essential,’ why should I do it?” And I’m not sure we have a good answer for him.

This is why I say that Andrew Yang is the most important politician of our time. Mr. Yang would give everyone in the country a universal basic income (UBI) of $12,000 a year to start. That's more than a pizza boy who works 20 hours a week at $11 an hour. Why force him to do a pointless, degrading, dead-end job when we could… not?

Some say that a UBI would disincentivize folks from pursuing essential jobs. But police officers make around $55,000. Registered nurses make over $70,000 a year on average. They deserve more, of course. But I don’t think R.N.s are going to take an 85 percent pay cut just so they can sit at home and watch TV.

A UBI would make it impossible for us to ever solve the “labor shortage” in retail and hospitality. But is that such a bad thing? Does every town in America need three pizza joints, two burger joints, and a Chinese restaurant? I mean, for most of our country’s history, few towns had even one pizza joint. It may seem hard to believe, but it’s true!  And yet we got by. We not only survived, but flourished. We invented jazz. We beat the Nazis. We put a man on the moon. 

So, maybe we’ve been looking at this the wrong way. If employers can’t afford to pay their employees a decent wage, maybe they can’t afford the cost of doing business. 

The problem isn’t “non-essential workers." It’s our non-essential economy. It’s the fact that many (if not most) of us do work that doesn’t really need to be done. 

To be clear, I don’t support UBI. My vision is even more radical: a society in which every man can support a family by performing a useful task or making a useful thing. That’s opposed to the current system, where 99 percent of wealth is owned by men who perform evil tasks (like investment banking) and create evil things (like Facebook). 

Either way, “non-essential work” has no future in this country. It is a historical anomaly—one that is quickly passing from the earth. All we can do now is find these young men real jobs. We can pay them to do real work, like farming or cabinetmaking. Otherwise, they’ll vote for politicians who pay them to do no work at all.

True, we may have to settle for just one pizza joint per town. We may even have to pick up our own orders. Yet I believe in the intelligence and resiliency of the American people. Somehow, someday, we’ll find a way.