“No One Wants to Work” and Other Current Workplace Myths

As the US recovers from the COVID 19 pandemic, you may hear statements often repeated about the workforce and state of job prospects. I’ve heard several people in my personal life proclaim that “no one wants to work anymore” and “workers are going to be replaced by AI.” These statements may have some relationship with facts and trends, but are they actually true?

For the purpose of this post, I’ll use the term myth to describe them. Myths are not falsehoods – they’re rooted in some perceived phenomenon and try to explain why that phenomenon is happening. The examples below are doing just that and, while they may not be true, they’re telling a story about how the people saying it sees the world and the job force.

Myth #1: Everyone is quitting.

The Great Resignation has received a great deal of coverage from news media in the last couple of years when 47 million people voluntarily quit their jobs, but it’s not as simple as people just quitting their jobs. People quit jobs or change jobs every year, regardless of what’s happening in the world. While a record number of people did quit in 2021, historically they aren’t unheard of. There are also many factors to account for, such as retirement (especially with a large population of Baby Boomers leaving the workforce), restructuring within organizations, and employees relocating. Considering concerns surrounding Covid and stay at home regulations, people who were considering job changes or retirement likely did so sooner rather than later. Adding on to the loss of life, as well as the physical and mental impact of the pandemic, and it’s a lot more complicated than a large number of people leaving their jobs.

Myth #2: COVID 19 caused workplace burnout.

COVID 19 has had a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing, which cannot be understated – for example, the National Institutes of Health reported that over half of people studied were experiencing some symptoms of anxiety at that time. However, it didn’t single-handedly create workplace burnout – it made us more aware of it.

Burnout has been a topic in the mental health and occupational psychology field for some time. As a 2019 article form Harvard Business Review describes, burnout is about the workplace, not about the people. Under duress during the pandemic, some workplaces became a hotbed of eroded work-life balance, constantly changing and unclear expectations, dysfunctional dynamics, and lack of support. These are all causes of burnout as outlined by the Mayo Clinic. While 67% of workers agree that the pandemic made it worse, the possibility of burnout exists in any job if employees are not encouraged to take care of both their physical and mental wellbeing, and when companies experience great change. The silver lining with this myth is that the pandemic cause many organizations to take mental health care a great deal more seriously and open up to conversations about burnout that did not exist before.

Myth #3: No one wants to work.

There has been a lot of conversation about the perceived labor shortage that is affect the US. According the US Chamber of Commerce, there are roughly 9.9 million jobs open in the US but only 5.8 million unemployed workers. Companies who are struggling to find employees – especially in many roles that were considered front line during the pandemic – may see it as people simply refusing to work. But, as is the trend with these myths, it’s not that simple.

Firstly, there’s the fact that the pandemic had a real, devastating impact. Over 1.1 million people in the US died due to the pandemic as of writing this and, of the 103 million confirmed cases, there’s no clear data right now as to how many people experience long COVID or other COVID-related health issues that prevent them from reentering the workforce.

Inflation and the minimum wage being lower than it has in 66 years has also changed many people’s plans and perspectives. Some argue that people are not returning to work because there are no jobs they are qualified for that will pay them a living wage. With a decrease in job training once hired for a role, it is also harder for people to close the gap from one position to another. Besides that, there are issues with childcare access, causing some parents to stay at home with their kids instead of returning to work. Others have chosen to retire early, stay currently unemployed to open up their own business, or return to school for additional education and training. After possibly experiencing burnout or having had enough with a toxic work environment, employees are learning they can be more selective about where they want to work.

Lastly, there are a plethora of new jobs appearing each day – nearly 14,000 jobs a day being added, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With constant changes in fields of technology, healthcare, research and development, and so on, there are constantly new jobs being created that could not have even been conceived of a few years ago. Which bring us to…

Myth #4: AI is a job killer.

You could – and maybe will – write an entire dissertation on the complexities of AI and jobs. I will barely scrape the surface here, but wanted to include it as ChatGPT and other AI interfaces become more common.

It’s impossible to predict the future and humanity’s tension with technology is nothing new. What is new is the pace at which we are advancing technology and our need to balance between adaptability while also knowing our boundaries. Current perspectives around AI assure employees that AI will not replace most jobs – only some, and that will allow those human employees to move on to more complicated, interesting work. However, if training has been reduced, as discussed above, how will people who lose their jobs to AI move on to that work?

As of now, most AI can only do so much – it can sort people through options and respond to certain requests. It can “create” content by replicating information and other content pieces that have been created by humans. It is no surrogate for human behavior and needs a high amount of monitoring. It also is full of some of humanities worst qualities – because so many of those who work on coding AI are white cisgender men, there have been many systems that express racist, sexist, and ableist views. The ACLU outlines an number of ways AI can deepen racial and economic inequalities and the online independent book store supporter Bookshop.org has a list of books on AI, ethics, and social justice for those wanting to learn more. So what exactly with the future of AI look like? It depends if we can gather the complex nuances involved or if we press ahead quickly to resolve what is seen as a pressing issue.

Sources and Related Reading

The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic – Harvard Business Review

The Great Resignation in Perspective – US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Mental Health During the COVID 19 Pandemic – NIH.gov (National Institutes of Health)

Everyone is Quitting and Workforce Myths – Fast Company.com

Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People – Harvard Business Review

Burnout – Mayo Clinic

Employee Burnout Report – Indeed.com

Understanding America’s Labor Shortage – US Chamber of Commerce

COVID 19: US – WHO (World Health Organization)

The value of the federal minimum wage is at its lowest point in 66 years – Economic Policy Institute

There is no US labor shortage – The Guardian

This is a crisis point – Job Training – Politico

Young Workers No Longer Get the On-The-Job Training They Need – Entrepreneur.com

Is AI Really a Job Killer? – Forbes

How AI Can Deepen Racial and Economic Inequalities – ACLU

AI Ethics & Social Justice Book List – Bookshop.org

By Gina Musto
Gina Musto Program Manager, Career Services