Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow, a podcast about the smartest solutions to our most misunderstood problems. I’m Jason Feifer. And in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today and figure out where it came from, what important things we’re missing and how we can create more opportunity tomorrow.
Jason Feifer: Nobody wants to work anymore. If you’ve heard anything about work in the past year or so, then that is probably what you’ve heard. People say it on TV. They say it on social media. They say it at the office. They say it in surveys, like the one from software company Tiny Pulse, which found that one in five executives agree with the statement nobody wants to work anymore. People will also say it on YouTube, like this Finance Bro, who really, really wants you to watch his crypto investment tips.
Audio Clip (Finance Bro): This video is really about how no one wants to work anymore.
Jason Feifer: And Kim Kardashian is saying it.
Audio Clip (Kim Kardashian): It seems like nobody wants to work these days.
Jason Feifer: And so are business owners, like this bar owner on a Fox TV affiliate in Ohio.
Audio Clip (Fox TV affiliate in Ohio): People don’t want to work. We have set up interviews. People don’t show.
Jason Feifer: And let’s be clear. There is a real problem here. There is a problem for business owners, who I speak to all the time and who struggle to operate their businesses because they cannot fill their open jobs, and there is a problem for workers, who are looked down upon and called lazy and not given the opportunities they believe they deserve. This is a problem that impacts everyone, which means we better figure out how to solve it.
Jason Feifer: But first, to do that, we have to agree on what the problem actually is. So how do we do that? The answer seems to be buried right there in the freeze. Nobody wants to work anymore. Listen to it closely. Nobody wants to work anymore. The problem is located in the word anymore. Anymore is a dividing line in time between when people did want to work and when people do not. The problem, it seems, is now, something about now. The pandemic and all that came after has created a moment where nobody wants to work, which means that if we’re going to solve this problem, we need to figure out how to solve the problem of today. But wait a second. Before we go too far down that path, there is someone else you need to hear from.
Audio Clip (Rooks County Record): It is becoming apparent that nobody wants to work these hard times.
Jason Feifer: That quote is from the year 1894. It was written in a newspaper called the Rooks County Record. And-
Audio Clip (Edgefield Advertiser): Labor is scarce, high and very unreliable. No one wants to work for wages.
Jason Feifer: That is from the year 1905 in the Edgefield Advertiser. And there are many, many, many more just like it. People complaining that nobody wants to work anymore in 1916 and in 1952 and in 1981. These quotes were unearthed recently by a University of Calgary instructor named Paul Fairie. He posted a thread of them on Twitter in July, and it went super viral. And then a bunch of people tagged me in their responses because they know I love this stuff, and they’re right. And as soon as I saw it, I immediately started wondering what was happening during all those previous times in history when people said nobody wanted to work anymore because maybe there’s something really valuable that we can learn from the past to help inform our understanding of the present. So I figured what I needed was someone who has, I don’t know, written a book on the history of work.
Peter Stearns: I’ve actually written a book on the history of work.
Jason Feifer: Bingo.
Peter Stearns: So my name is Peter Stearns. I’m a university Professor of History at George Mason.
Jason Feifer: I asked Peter if he could take a trip through history with me, explaining some of these quotes and how they might apply to today. And he said he’d be happy to because, as he explained when we got on the phone…
Peter Stearns: Most of this judgment about the decline of work represents an oversimplification of the past.
Jason Feifer: But when you really dig into the past, the nature of our problem today becomes a lot clearer. By the end of our conversation, I realized something. When someone says, nobody wants to work anymore, they are speaking a partial truth. Part of that sentence is correct, but it’s missing a very important part. And if we cannot identify that missing part and speak it out loud and take it very seriously, then we will never solve this problem. We won’t solve it for businesses, and we won’t solve it for workers. And we won’t solve it for anyone at any time, including right now. So what is that missing part? It is time to take a trip through the history of work and discover that, no matter the decade, people really do want to work, maybe just not the way that we think. Coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right. We’re back. So our goal is to understand why it seems that nobody wants to work anymore today and why that isn’t exactly right. And to do this, we’re going to go back through the history of people saying that nobody wants to work anymore, looking at specific moments when people said it and what was going on during their time and how it can help us better understand today. So let’s start with the earliest clipping from that Twitter thread. It’s the article from the Rooks County Herald in 1894, which you heard a little bit of before, but now I’ll give you some more context. The article describes all the minds in the country that are being shut down because of striking workers. And it wonders what people will do for coal when winter comes. Then the article concludes with what you heard before.
