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The brief Age of the Worker is over — employers have the upper hand again

By May 7, 2023No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)

It seems that it was only yesterday that the media was filled with stories about workers calling the shots. There were the work-from-homers who refused to come back to the office after the pandemic was long over. There were the “quiet quitters” who proudly — and publicly — admitted that, even though they were collecting a paycheck from their employer they weren’t doing much at all during the day except looking for another job. And then there’s the group of workers who were advocating for “bare minimum Mondays” because apparently, a five-day workweek was just too much to bear.

During the past few years, we’ve heard employees publicly demand unlimited paid time off, four-day workweeks, wellness sabbaticals, gigantic bonuses to switch jobs and even “pawternity leave” — getting time off when you adopt a puppy. Facing labor shortages, customer demands and supply chain headaches, most employers caved. The Age of the Worker blossomed.

That age is at its sunset. The economy has slowed, costs have risen and capital is drying up. Companies are now being forced to do what they need to do to maintain profits and please their shareholders. And that something is always the same: cut some heads.

In just the past few months Google’s parent Alphabet cut 12,000 jobs, Salesforce cut 10% of its global staff, Amazon eliminated 27,000 workers, Disney got rid of 7,000 people and Accenture terminated 19,000. Accounting firm E&Y reduced workers by 3,000, FedEx announced that 10% of its global workforce are being shipped out, Dow lost 2,000 people and 3M fired 8,500 workers. And these are just the big companies making the news. Lyft fired 1,000 workers and ordered the remaining ones back to the office. There are countless other examples of companies — both big and small — either cutting workers or freezing their hiring plans.

According to Google Trends, keyword searches for “ quiet quitting” and “ bare minimum mondays “ have decreased by more than 90%.

Employers aren’t hearing it either. Meanwhile, and as I’ve written previously, robotics, AI and other automation technologies at companies big and small are permanently replacing workers at a breakneck pace. “Robots, already prominent in logistics operations, are steadily taking on tasks that previously required humans,” writes Greg Nichols on tech platform ZDNet.

For those that remain, the workplace has become a little less friendly. Gone are the 1,300 “micro-kitchens” at Google which “brim with dried seaweed, turkey jerky, kombucha, and other eclectic treats”. In addition to cutting 10% of its global staff, Goldman Sachs scaled back on commuting reimbursements and free meals. Meta has done away with free laundry services and shuttles. Salesforce has discontinued the use of “specialty-coffee baristas” and “cut ties with Trailblazer Ranch, a 75-acre wellness retreat that mixed skills training with yoga and hiking”.

Back are tougher performance reviews at Meta and Salesforce based on … well … actual performance. More employers than ever are now implementing surveillance software to actually document how hard their employees are working from home when they say they’re working from home.

Does any of this surprise a business owner like myself? Nope. Throughout the pandemic we watched as employees raged against — and demonized — their employers. And they had success. Employers hunkered down and opened up their wallets because what other choice did we have? But if there’s one thing that an experienced business owner knows is that everything is cyclical. Employees had their day. Now the pendulum has swung back.

For workers, I know I sound harsh. So please consider this as tough love advice. The economy has slowed. You’ve lost your leverage. But, like any asset, if you’re providing a good ROI for your employer you should have nothing to worry about. So are you?

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