I was born in 1982. Finding stable and lucrative employment from my teens until my mid-30s was not easy.
I entered the federal civilian workforce as a GS-05 in 2011 but was furloughed 3 times in 12 months, so I left for the private sector, returning in 2016 – as a GS-05 again – then got furloughed before entering a Pathways program for recent graduates on a GS-09/11 ladder. While it took 4 years to get to GS-12, it took less than 2 to 13, and barely a year to 14.
Going from GS-05 to GS-14 ( ≈ $45k to $136k) tripled my income in 7 years, and mostly happened during COVID. Both the pandemic and workplace demographics came together to create our current situation. For me personally, getting an MBA in Accounting was also part of the equation, but for this article, we will mostly discuss:
- Why work seemed so hard to get for a generation
- “Sudden shortages” in the workforce after 2020
- Next generation outlook
Was It Really Harder to Get a Job a Few Years Ago?
In looking at many professions, yes, it seems that it used to be harder to get a job.
In 2022, my 16-year-old daughter was able to work full-time through the summer at a public pool despite having never been a lifeguard before. That year, lifeguarding across New York State was being heavily promoted with raised pay, lower age requirements, and employers paying for training. This past summer there was still a “desperate need.”
The sudden need for workers is in stark contrast to when people were told they needed to relocate and how there were no teaching jobs. When I was in graduate school in 2015, a dean spoke out against taking another class of education majors, asking, “Where are they going to work?” The answer was other states and countries.
Someone I served with in the Marines was working at a mall after she got out and was struggling financially. She’s been an English teacher in Korea for about 10 years now.
A good friend of mine could not lock down a permanent job as a math teacher on Long Island, so she went to Florida but hated it, came back to try again, and then later went to Ohio. She’s about 40 and this year started her new job on Long Island.
My personal experience as a teen and adult was that it was difficult to find a job. Typically, I’d work 2 days a week from ages 13-18.
At 19 I took the test to be a GS-04 clerk, and the room was packed with people far more experienced than me. Why? Demographics.
Older people who traditionally left the workforce kept working, and there was a stock market crash in early 2001 followed by the 9/11 attacks. This sent many people looking for the security of a good government job – if they could just get their foot in the door.
Things didn’t change much until 2020.
The oldest Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) will turn 60-78 next year. Many who left in 2020 were already able to retire but stayed after setbacks in 2008. This was part of why many Millennials continued to find it hard to make good salaries despite approaching age 30 with a college degree and military experience – so many much more capable people also needed jobs. But when COVID-19 hit, those who had been working for 40+ years took a good look at their situation and found (a) their home was worth a fortune, (b) the stock market was way up, (c) they qualified for Social Security, and (d) they didn’t want to die at their desk.
The current situation has been coming for a long time in the federal workforce. From 2017-2019 I sat in on annual meetings about Treasury labor statistics. Every year the results were that the average employee was eligible for retirement and people felt like they could not advance in their careers. Where I worked, this was especially true because most employees were lawyers who had maxed out the pay chart.
So, there we were, stuck in a workforce glut that included millions of people who could retire but would not.
Outside the IRS, I experienced this at Suffolk Community College. It was hard for me to get a course to teach some semesters because older, more senior, professors could poach a course assigned to me if they wanted it. This included a professor who did not know how to teach Excel or QuickBooks (to accounting students).
This demographic shift gave leverage to employees which confused a lot of people. In their confusion, they were saying things like, “No one wants to work anymore.” Some felt that the answer was to “hire older workers,” completely missing the point that they are the actual group that doesn’t want to work and that the more capable younger people are not going to give so much for so little anymore.
For example, when one of my daughters was in high school, she showed up to start her first day at a restaurant and came immediately back to the car.
“Wrong day?” I asked, figuring there’d been a miscommunication.
“No,” she said. “They want me to work for free for two weeks for training.”
I worked for free in the past, and employers who are still trying to get away with this are very well represented by Gina Gershon in this 1-minute clip from “Emily the Criminal.” In it, she explains to Aubrey Plaza how competitive things are. Plaza rejects the offer to work full-time for free, and sums it up very well when she’s told to stop talking when she replies with, “If you want to tell me what to do, put me on the payroll.”
My daughter doesn’t have to put up with working for free right now because of the sudden shortages across most industries, some of which are very desirable jobs. One summer, my oldest was hired by our town as a full-time gardener working 7:00-3:00, Monday to Friday, with PTO and holidays, which is not a job she could have gotten in 2015.
“Sudden Shortages” in the Workforce After 2020
My oldest is now a junior studying environmental science. While already working 20 hours a week at her university’s marine lab, she met with another professor regarding opportunities to study landfills. He said that he has only ever hired Ph.D. candidates, and then gave her a start date with a pay rate of $20/hour. She asked for a job and got it – just as this Onion clip said that 95% of grandpas did in the old days.
After 2020, teachers who may have normally worked another few years left because either they or their spouses were at higher risk of COVID-19 infection. This also pertains to the previously noted lifeguarding, where in my community a good deal of them had been pension-stacking teachers.
