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I flew to Nashville two weeks ago and landed at the airport late in the evening. By the time I arrived at my accommodations in the suburbs, all the restaurants were closed. But I happened to drive by a Thai restaurant with its lights on and people still inside, so I knocked on the door. A young woman answered, and I explained to her my plight: I had traveled all day, I’d just landed, I should have bought food at the airport but I didn’t, and now I was incredibly hungry. She replied that they were closed. But a gentleman behind her overheard us and asked, “Do you like fried rice?” I said that I did. “What kind of meat do you like?” “Chicken, if you have it,” I answered. He waved me inside. “He’ll make something for you,” she said.

I sat down and we struck up a conversation. The woman was born in Laos and immigrated to the U.S. in 2006. Her family owned the restaurant, so I asked how it had been during the pandemic. It was tough early on with mandated closures, she said. They barely made it through. But what followed had been even worse. Open normal hours, they could not get supplies. They ordered all their ingredients from Thailand, and everything was now delayed and three times as expensive. When it arrived at customs, it sat at the ports for weeks before it was delivered. As a result, they were struggling to make ends meet. The worst part? “We can’t find anyone to work,” she said.

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This refrain was echoed by the young man who made the food: there were no employees. The two of them and one other person basically ran the restaurant by themselves. They worked 10 hours per day, 7 days per week. They could not hire servers. They could not hire cooks. They could no longer serve sushi because they could not find any sushi chefs. “No one wants to work,” they both lamented. It had been like that for months.

I’d heard this refrain earlier in the day at the Miami airport, where I had my layover. In the USO lounge, a gentleman who owned a construction company in Cleveland was speaking to an elderly USO volunteer. The volunteer was lamenting that no one wanted to work at the airport. The construction manager said he could not find workers for construction jobs. I also heard this from people in Nashville during my trip: businesses could not find employees; hospitals could not find nurses. I’ve heard this in Washington, D.C., where there are no contractors to work on homes. I’ve heard it in Philadelphia. I’ve heard it in New York. I’ve read about it in the news, whether it be Target, or Walmart or Amazon. Across the country, millions of people are dropping out of the labor force. People do not want to return to work.

Anecdotes and media reports cannot fully diagnose such a complex issue. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, and I’m certainly not an economist or a sociologist. Yet, in beginning to wrap my mind around this phenomenon, I couldn’t help but think about my own experience. For four years, I worked at an institution that showed little concern for its employees. Mold in offices went un-remediated. Water leaking into people’s work spaces went un-repaired. Harassment, abuse and anti-Semitism festered. During the pandemic, before a vaccine was available, some staff were told to report to work and sign waivers stating that if they contracted COVID-19 they would not pursue legal action against the employer. After years of such treatment, my wife and I decided 2020 would be my final year. The pandemic had made it crystal clear to us: why should I work endlessly and tirelessly, risking my health and well-being, for an institution that cared so little about me?

I’ve heard similar refrains from people in many walks of life over the past two years. Harassment and abuse seem to be common in academia, government, hospitals, schools, law firms, tech companies, construction firms and service jobs. Employees are constantly mistreated and released by management seemingly without compunction. When the pandemic hit and people were told to stay home, receiving unemployment checks and stimulus payments to do so, many decided not to return. Some pundits have dubbed this the “Great Resignation.” But I suspect something more profound may be going on.

For years, American workers—particularly in middle- and lower-class jobs—have been growing frustrated with America’s unrelenting capitalism. People have been working more and earning less. Union protections have been degraded (see previous History Club newsletter). Wages have been stagnant. Health insurance has become more expensive. Increased housing costs, increased student loans and increased medical bills have diminished people’s abilities to save, invest and retire. All the while employees are asked to work longer hours and produce more. Meanwhile, CEOs and venture capitalists flaunt $1 billion dollar valuations and record-breaking IPOs. Amazon workers fought tooth-and-nail to earn $15 an hour; meanwhile Jeff Bezos spent more than $500 million per year to blast celebrities into space. Something isn’t adding up.