Audio Clip (Rooks County Record): It is becoming apparent that nobody wants to work these hard times.
Jason Feifer: So I asked Peter, “What’s going on here?”
Peter Stearns: Okay. So the timing is interesting. There really were some significant changes in the arrangement of work by the later 19th century.
Jason Feifer: We’re going to go through two of these significant changes because they set up a good understanding of every work conflict that comes after. So here’s significant change number one. Because of union action and legislation, the length of the workday at the turn of the century was getting shorter. It was going from 12 hours to 10 hours and then ultimately 8. And this was happening at the same time as America was becoming more industrialized. And therefore, the work that people were doing was changing, which sounds good in theory, less backbreaking work on the farm and fewer hours in the heat. But in practice, it was a hard transition.
Peter Stearns: The traditional workday, particularly during the summer when the sun was out, the traditional workday was really long, but except in harvest time, it wasn’t that intense. People took naps. They wandered around. They sang. Sometimes they drank. Well, modern work, and this is particularly true by the end of the 19th century got rearranged. So instead of a long, but somewhat slow paced workday and sleep, we now have a more intense workday, a period of non-work and some sleep.
Jason Feifer: In this moment, something happened that has repeated itself ever since. And that is as the nature of work changed, workers saw an opportunity to participate in the shaping of the work. They didn’t just want to be told, hey, here’s what work is now, and here’s what you’ll be paid, and that’s it. They wanted a better deal for their hard work. And that drove their decisions about what work to do and what work to refuse to do.
Peter Stearns: And you could understand why people looked at it and said, “Gee, they just don’t want to work anymore.” But that was just not correct.
Jason Feifer: Do you think back then the people who were saying, “Gee, they don’t want to work anymore,” were probably people who did not have to work in the kind of grinding-
Peter Stearns: They weren’t manual labor. That’s part of what you’re picking up, but it’s still true today. Some people who say this, and I don’t mean to be nasty, are basically saying, “We want a lot of people who work the way we want to tell them to. We don’t want to work that way, but we want them to. And by the way, we’d rather not pay them too much.”
Jason Feifer: Now let’s look at significant change number two. Just as people’s work lives were shifting, so were their social lives because back in the late 1800s, leisure was becoming more available.
Peter Stearns: So you have professional sports. You have the beginning of the rise of movies. I’m now talking 1890s, 1900s. You have the rise of amusement parks. A lot of people still didn’t use those things, but obviously, some people did. And people began to talk about what was called the leisure ethic. So this made it easy for some people to say, “Gee, people just want to play around. They don’t want to work as much.”
Jason Feifer: Peter says that this has been extensively studied in the United States, and the conclusion is clear. People did not want to work less just because they had access to more leisure. In fact, it can be argued that some people wanted to work even more because more work meant more money, which meant more luxurious leisure. But because leisure activities were so visible, this created a perception problem.
Peter Stearns: We pay more attention to leisure than we do to work, and that causes some confusion.
Jason Feifer: Which meant that people looked lazy just because they were spending the money that they had earned through their hard work, which sounds to me a lot like people who, I don’t know, say today that kids don’t want to work; they just want to post videos on TikTok. And it’s like, no, their TikToks are just more visible than the work that they do. Okay. So that covers our basic setup. That’s what was happening in the late 1800s.
