Opinion | The reordering power of a recession may come as a shock to younger workers

We are not yet to the point where a recession is unquestionably in the cards. Yes, gross domestic product shrank last quarter, retail inventories are rising, stocks are in bear territory, and the housing market has had a whopping shock. But Friday’s jobs report showed the economy adding 372,000 jobs in June, well above expectations and enough to keep the unemployment rate at a very heartening 3.6 percent.

So I won’t say that a recession is in the offing. I will just say that it would be wise to start planning for one.

Those old enough to have survived at least one downturn — and that one was a doozy — probably know the basic drill: save, try to manage those fixed costs that can’t be easily adjusted (such as your car payment or mortgage), and be prepared to cut discretionary spending. (Do you really need five different streaming services?) But not so the under-35s, most of whom have never really known a world where the labor market doesn’t just keep getting better for them. Yes, there was a short, sharp spike in unemployment during the pandemic, but it resolved itself much faster than a normal recession — and in the meantime, extra unemployment benefits left many workers, especially the younger and lower-paid, financially better off than they had been when they were working.

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary explains how to reduce credit card debt as interest rates rise. (Video: Casey Silvestri / The Washington Post)

Those younger employees face a rude shock if the Federal Reserve is unable to engineer a soft landing and instead tips us into a significant recession. Many will discover for the first time the harsh world of a lengthy unemployment. Many more will see their workplaces change as the balance of power shifts back toward employers.

For example, employees who strongly prefer to work remotely are winning their battle with bosses who want them in the office every day. That seems likely to change as the labor market weakens. It’s easy to say, “Let me work remotely or I’ll walk ”when unemployment is under 4 percent and you know you can walk straight into another job. It’s a lot harder if the unemployment rate is pushing double digits. Too,“ I’ll walk ”might be sweet music to the ears of an employer in a cash crunch; enforcing in-office requirements could become a kinder, gentler substitute for layoffs.

Workers might also find employers a lot cooler to in-office activism. A great deal of commentary has been devoted to “woke capital” as a social phenomenon, tracing its roots to a younger, more progressive generation of workers greatly empowered by social media tools But workplace activism is also a kind of fringe benefit: In lieu of more pay or vacation time, employees get to demand that their employer reflect their ideological values ​​back to them.

It’s obviously easier to make those kinds of demands in a tight labor market, but it’s also easier for employers to grant those kinds of demands when the economy is booming and they can afford to offend some customers in the name of keeping the workplace peaceful. But a number of corporations have already cracked down on politics at the office, clearly having decided that the costs are too high: internal disruption, offended customers, indignant public officials with power over decisions that affect the core business. are scraping for every sale, those costs will loom even larger, while the risk of losing outraged employees will seem much less important.

There’s probably no real way for younger workers to prepare for that culture shock. Throughout their working lives, the professional workplace has grown steadily more progressive, more attentive to their feelings, more responsive to their demands. And that’s true even in industries that weren’t booming, such as journalism, because those employers had to compete with healthier sectors for workers.

It’s only natural to think of whatever you’ve always experienced as the natural order of things. (Notice how hard it was for any of us to believe that no, really, we moderns could still suffer a pandemic.) And as with any such shock, the adjustment won’t be a happy one.

But it might be a healthy one — if it makes all of us revisit the idea that every job has to be everything to us: paycheck, political vehicle, social network, social worker. We have been demanding that the workplace do things it’s not particularly suited for — and in exchange, it has demanded our whole lives.

It’s okay to work for an employer whose politics differ from your own — I’ve been doing it for two decades, and I write about politics for a living! It’s okay to have an employer that offers you only a paycheck, while you find your friends and personal fulfillment elsewhere. You can live a perfectly good life going to the office five days a week — then leaving it behind you as soon as the elevator doors close.

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