The pandemic hit amid this growing unrest. Companies furloughed millions of workers and told millions more to work from home. Those workers are now collectively and individually asking themselves, ‘Is this the way it has to be?’ ‘Why slave away for companies who overwork us, see us as expendable, mistreat us, deny us raises, and cut our health insurance?’ The pandemic has shown how fragile life can be, and how the status quo offers few protections. It’s not only a Great Resignation; it’s a modern-day Great Awakening.

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Americans are also realizing there are other ways to make money, enabled by new technologies: rent a home on AirBnB; drive for Lyft or Uber; deliver for Door Dash; stream content on Twitch or OnlyFans; or launch an e-commerce business using Shopify. Numerous media stories have interviewed people who’ve left their hourly wage jobs to work from home and control their own schedules, often times making more money in the process. Most importantly, people feel they no longer have to be exploited by companies who would lay them off in an instant if it would improve their bottom line. If given the choice between helping a CEO make millions of dollars and, staying home, working fewer hours, and having a better quality of life, many people are choosing the latter.

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Then there is cryptocurrency. I spoke to someone who made $3,000 speculating in Doge coin. (Requisite disclaimer: nothing in this column is financial advice, and Doge coin is a risky, volatile shit coin with no underlying value). We calculated that it would take someone earning $15 per hour five weeks to earn that equivalent amount of money. When the choices are: (1) stand on one’s feet for 8 hours per day and serve French fries to grumpy customers while getting berated by management for five weeks, versus (2) stay at home and speculate in cryptocurrency, the choice becomes clear for many. Crypto has also empowered individuals to create their own economies. Readers of this newsletter will be familiar with my $JASON coin, my cryptocurrency hosted on the Rally network. Through creator coins, social tokens and NFTs, people are creatively using Web 3.0 tools to build, connect, and economize their personalities and communities, distributing wealth through rewards, trading assets, and incentivizing behaviors that build community—all without leaving the house, spending money on gas, or getting belittled by customers or supervisors.

Large employers who want people to return to work now realize they must do better. Not better solely for white collar workers graduating from Yale Law School or Stanford Business School, but all workers. Higher salaries. Better working conditions. Student loan forgiveness or tuition assistance. Stock options. Yearly bonuses. Affordable health insurance. Generous retirement plans with matching contributions. Flexible schedules. Child care and elder care. And, critically, more compassion. More compassion in the work place, more compassion from managers and supervisors, and more compassion for what Americans are currently living through. We not only need a “creator economy”; we need a “compassion economy.”

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But where does this leave my new friends in the Nashville suburbs, the immigrant restaurant owners struggling to get by? Even if they could find workers, paying them more would further eat into their slim profit margins. They need food prices to come down, and for the overseas supply chain to ramp up to pre-pandemic levels. That will reduce their costs and hopefully allow them to entice employees. But reduced prices and faster supply chains often mean exploiting labor overseas, forcing families abroad to work harder to keep up with our demands in the U.S. That does not seem like a sustainable solution.

The good news is there is plenty of private and public money to address these inequities. It just needs to be redirected towards more urgent problems. Instead of sending celebrities into space, bankrolling media companies that turn out to be Ponzi schemes, or buying third and fourth houses on private islands, perhaps the wealthiest among us could use their brilliant minds and trillions of dollars to solve some of these pressing issues. Maybe they could show a little more compassion for what small business owners and employees are facing, and not appear so callous and out-of-touch to the struggles of the 99 percent.

One thing seems clear: the pandemic, coupled with new technologies and decades-long frustrations with the status quo, have propelled Americans to look elsewhere for fulfillment, purpose and income. 

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That presents an opportunity for a re-imagined brand of American capitalism that has empathy and caring at its heart, like the caring and empathy shown to me by the immigrant restaurant owners outside Nashville late one-night two weeks ago. Let’s call it the “Compassion Economy.”* And what better time to usher it in than in the New Year.

Have a happy, healthy and compassionate New Year.

Jason Steinhauer
History Club