Jason Feifer: Now let’s move on to another moment of nobody wants to work anymore. This one is a scene from a newspaper in 1916. Back then, papers were full of these free-floating stories. It’s not clear who wrote them or whether they actually happened, but there are a good indication of what people of the time were talking and thinking about. And this one, this little story published in the Binghamton Press, was titled Nobody Wants to Work. Here’s the whole thing.
Audio Clip (Binghamton Press): “What about vegetables? Hasn’t it been a good year for vegetables,” the dealer was asked. “Well, as near as I can find out,” he answered, “the reason for food scarcity is that nobody wants to work as hard as they used to. I asked a man who was in here the other day why he didn’t raise more livestock and make his own butter. ‘Women don’t want to make butter anymore,’ he said. And then he asked, ‘Do you know where prices would go if we raised more calves and pigs and made more butter? They would go way down.'”
Jason Feifer: Interesting, right? So we’re now talking about how people don’t want to work as hard in agriculture. So they’re claiming that there was a time, I guess, before 1916 when people did want to work hard in agriculture. But they’re also identifying that some of the labor force that used to create the butter, which would be women, are not working anymore. So one, what were they seeing in agriculture? And two, I guess what happened to the women?
Peter Stearns: Okay. So let’s deal with both parts of that. They’re both interesting. And they’re mostly not the same thing. Okay. So thing number one, and this has been true in every industrial society, there are certain jobs… Once you reach a certain level of industrial prosperity, there are certain jobs that people just don’t want to do anymore. That is absolutely true. So most Americans, even when they’re unemployed, even when they’re relatively poor, do not want to do harvesting work.
Jason Feifer: This is why harvesting is generally done by immigrants. They are coming from countries that do not have access to the level of industrial prosperity that Americans have. And therefore, these immigrants are willing to do the work that most Americans will not. This fact has repeated itself across time and space. This is not an American thing. This isn’t everything thing. So in this story from 1916, when the character says…
Audio Clip (story from 1916): No one wants to work as hard as they used to.
Jason Feifer: … what he really should have said is, “No one wants to work these very difficult jobs as much as they had to,” because now they do not have to. Again, this is not a question of hard work because people are still working hard. They’re still willing to work hard. It is instead a question of better available options. Now, let’s talk about the other thing in that story. Remember the men in the piece? And they were both clearly men. They were complaining that women no longer wanted to churn the butter, and that was creating all sorts of problems. So what was up with all the lazy women?
Peter Stearns: Okay. So this has been fairly extensively studied.
Jason Feifer: Before the 19th century when America had a primarily agricultural economy, work mostly took place at home. As a result, women were very involved in what was classified as work, but then…
Peter Stearns: Because work moved out of the home, they were mostly assigned to home tasks. So in one sense, their labor role changed. And if you were simplistic about it and maybe a little misogynistic, you can say they’re not working as hard. Every study indicates that the women who were homemakers so called worked really hard at this.
Jason Feifer: Because, for example, do you know what it was like washing clothing before a washing machine? It was an insane day-long process that would leave your hands raw.
Peter Stearns: And when one labor-saving appliance showed up, like vacuum cleaners, instead of taking the time off, they increased their cleanliness standards. So it really was not true that women weren’t working. They just weren’t working as visibly. And sure, there were probably a few things like butter churning. It just didn’t pay to do that. It was cheaper to buy it.
Jason Feifer: Which is so interesting, right? We have this stereotypical image of women churning butter, but let’s remember they weren’t running artisanal butter shops. They were churning butter to feed their families. But once the economy shifted, it just didn’t make economic sense for women to do that anymore. Butter had become cheaper. And as cleanliness standards rose, their time was consumed more and more in the home, where they were working just as hard, if not harder than ever before, but being appreciated for it less and less.
Jason Feifer: So what have we learned so far? We’ve learned this. The nature of work is consistently changing, and when a change happens, people naturally adjust the kind of work that they do. Sometimes they are able to seek better working conditions. Sometimes they are not. But either way, their new work will be compared against what a previous generation used to do for work. And the previous generation’s work will be considered hard work. Therefore, because the new generation’s work does not look like the old generation’s work, the new generation will be criticized for not wanting to work anymore, which isn’t fair or true. But that’s what it is. Now, onward to the Mulberry News in 1922.
