The View

I asked new immigrants to the US why so many Americans are dropping out of the job market, and here’s what I learned

At some point rich-world offspring get lazier, dimmer, fatter, pill-poppier and less productive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 10:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 6:11am

I am filing this column from the United States, as a bruising election year continues, replete with violent scuffles and shouting matches, particularly at political rallies for Donald Trump. Among the most popular insults being hurled this election season is: “Get a job!”

Embedded in this phrase is a macroeconomic assumption: that American economic malaise is not a top-down problem, but a bottom-up one. There is work for those who are willing. So get a job!

This would seem to contradict another Trumpian tenet – that the Chinese or the Mexicans are stealing American jobs – yet it also makes sense in a twisted way. Anyone spending time in a US city will notice that “foreigners” occupy many positions. This even as the labour participation rate of worker-age adults remains depressed at around 63 per cent– i.e., as many Americans leave the workforce by choice or because they gave up seeking.

Why then are so many Americans opting out of the job market, even as so many fresh migrants can be seen managing convenience stores, checking people in at airports, running restaurants and hair salons, or filling the ranks at hospitals?

I decided to ask immigrants their opinion on this matter. This is a slightly risky business. First I had to ask the dreaded “where are you from?” question –which is apparently a loaded, racist “microaggression” under modern communication rules. Luckily, however, my interview subjects were chatty about their backgrounds and their journeys. And interestingly, they shared the same opinion as many native-born Americans I have also quizzed in my recent few weeks in the country: Americans are too soft.

For example, in the past month I spent a lot of time in a Maryland hospital, visiting a relative. Almost all the nurses were immigrants – like eight out of 10! Nursing is a very hard job, but also a skilled one that pays decently and offers potential for advancement into administrative positions.

One nurse I got chatting with grew up in the Philippines. He is happy for his opportunity but worries about his two sons. “They’ve been raised in a wealthy country,” he said. “They couldn’t do hard work like this [nursing].”

I hear versions of this concept all the time, in many different places, including Hong Kong. It is based on a common concern: that the populations of rich and successful countries are prone to inward decay. Our kids are spoiled.

“Hong Kong people are too well off,” the veteran investment banker Francis Leung said recently. “For entrepreneurship, you need people who are hungry and who have dreams. You compare the youth in Hong Kong and China, China is more vibrant and people there are hungrier for success and more entrepreneurial.”

Such charges need to be taken with a grain of salt, since oldsters have been denigrating the work ethic of the young for millennia. “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority…they love chatter in place of exercise,” Socrates once sniped, according to Plato.

Yet even today, Greece is the poster-country for civilization in decline. Was Socrates on to something?

The “get-a-job” chant at Trump rallies is really just a simpler way of saying it is hard to be rich and successful and innovative forever. At some point rich-world offspring might get lazier, dimmer, fatter, pill-poppier and less productive.

Why then is most of the world’s savings invested in rich countries- isn’t this backward looking? Indeed, it is – we should really allot more long-term savings to emerging markets.

And we should combine that strategy with identifying rich-world countries which are most exposed to competitive forces that help prevent decay. In short, open countries where immigration is not too constricted, where labour laws are not too rigid and or capital and trade restraints too narrow. So strangely, that puts the US top of the list (for now).

Another strategy is to identify rich countries that have a particular reason to be paranoid. Like Hong Kong. How can there be laziness and decay in such an existentially nervous country, one that faces the threat of displacement by mainlanders or irrelevance as China gets more sophisticated and powerful?

Even Socrates might buy some Hang Seng Index futures, if he were around today.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer.