Back in 2015, writer Ashlee Vance reported in his biography of Elon Musk that the Tesla boss, when asked by his assistant for a raise, told him to take a few weeks off and then let him go instead because, in his time off, he realized he didn't need him.
The multibillionaire later said the story was bogus, but it still provides an uncomfortable yet crucial moral for workers: It is not enough to make yourself useful. You must make yourself necessary, lest your employer figure out how to replace you with a cheaper alternative.
The conclusion of this Musk legend is playing out in real time, as an explosion of abysmal fiscal and monetary policy triggers the acceleration of a fourth Industrial Revolution. Millions of jobs, by design, will be sacrificed for good.
Of 463 people polled by Morning Consult who are on unemployment insurance despite earning a job offer, 13% cited having enough money from unemployment to not need to work, and another 14% cited child care obligations. That translates nationally to 1.8 million people and 2 million people respectively who have turned down jobs thanks to two direct policies enacted and enabled by Democrats: the unemployment insurance extended by President Joe Biden and Congress and the school closures forced by the teachers unions.
Morning Consult frames this as a reason to hope that some 2 million jobs will be restored by the year's end, but time may already be running out for would-be workers gambling that their employers can survive without them. As investors bake continuously rising inflation expectations into the market and debt remains cheap thanks to the Fed continuing its decade-plus commitment to near-zero interest rates, employers are considering more permanent solutions to their worker problem.
Employees are currently working 4.3% fewer hours than they did before the pandemic, yet our economic output for the first quarter of this year was only 0.5% less than that of the end of 2019. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal report worthy reading in full, the pandemic compelled companies such as Raytheon and Dave & Buster's to expedite their existing automation timelines, allowing them to exchange the cost and hassle of human employees permanently for the more predictable cost of technology. Hotels are another example of businesses that will adopt some social distancing measures permanently — Hilton, for example, will keep providing housekeeping only on request, allowing them to pay for fewer workers and fewer shifts.
Whether involuntarily because of child care obligations forced by school closures or voluntarily, as evidenced by those 13% staying on UI out of sheer convenience, millions of workers are gambling that their employers will still need them. Surely, plenty will return to the job, but others will find their bet on their necessity a disastrous bust.
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