Audio Clip (Mulberry News): What is the cause of unemployment and hard times? The manufacturer and businessmen say it is because nobody wants to work anymore unless they can be paid enough wages to work half of the time and loaf half of the time.
Jason Feifer: So okay. What’s up with that?
Peter Stearns: So it really was true that increasingly workers were not willing to work as long hours as they had been before, began to formalize the weekend as a non-formal work period. But they were working harder when they were working. This was after all the period when assembly lines were being installed. And the pace of work just visibly speeded up. So the notion that somehow the blue collar labor force was getting lazy, just not right. The system was changing. Now, their willingness to hold out for better wages, well, basically, for many people, the modern work bargain was I’ll work pretty hard at jobs that are not entirely pleasant, but I only do it if you give me enough money to have a little bit of enjoyment outside the job. And that was obviously being instrumentalized by the early 20th century for a lot of blue collar workers.
Jason Feifer: It’s interesting because I feel like both what you’re describing right then in the twenties and then 100 years later in our modern time is, in a way, something of the same thing. You had said the system was changing back then, and the system is changing now. And what I guess we see in both cases is essentially workers seeing a system change, feeling it because they are closest to it, frankly, and saying, “Well, I got to make sure that I find something that works for me here.” And so that’s going to create a shift in the jobs that people are going to take or the way that they’re going to take them, which then maybe others who are not having to work those blue collar jobs just start equating to these people don’t want to work anymore. Is that right?
Peter Stearns: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. If you don’t mind jumping a little bit, one other thing that’s happening now that’s really interesting and it’s been exacerbated or encouraged by the pandemic is the increasing number of people who are able to work, at least in part, from home. And this is really interesting because it leads some people to think, well, if they’re working from home, they’re probably not working as hard as they would at the office. And again, here you’re dealing with a systems change. No question. I believe every indication is these people working from home are just as productive as they would’ve been if they’ve gone into the office. They may be doing it at pajamas, but that’s irrelevant to this particular discussion. But it is confusing.
Jason Feifer: Right. It’s like you’re seeing a new thing through an old lens, in which the only way that you understand hard work is if it looks like what you learned hard work looks like. And if it doesn’t look like that now, then you have to assume it simply isn’t hard work.
Peter Stearns: Right. Right.
Jason Feifer: Let’s jump ahead because I want to get out of these major industrial changes in the turn of the century and just see what you make of somebody in… There’s not really a whole lot of context here, but I’m just curious what you think this person might have been thinking. So in 1952, there’s this quote that just says…
Audio Clip (The Evergreen Courant): I heard somebody say the other day that everybody was getting too darn lazy and nobody wants to work anymore. That’s the truth if I ever did hear it.
Jason Feifer: That, by the way, was from a paper called the Evergreen Courant. So all right., What was going on in the 1950s to say that nobody wanted to work anymore?
Peter Stearns: My guess is that some of this is now beginning to reflect a new theme that obviously is still with us. And that is, well, we’re very aware that the welfare roles are expanding, that people are taking sickness insurance, unemployment insurance, et cetera. It really wasn’t available until the thirties. So you begin to have a category of people who are welfare recipients. And as you well know because it’s still true, a lot of prejudice developed about these people. They’re goofing off. They’re taking taxpayer money, and they’re just unwilling to work. And again, I’m not talking about every individual. Every evidence is that most of the people who take welfare would much prefer to work if they were physically able to do so, if jobs were available that were relevant for them. But there is a category of people who, at least for extended periods of their lives, do take welfare.
Jason Feifer: And of course this exact issue played out in the last few years. There was a belief that when the government started giving people money during the pandemic, it disincentivized them to work. So the calls went out for many politicians saying cut off the subsidy so that people will get back to work. And, of course, now we know the result of that. There were some people surely that didn’t work because of the subsidies, but when the subsidies expired, the labor shortage remained. So that was not the solution. As Peter was explaining this, he said something that really struck me.