When I was a teen, it was hard to get into lifeguarding because there was more supply of people wanting to do it than there was need. But when public pools opened in 2022, wariness of illness favored the young and strong, and so it cost my daughter nothing to become a certified lifeguard, a job in which she made thousands of dollars.
In one federal agency where a friend of mine works, they have 40 vacancies out of 200 positions. He expects them to all be filled by December 31 but also expects there to be 10 retirements and 10 more people leaving by the middle of next year.
A good example of how the pandemic affected classrooms took place at the University of Georgia where an 88-year-old professor quit mid-class. Where I teach, it seemed like many older adjuncts would never leave, but when COVID hit some only wanted to teach online. Then Brightspace replaced Blackboard as the online interface and they didn’t want to learn how to use it.
They wanted the job on their own terms beyond the point of reason, and so they had to make 1 of 3 choices: Come into the classroom, learn the new technology, or leave.
When Brightspace came out, I didn’t want to learn how to use it either, but I wanted to teach, so I volunteered to be among the first group to meet the new standard. Next year there will be a whole class of graduates proficient with it, and they will be able to easily replace those who refuse at a lower pay rate.
This is all part of the next-gen outlook.
Younger people are a lot smarter than I was at their age. I’ve seen this at home and in the classroom.
These thoughts are shared across the political and intellectual spectrums. Some say they lack “soft skills,” but some just know better than to play politics when they have better options (such as my daughter leaving that restaurant without wasting her time trying to talk about it, or the character played by Aubrey Plaza in the clip above), which, when you think about it, has always been an issue with smart people – they can be blunt because they don’t want to waste their precious time. Add in that they can find jobs much more easily at their age than Millennials were able to, and they’ll have more experience sooner with the stability of younger leaders to guide them.
While some Millennials worked full summers for free, Zoomers are getting good pay. A family friend of mine is 20 and spent the summer on a paid internship with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), making enough to support himself modestly while living away from home. He’s back in school and his supervisor said the job is his if he wants it upon graduation.
Another spent last year at a major consulting firm that she now works for making more than I did when I was 35 with an MBA. These are not Ivy Leaguers in business school; they are undergrads at public universities.
As older people continue to leave the workforce, young people will be heavily recruited to fill the gaps. Middle-aged workers, such as myself, will be promoted. Young people will be brought in under them.
But it won’t last forever, especially with tech changes.
Tech Changes in the Workforce
Investments in artificial intelligence (AI) are proving to be tricky at the moment. Just as ChatGPT is not ready to “replace all coders and content creators” and won’t help lazy lawyers become good ones, tech is on a track to at least be useful.
Last year I was on a team that was testing an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) chatbot. In my own testing, I found it to be perfect about 85% of the time when I spoke clearly and stuck to the script. 85% while helping the system along is useless, so IRS customer service jobs are currently secure. However, once that software is helpful close to 100% of the time, retirees from customer service are less likely to be replaced. The same thing could happen for some in a department where manual entries are made. This means that trained accountants may be phased out of certain types of work.
There is a good deal of precedent here, and to find it all you need to do is visit a bank branch. There are fewer tellers because we do our own banking. There are fewer loan officers, particularly because 2 people in New York City can be replaced by 1 in Houston, Texas. People prefer to handle this sort of thing online or over the phone rather than to have to dress up and go into a bank.
A Final Note
What inspired me to write this article was a recent call I received asking if I’d like to apply to be a federal agent. I’ve actually applied to be a federal agent 3 times – at ages 26, 34, and 37 – once making it to the interview stage. This particular position was described to me as investigative, and sometimes international in nature. So, a spy.
I want to do it, but mostly as a matter of pride and ego. Among my foolish notions are that I might get back into my former athletic shape and also that I might be the oldest person to ever graduate from FLETC. Even more foolish than that, I’d be taking a pay cut, putting off the Ph.D. program I just started, and risking my relationships with my kids who need me more now than they did when they were younger.
It was surprising, and flattering, to get a call like that on the far end of 41, but that’s where the workforce is right now – old guys are being asked if they still want to be field agent spies. And yes, of course we do!
We also want to play sports, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. Now that I’m back on a D-I university campus, I can’t help but think of how I still have 3 years of NCAA eligibility. However, they do not have a rifle team, and short of their swim team simply having no divers, I doubt I could offer a meaningful contribution…maybe shot put? I searched the strength-based field events, and in my mind, I could work my way up to being competitive. I say this as someone who has never previously done the shot put and currently grunts as he gets into his car and off of the couch.
For those who have been discouraged by job searches recently, I’m telling you to apply.
Your country needs you, and you can finally tap into some incredible career trajectory with all of the opportunities out there. For those looking to make an initial move in a new direction, you should go for it.
Christopher Pascale is a federal employee currently serving with the IRS. His writing has been published in The Journal of Accountancy and Marine Corps Gazette. He is currently working on a biography about Vice President Charles Curtis, which is related to his Ph.D. studies at SUNY Stony Brook.