The Pink-Collar Worker Crisis

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The first time I heard the phrase “pink collar worker” was two days ago from The Atlantic, which published fascinating data on what it describes as mass burnout among nurses, childcare workers, teachers, and other women-dominated professions. The phrase itself dates from the 1970s—the female version of “blue collar” one supposes—and I’m oddly surprised it is still around given our times.

Regardless, the thesis is consistent with everything I’ve observed in these pages about the crisis in labor markets generally.

Author Annie Lowrey writes:

“In a recent American Psychological Association Work and Well-Being Survey, large proportions of American workers said that they felt stressed on the job (79 percent), plagued by physical fatigue (44 percent), cognitive weariness (36 percent), emotional exhaustion (32 percent), and a lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26 percent). Such measures are up significantly since the pandemic hit.”

It’s only superficially true that this problem is pandemic-related. Lockdown disruptions and the mass closing of business—the egregious and wholly unconstitutional taking of liberty and property rights that dragged on for months and then two years—has something to do with it. People turned to weed, liquor, and drugs. The Fentanyl crisis predates this disaster but was much worsened by it.

Lockdowns and then vaccine mandates on working-age populations that did not need vaccines was utterly dehumanizing. It disturbed the liturgy of life, such that everything people thought they were supposed to do—get up and get to work building a better life—suddenly became impossible and even illegal. Bodily autonomy was thrown out the window in service of fake science.

One might suppose that a journalist would point this out, but our author knows the rules of mainstream American journalism, which pretty much comes down to: never mention the unbearably obvious because then readers might start asking some fundamental questions. Among them might be: how and why did the ruling class do this to the population knowing full well the social, cultural, and economic carnage it would create?

In any case, here is the data:

“Although the economy has recovered nearly every job that it lost earlier in the pandemic, the U.S. has nearly 100,000 fewer child-care workers, a loss of 12 percent. About 300,000 fewer nurses are on the job, down roughly 10 percent. And 570,000 fewer educators are working in public schools, a decline of 7 percent; schools across the country are reporting a record 40,000 vacancies. Workers remaining on the job feel miserable. More than half of teachers say they are contemplating quitting, as are nine in 10—nine in 10!—nurses.”

Again, in this genre of writing, just replace the word “pandemic” with lockdowns and it starts to make sense. There is another factor at work here having to do with vaccine mandates, which is another unmentionable topic in polite mainstream journalism.

These nurses were on the front lines caring for COVID patients, which they did dutifully based on a sense of personal mission. But several awful things happened. U.S. policy put a priority on intubating patients for reasons no one entirely understands. For thousands or tens of thousands, this was a death sentence. I wrote about this and was flooded with some of the most heartbreaking personal stories I’ve ever read. Murder is a word that kept coming back to me as I read.

Apparently, there was a belief that putting patients on ventilators was the best method to keep COVID patients from spreading COVID into the air. Shove a tube down their windpipe and let a machine do the breathing so that COVID could nowhere escape. It was brutal and ghastly, and it’s astonishing to consider that there will be no justice for the victims’ families. In any case, nurses loathed presiding over such a disaster and many took to social media to point it out.

After that first long wave of infection, during which most nurses were exposed to the virus and gained natural immunity, they were then forced to accept a vaccine they did not need. This added injury to insult, and drove many to leave nursing entirely.

As for childcare, here is another level of outrage. They were forcibly shut all over the country and many states even enforced rules against parents taking the kids next door for a playdate. That led professional women to leave the workforce to take care of kids. Those of school age had nowhere to be and childcare was gone.

Already an overly regulated industry dominated by too few firms with connections to state and federal bureaucracies that control them in the name of “safety,” there has been an unnecessary childcare shortage growing for decades. Then suddenly what was left of the industry was dealt a horrid blow with lockdowns and then vaccine mandates.

And of course we can talk about teachers. Those in private school are already paid far less than the market would bear simply because the economics of private school are hobbled by competition with public provision. Meanwhile, public school teachers have been burdened for many years by an officious administrative bureaucracy and politicized curricula requirements. The testing regime that emerged in the 1990s took away teacher discretion and gutted their opportunities to actually teach. Nor are they allowed to discipline unruly kids.

So when the lockdowns came, many teachers welcomed them and wanted them prolonged. They got a taste of what it was like to earn a paycheck while checking in on email and Zoom from time to time and did not want to give it up. This of course was a disaster for the students, and an entire generation has been deeply scarred by it all.

We could tell much the same story about restaurant servers. I’m amazed any lasted at all through the great masking craze. Tips must have crashed, since no one wants to be served by someone who looks like a bandit.

Overall, labor force participation has not recovered from lockdowns. But the whole disaster disproportionately harmed women workers, who left the workforce in greater numbers than men simply to care for children. Even right now, as participation is rising for men, it is falling again for women. It’s utterly beyond me why this incredible trend has not received more attention.

Labor force participation among women is down to 56.8 percent—which is exactly where it stood 34 years ago in 1988. This was the point at which it became more common than not for women to choose both family and career. In other words, this is 34 years of what is often called “feminist progress” reversed—but without much comment from elite opinion.

More broadly, there is a rising problem of quitting in professions where people can easily move from job to job—hospitality and leisure—while the professional class of white-collar Zoomers has become increasingly clingy toward their paychecks. It’s understandable as layoffs in the tech sector grow and job opportunities in professional services are dropping like a stone, even while they are plentiful in blue- and pink-collar service professions.

Epoch Times Photo
(Data: Federal Reserve Economic Data [FRED], St. Louis Fed; Chart: Jeffrey A. Tucker)

Economies cannot grow this way or even function, at least not fairly or well.

I very much welcome all these efforts to disaggregate labor markets. After all, no one is dumb enough anymore to speak of “capital” as some homogenous aggregate. We know it is massively diffuse and diverse, differentiated by industry and complexity. So too for labor markets. It is not one thing but many things, and especially sensitive to regime changes because it is profoundly affected by human psychology and motivation.

Ask any employer and he or she will tell you. They can’t find workers to fit the job. There is plenty to do but few want to do it. So many have lost the will to build a better life. Combine all these dislocations with an enormous problem of substance abuse and you have the makings of a lasting crisis that is not easily fixed in one generation.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Jeffrey A. Tucker


Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute, and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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