Peter Stearns: Some people to believe there’s this big chunk of people that are simply freeloading. And that’s different from the past because in the past, everybody had to work. And it’s obviously true that in the past, we didn’t have those kinds of welfare systems, and therefore, the people who were trying to hang on weren’t as visible as a category.
Jason Feifer: I heard that and thought, huh, that’s a really interesting way to look at it because before welfare, it’s not like everyone was an able-bodied and prosperous worker. So what happened to the people who would have been on welfare before there was welfare, like people who were sick or injured or could not work for some reason? What did they do?
Peter Stearns: In some cases, they just would’ve died. They would’ve starved. They would’ve got sick. They would’ve died.
Jason Feifer: Or he said they would’ve begged on the street or picked through garbage. But in short, no matter what, the important thing to recognize is that they would’ve been invisible. They would’ve been very easy for the average working person to ignore. Then when welfare began, the system made these people visible. And once they were visible, they were labeled, not as people who needed help, but as people who didn’t want to work anymore.
Jason Feifer: All right. Now it’s time to get into our more modern version of this conversation. We’re going to look at why kids these days supposedly don’t want to work hard, what happened when we all started working on computers and what this can all ultimately tell us about how to solve our problem now. I’ve also got a really awesome and intimate insight into what that conversation is looking like in an industry that has been super hard hit with labor shortages today. So that and more is coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: Okay. We’re back. So it’s time to skip a few decades. We’re going to land in 1981, where we find this complaint printed in the Miami Herald.
Audio Clip (Miami Herald): I hired two boys to clear the rocks off the land this week, but they just fooled around. They didn’t want to work. Nobody wants to work anymore.
Peter Stearns: So people have been complaining that kids don’t want to work hard as far as they know ever since people started having kids. Okay. So there’s a theme here that ain’t new.
Audio Clip (Bye Bye Birdie): Kids. I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today.
Jason Feifer: But beyond the obvious, Peter says there are actually a few interesting things to note here because the expectations we have for children have drastically changed in the last century and a half. Child labor laws began being passed in the 1840s, though they weren’t well enforced for a while. But by the late 19th century and especially after 1916, the amount of child labor really went down. Then people believed…
Peter Stearns: … that the basic purpose of childhood is to go to school instead of go to work. And that can be confusing to everybody because while school involves work, it’s not the same kind of work. It’s not as visible. It’s not as productive in the short run.
Jason Feifer: So kids started to get this reputation as being lazy because we were asking them to do more work that we don’t count as work. And as you’re about to see, the situation becomes really give and take. We give them more of one kind of work. We take another kind of way. And then we just keep judging them. For example, the amount of chores that kids do at home has steadily declined since the 1920s.
Peter Stearns: Now, partly is because there aren’t as many things that kids can do in the home. When I was a kid, and I’m obviously older, one chore that was pretty common was you helped take ashes out of the furnace. Well, we don’t do that anymore because we don’t have ashes in the furnace.
Jason Feifer: And there’s also all sorts of other things that they don’t have to do anymore. For example, kids used to take care of their younger siblings, but smaller families means a smaller age differential between oldest and youngest, which is why, for example, it is totally unrealistic for me to expect my seven-year-old to take care of my three-year-old. And also, kids used to wash dishes more, but now we have a dishwasher for that. And also, teenagers now take fewer low paying, part-time and summer jobs today than they did before, although that’s at least in part because those jobs which were once held by teenagers have been steadily and increasingly held by full-grown adults. So did we turn kids into spoiled brats? No, because as traditional children’s work activities declined, we increased their demands in other areas. Kids are expected to work harder at school than they did 50 years ago. There’s a greater emphasis on getting it to college, which means high academic standards, which means more time and stress associated with schoolwork. We also pile on tons of extracurricular activities, which means asking our kids to constantly learn and refine and perform new skills. And volunteering among kids has also gone up.
