Biden’s real challenge not China but an antiwork generation
Published: Nov 24, 2021 06:13 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When Washington set Beijing as the US' "most serious competitor," think tankers in the White House failed to anticipate that a domestic problem, lurking under the surface of US society, finally started to erupt. 

Due to the epidemic, the challenge has come earlier and more fiercely. More and more young Americans do not want to become "captive" to their works. Their attitude toward job is completely different from that of their predecessors. An antiwork storm is coming.

Unfortunately, this storm occurred just when the $1 trillion infrastructure bill was about to be implemented. US President Joe Biden is facing a generation of young Americans who are rethinking the significance of work. In May, Business Insider published an article entitled, "The truth behind America's labor shortage is we're not ready to rethink work."

Imported goods continue to flow into US ports and airports. However, the country, which does not lack highways, is now unable to deliver gifts for Christmas to homes due to lack of drivers and stevedores. 

The US transportation industry is confronting its worst labor shortage in four years, with a shortage of around 60,000 drivers.

This is not only a problem of a certain industry. According to the US Department of Labor, 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August, leaving the number of open jobs at more than 10 million, slightly lower than the 11.1 million in July. And the number of people quitting in September reached 4.4 million in September. This is the highest number in 20 years.

The desire to obtain a higher-paid job is apparently not the only reason. Two years ago, while hiring truck drivers, Walmart offered them a salary of nearly $90,000 a year. A friend of mine who used to be a truck driver explained the "mystery" behind such a generous offer: Who from today's young Americans wants to do this kind of hard work?

There are also many other reasons. Some people want better health insurance, and some older employees who had lost their jobs during the epidemic decided to retire early. Many people prefer a flexible work schedule and remote work. Some employees haven't got used to the fixed work schedule after coming back to work after the epidemic.

In an article "Even with a dream job, you can be antiwork" published in the New York Times in October, the author Farhad Manjoo argued that "in its sudden rearrangement of daily life, the pandemic might have prompted many people to entertain a wonderfully un-American new possibility - that our society is entirely too obsessed with work, that employment is not the only avenue through which to derive meaning in life and that sometimes no job is better than a bad job."

The young American generation's view on work is obviously changing. While the older generation treats work as the foundation of life and family happiness, the new generation sees working for the paycheck as a "prison for the mind and soul" and such a mental prison must be broken.

The result of the change of the mindset is that on the one hand, there has appeared a labor shortage, but on the other, a large number of Americans are waiting for a job that is more suitable for them. According to a September survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), the largest small business association in the US, a record 51 percent of small business owners reported job openings they were unable to fill.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing the joy of work and seeking a "meaningful" job. However, when such an atmosphere is permeating the whole society, who is going to fulfill President Biden's infrastructure plan? Will there be more young Americans who are willing to engage in boring, repetitive low-paid jobs in logistics, catering, manufacturing and other industries, or do heavy physical work?

The US antiwork movement constitutes a sharp contrast with the scene in China, where tens of thousands of Chinese workers are sticking to work in construction, transportation, epidemic prevention and manufacturing amid the COVID-19 epidemic.

The development of a country depends to a large extent on the work spirit of its people. Whether the goals of institutions and the government to boost the economy can be achieved also depends on people's willingness to make efforts to this end. If there really is a competitive relationship between China and the US, what's important next is how the young people of the two countries treat their jobs respectively. 

Dear readers, do you really believe this US problem can be solved by making China a major competitor?

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina