March 5, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Virus fears are causing many companies to encourage their employees to work at home instead of coming into the office. It’s possible now, and that’s wonderful. Twenty years ago, it would have been far more difficult. Forty years ago, most jobs today could not be accomplished at home. Thank you technology and thank you capitalistic progress! Digital technology is saving us all from some bad consequences of pandemic disease. 

This news of the work-at-home movement in the wake of disease got me curious. How many people work exclusively as remote workers? I was surprised at the answer. It’s true that half of all workers are allowed to work remotely from time to time. Most report that they would like to do this more often. 

Here is what is surprising. Only 5% actually do this fulltime. This has grown over the last twenty years but it is still an extreme exception in the workforce. 95% of us are still expected to show up to a workplace. 

It seems like the radical reconstruction of the workplace in the wake of digitalization is much hyped and pushed but not really practiced much. 

Why? There are benefits to being there. The employer knows this and so do employees. Remote work is a wonderful thing made possible by technology but it is value added to in-office work and not a full replacement for it. 

For those employees who are living too far from the office, periodic visits are essential to staying in touch, keeping a fix on company culture, knowing your coworkers, integrating your work with the whole of the firm, moving from worker to supervisor, and so on. Permanently remote fulltime employees can become estranged from all of this over time and thus less valuable to the firm, and less able to advance. 

To be sure, contracting is on the rise too and this is best done remotely but we are talking about something different here from long-term employment. It is about getting a task done and moving on. With contracting, there is no long-term investment in the intellectual capital of the worker, no big expectation for growth and advancement, no ambition for rising within the firm and taking on new responsibility. Contracting and employment are very different for this reason – a reality that all the hip talk about “hashtag remote work” does not consider. 

Here’s another common claim that turns out to be false: millennials are less attached to their jobs and prefer to gig around, hop from thing to thing, and show loyalty only to themselves. Everyone knows this right? No more is the worker chained to the desk for life! Young people believe in investing only in their personal skills and shopping them around to various buyers with the goal of being their own business. 

Elsewhere I’ve written about the great myth of 20-something entrepreneurship. It turns out to be a big flop for a reason: if you have a dearth of knowledge, skills, capital, and experience, you are not likely to succeed in starting a new business. Truly successful entrepreneurs are those who have been around an industry for a while as good workers and managers, which is to say that they are in their 40s and 50s. It takes a couple of decades of earnest focus before you are good enough at something to become an instrument of disruption in any industry. All of the rhetoric about 20-something business savvy is fantasy, which is why it’s a disservice to urge young people to be entrepreneurs rather than good workers. 

How do you gain the requisite knowledge, skills, capital, and experience to succeed? In the old days, you find a good employer and stick with the place for many years, learning from mentors, learning to get along with others, figuring out an industry in great detail, honing in on skills, experiencing success and failure, and so on. 

Ah, but we are told that the old days are gone, right?! Now young people demand massive freedom from all this! They hop from place to place, showing no loyalty to institutions, trying out various paths, moving from job to job and city to city. My goodness, these young people have become veritable digital nomads! 

Only problem: none of this is true. 

The Wall Street Journal reports:

In January 2018, 70% of workers between the ages of 22 and 37, commonly known as the millennial generation, had worked for their current employer for 13 months or more, according to an analysis of federal data by the Pew Research Center. By comparison, that number was 69% for workers who were in the same age group in 2002 and are known as Generation X.

Very interesting! Twenty years of digital everything has changed nothing about job loyalty – at least that’s what the data are showing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2018, 28.8% of workers ages 25 to 34 had worked for the same company for at least five years. Twenty years ago, that figure was 21.8% – which is to say that by some measures, millennials are more loyal to employers than their parents. 

It turns out that there is a great benefit that comes from longevity. You get to know the ropes. You show others that you are trustworthy. You learn a variety of skills and processes up and down the in-house production structure. You come to know the culture and then become part of that culture. All of which is to say that longevity at a single company makes you more valuable to your employer. 

Very often, young people get confused about these matters. They think their employers are paying for their employee’s credentials, degrees, or personal awesomeness. In fact, most often employers are paying for work, period. Mostly after the hiring takes place, employers are paying more than their new hires are worth, with the hope that they will pay for themselves over time. 

This is why employers hope for and expect some longer-term commitment. Young people who show no loyalty to a firm or focus on a particular business enterprise are doing themselves no favors at all. There is always someone waiting in the wings to take their place, someone more willing to work hard, be scrupulous in tasks, show personal ambition, and become a valuable instrument of production. 

Let’s review the three myths now debunked by the date. Myth one: digital nomadism is the new way. Myth two: young people are choosing personal independence over obedience to the Man. Myth three: young people are hopping from job to job, showing no loyalty to institutions. There is scant evidence for any of these three claims that you encounter constantly on social media. 

Strange, isn’t it? Technology is wonderful. Digital tools are thrilling. Wireless everything is a tremendous kick. In the end, however, even now, the way to get ahead in this world is to be there, learn from mentors, focus, be serious, and stick around for many years. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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