Peter Stearns: So the difficulty of measurement here is it’s not necessarily true that kids are willing to work less hard, but they’re not working at the same things.
Jason Feifer: And yet, some people will always equate that to nobody wants to work anymore. All right, let’s jump another decade ahead to 1999, where this complaint from these St. Petersburg Times really puts everything we’ve talked about into stark relief.
Audio Clip (St. Petersburg Times): “Nobody wants to work anymore,” Cecil said. “They all want to work in front of a computer and make lots of money.”
Jason Feifer: Which sounds so funny now, but also, of course they say that in 1999. I know lots of people who work very, very hard, myself included, but spend the majority of our time in front of a computer. So I will grant that that is physically easier than manual labor. But it doesn’t mean that people aren’t working hard. What do you make of it?
Peter Stearns: Well, look, you’ve basically said it correctly. Again, it’s a situation where work technology changes, which means that people who were accustomed to an older method of doing things have a little trouble interpreting. But there’s every indication, and you know this, I think, by implication from your own experience, people who work on computers end up frequently working very stressfully. One of the laments about computers is that they’re so ubiquitous that you end up working pretty much all the time.
Jason Feifer: And oh, yeah. I know that very well. I hope you’re enjoying this podcast, for example, because I finished the editing for this script at 11:00 PM the night before I recorded it. Anyway, once you get past the computer complaints of 1999, complaints start to sound pretty identical to today’s. So now that we’ve heard decades worth of this stuff, I think it’s time to step back and ponder something a little philosophical. Is there a way to understand the very nature of hard work? Is that a trackable thing? Can we say, yes, the people of 1922 and the people of 2022 did different work but the measurement of their hardworkingness was the same? So I asked Peter, “What do we actually know about people’s devotion over time to the very concept of work?” And he said…
Peter Stearns: Okay, interesting question. Several responses. The first point is most people never bought into the middle class work ethic. The notion was that this is classic 19th century stuff or Benjamin Franklin stuff. If you work hard, work will be its own rewards. You will automatically make your fortune. This is the way to organize your life. Americans bought this more extensively than most people did, and we still have more of this at least strong remnants of the work ethic than our European cousins do. We really do. And this may be good, maybe bad. It’s just true. Okay. But this work ethic was never shared by the whole of society.
Jason Feifer: And to be clear, that is not to say that people are lazy. It’s just to say that they did not buy into the narrative that work by itself in the abstract is a fulfillment of purpose. Some people do. I, for example, very much define myself by my work, and maybe you do too. But I also have the great fortune of doing work that I love and that I have a lot of control over and that provides me and my family with a comfortable life. Not everyone can say that. Just listen to how judgmental this can be. Here is a complaint printed in the Ventura County Star in 2006.
Audio Clip (Ventura County Star): I can’t believe the bad luck I have had in trying to find someone to do some needed home improvements. It almost seems like nobody wants to work anymore. And when they do, they take no pride in what they do.
Jason Feifer: Consider who is writing this. It is, at the very least, someone who does not do home improvements themselves and yet cannot understand why someone doesn’t take deep pride in patching the holes in this person’s walls for a small amount of money. But also, the writer here isn’t stopping to understand the person they want to hire, who, frankly, may take quite a lot of pride in their work but who has a very good reason to not show up and patch this person’s walls because, first of all, you’ve had decades of messaging about how college is the path to upward mobility, which has led to a decline in people attending trade schools, which has created a nationwide shortage of skilled trades people. According to the staffing company Adecco, for example, 62% of firms are now struggling to fill these trade roles, which means that the people who are doing this work are inundated with large and better paying projects, which means there just isn’t that much of a marketplace for people to do small, odd jobs for random amounts of money to help people who bitch about it in the local paper. Nobody wants to work anymore? Oh, stuff that crap in the holes in your wall because they are working, just not for you.
