It’s not the jobs, stupid

We could be heading towards the first full-employment recession. Here's why that changes everything, according to Jobs for the Future CEO Maria Flynn.

Gen-Z workers are more likely to care about who their colleagues are and what their day-to-day will look like than about salary. John Smith—VIEWpress/Getty Images

During a career with the U.S. Department of Labor that spanned 16 years and three very different administrations, White House workforce priorities rarely wavered: jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

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During a career with the U.S. Department of Labor that spanned 16 years and three very different administrations, White House workforce priorities rarely wavered: jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

From Clinton’s “work first” policies to the Bush-era tax cuts, helping more people get jobs has been a cornerstone of U.S. politics for decades. However, as we teeter toward the nation’s first “full-employment recession” that conventional wisdom may no longer hold true.  

During the midterm elections, winning candidates were quick to acknowledge that the promise of more jobs and a stronger economy wasn’t the political panacea that it used to be. In its absence, everyone from Marco Rubio to embraced the call for not just jobs, but e “good jobs” as a part of their political rhetoric. 

What changed?

First, just having a job no longer equates to financial security. Fifty years ago, one full-time minimum-wage salary was enough to sustain a family of three. Today, that family would be well below the poverty line, and estimates suggest that even a $15 minimum wage is often not enough to cover the cost of living, especially for families. The pressure of rising prices on everything from houses to consumer goods is fueling economic uncertainty for American voters. Federal and state wage policies have lagged behind the pace of inflation for decades, and workers are bearing the burden.

Second, people expect more from their employers. Gen-Z and Millennial workers now comprise half of the U.S. population–and will make up nearly one-third of the workforce by 2030. Young workers prioritize flexibility and mission alignment more than their older peers. Gen-Z and Millennial workers are more likely to care about who their colleagues are and what their day-to-day will look like than about salary.

Not only are employers struggling to find qualified and skilled talent, but they are also grappling with growing dissatisfaction among workers and rising quit rates at nearly every rung on the corporate ladder. Even executives are leaving their jobs at higher rates, which experts have attributed to growing stress and dissatisfaction.

Finally, workers have discovered alternatives to traditional jobs. Estimates suggest that even before the pandemic, so-called nonstandard workers (gig, hourly, and other part-time employees–made up about a third of the labor force. That number now likely falls well short of the current total.

Early in the pandemic, frontline workers in major segments of the economy–such as hospitality, retail, and restaurants–were laid off. Many felt burned. Out of necessity, they found alternatives: hotel workers became Instacart shoppers. Waiters became Uber drivers. The gig economy exploded. Fast-forward and many of those workers haven’t gone back. In many cases, they’re now earning more, and with greater flexibility.

With such narrow margins in both the House and Senate, the platform that captures the hearts and minds of voters will have to embrace the rhetoric of not just economic security, but economic mobility. In the words of former Amazon executive Ardine Williams, “career progression is the new minimum wage.”

Savvy employers are already showing workers a pathway to not just their first job, but the next job. McDonald’s is famous for its “Best First Job” campaign, and Chipotle recently made headlines for its goal of being the “fastest path to the middle class.”

Americans are now looking to a divided Congress to create not just jobs, but the sort of “good jobs” that lead to wage gains and a better quality of life.

Creating good jobs is no small task. Despite the Fed’s efforts to cool the economy, the labor market remains remarkably tight. In an ironic twist, last month’s stronger-than-anticipated jobs numbers actually sent stocks plummeting amidst fears that persistent low unemployment will lead to even more aggressive Fed policy.  

Of course, this new language will also require a clearer articulation of what good jobs actually are. During a recent visit to my parents in a battleground state, campaign ads for good jobs offered scant details on what that meant or what tangible policies would help us get there.

Fortunately, labor and workforce experts are hard at work figuring out what job quality should look like. Consensus is starting to form around some important principles, like those put forth by Aspen Institute’s Good Jobs Champions Group and the federal government itself. It’s time to start determining what those principles should look like in practice.

Maria Flynn is the president and CEO of Jobs for the Future.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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