Jason Feifer: Now, how do these workers feel about that work? Eh, that’s up to them. Like Peter said, they probably don’t buy into the idea that work by itself is a virtue because most people don’t buy into that at all. But that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they’re lazy. It just means they work hard and find fulfillment elsewhere, which brings us to the second point that Peter wanted to make about tracking hard work over time.
Peter Stearns: The notion that work should be the whole of our life is harder to sustain today than it was a century and a half ago because we have this leisure component that we’ve talked about. So almost nobody would say, “I’m going to work all the time. This is the only thing I want to do,” because, among other things, we now view it as unhealthy.
Jason Feifer: We do. Isn’t that funny? We talk about work-life balance and self-care for ourselves, and yet we also do not make room for other people to have a work-life balance and enjoy some self-care, which really brings us back to today. So where’s my YouTube Finance Bro?
Audio Clip (Finance Bro): This video is really about how no one wants to work anymore.
Jason Feifer: And this podcast is about how dumb that is. So what’s going on today? Well, it’s simply the latest version of what happened over and over and over again in everything we covered. Something created a shift in the way we work. In this case, the pandemic led new ideas about where and how work should happen and also exacerbated existing tensions about the kinds of work that people were willing to do and the pay they were willing to accept. And yes, people left the workforce, but they didn’t disappear. Peter says they just reentered the workforce in different places and in different ways.
Peter Stearns: So I don’t mean nobody has decided, well, I’m just going to bag it. But collectively, that’s just not happening. What is happening is, really, I think rather different. And that is people are saying, “There’s certain job situations that I would rather not have to tolerate. It’s not that I don’t want to work. I’m going to look for work that’s more congenial, either because the pay is better or the situation is better.”
Jason Feifer: And yes, that’s creating some challenges as industries adjust to new expectations, but that’s a pretty useful conversation to have. And if you want to hear what that conversation sounds like in real time… Well, this is pretty amazing, actually. I was recently talking to a guy named Matt Plapp, who is the CEO of a company called America’s Best Restaurants. It’s a marketing company that helps independent restaurants tell their stories and grow their sales.
Matt Plapp: We work with hundreds of restaurants nationwide.
Jason Feifer: And Matt and I were talking about the labor shortage, which is a big thing impacting his clients right now. It’s really hard for them to hire and retain good people, which means that they can’t operate their restaurants at full capacity. And because Matt is in the business of helping restaurants, you would think that he would say, “Yeah, this is terrible. Nobody wants to work anymore, these lazy people.” But that is not what he’s saying to his clients. Instead, he’s saying this.
Matt Plapp: At the end of the day, a lot of restaurants offer a crappy job.
Jason Feifer: And he’s telling it to their faces too.
Matt Plapp: And I had this exact conversation about four months ago with a guy that’s a customer and a friend, and he was having labor shortage problems. I said, “Can I be blunt with you?” He goes, “Yeah.” I go, “You wouldn’t have as big a labor short problems,” because everybody had them… “You wouldn’t have as big a problem right now if, number one, you had created an inviting atmosphere that people were attracted to.”
Jason Feifer: Which is to say the guy’s restaurant just wasn’t a nice place to work.
Matt Plapp: But the other part of that is actually make it to where people can have a career. I said, “Dude, you’ve been trying to find $8, $9, $10 an hour people. It’s not a career. You’ve had a bunch of stop gaps.” It’s almost University of Cincinnati here. Love the college, but every time they get a good football coach, the coach leaves because there’s no name waiting. There’s wherever the big university is because you sees a stop gap for football.
Jason Feifer: But it doesn’t have to be that way. And again, I want to be super clear. Matt is not the guy sitting around saying, screw the owner of this restaurant. He loves the owner of this restaurant. He is a champion of restaurant owners, but he also knows that when you pay people more and give them a better place to work, they stick around longer, which actually saves the restaurant owner money because now the restaurant doesn’t have to recruit and train new people as often, which makes the whole operation more efficient. This is the shift that we’re seeing. It’s not that people don’t want to work anymore. It’s that we’re having a conversation, and this is a continuation of a conversation that we’ve been having for a very long time, literally since the creation of work as we know it. And I am sure we’ll keep having this conversation for as long as work exists because work is not perfect, and not everyone agrees on what work should look like. And some people see work as a core part of their lives, and other people see work as a means to an end. And that’s all fine, all of it, because what we must remember is that no matter the change and no matter the time, the one thing that has remained consistent is that people work hard. And they do it even when they’re being accused of not wanting to work anymore.
Jason Feifer: At the beginning of this episode, I said that the phrase nobody wants to work anymore contained a partial truth but that it was missing a part. And when we could finally speak that part out loud and take it seriously, we’d be able to start solving some real problems. So what is it? What is that part? You probably know the answer by now, but I’ll just state it plainly to be sure. It is not true to say that nobody wants to work anymore. So what we need to do is add the phrase the way they once felt they had to. So let’s put it all together. Nobody wants to work the way they once felt they had to anymore. And that is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. It is a problem worth, solving and the closer we get to solving it, the more we can all accomplish together. So let’s get to hard work.
Jason Feifer: And that’s our episode. But hey, we have talked a lot about defining the problem with work today. But what does it actually look like to solve that problem on a very human level? I have one heartwarming story of a restaurant owner who did it for one of his best employees, which I will share in a moment. But first, if you love Build For Tomorrow, the podcast you’re listening to right now, then you will totally love Build For Tomorrow the book. It is written for anyone going through a big change in their life or work, and it will help you see that change as opportunity and then help you maximize it because big things are waiting as long as you’re able to see them. The book combines the smartest insights from this podcast with the smartest lessons that I have learned from entrepreneurs of today. You can get your copy now. Just go anywhere that sells books, or if for some reason you’re drawing a blank and you can’t think of a place that sells books, then go to JasonFeifer.com/book. And if you want even more advice and encouragement on how to adapt fast, sign up for my newsletter. You can find it by going to JasonFeifer.com/newsletter. You can also get in touch with me directly at my website, JasonFeifer.com, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @HeyFeifer.
Jason Feifer: This episode was reported by me, Jason Feifer, with help from Emily Holmes. The voice you heard reading all of our historical complaints was Gia Mora. You can find her at GiaMora.com. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at BabypantsMusic.com. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help. And again, major kudos to Paul Fairie of the University of Calgary, who originally found and tweeted all those historical quotes. Thanks also to Troy Petrie for tweeting the attributions. This show is supported in part by the Stand Together Trust. The Stand Together Trust believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that’s you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit StandTogetherTrust.org.
Jason Feifer: All right. Now, as promised, let’s warm some hearts. When I talked with Matt Plapp of America’s Best Restaurants, he told me this great story of a restaurant owner that he’d met. The guy had a great employee who abruptly put in his two weeks notice, and the owner just couldn’t figure out why.
Matt Plapp: And he said, “Hey, I’m curious, man. You’re a great worker here. We value you. I feel like you enjoy your job. Why are you leaving?” He said, “Well, the route changed, the buses. And the bus no longer comes here, and I don’t have a car.” He’s like, “What do you mean? You’ve been working here seven, eight years.” “I know. I take the bus, or I walk.” And he says, “I just can’t do it anymore.” “I want you to stay here. Do you have a license?” “Yeah.” “I’ll buy you a car.” And he went and bought him a car. And I was blown away because that right there, if he would’ve just taken the two weeks, “Okay, cool. See ya.” No, he asked the question. And I think that to me, we were saying all fair. We were talking. I said, “I think the pandemic shined a light that a lot of…” The people are out there to work.
Jason Feifer: Now, can every employer buy every employee a car? No, of course not. But can everyone think more about how to invest in their best talent because that investment will pay off for everyone? Yes. So hey, that’s the end of this episode, which maybe means this podcast host just doesn’t want to work anymore. You can be the judge. Thanks for listening. I’m Jason Feifer, and let’s keep building for tomorrow.