In public discourse, words matter.
They shape how we understand issues and what we do about them. That’s why we saw heated debate across the aisle recently about whether care and human services should be considered infrastructure. It’s why calling low-wage workers “essential” was such a profound shift. And it’s why we’re hearing about labor shortages instead of inadequate wages.
The language we use to talk about work often reinforces our status quo: a low-wage economy in which tens of millions of working Americans are barely making ends meet.
To remedy that, we propose a style guide for talking about work in America.
Stop calling workers and jobs “low skill.” As The Atlantic‘s Annie Lowrey pointed out, commentators on work in America use “low skill” interchangeably with “low wage.” They shouldn’t.
Many so-called low skill jobs—like the work of home health aides—are physically, mentally and socially demanding. Using the term “low skill” devalues the contributions of workers doing these jobs, simply because they’re not compensated enough. That’s unsurprising. The classification has much more to do with who traditionally held certain roles (women, people of color) and labor laws that excluded those workers from protections.
Devaluing a worker’s skills and contributions makes it easier to justify inadequate pay in our meritocracy-worshipping culture. Call these jobs and workers what they are: low-wage. Better yet: underpaid.
Use “skills gap” sparingly and precisely. Do a Google search for “skills gap” and you might be alarmed about our economic future. Respected consultancies predict large skill shortages, (uncritically) pointing to employers’ claims that they can’t find requisite talent. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce decries workers’ lack of skills and credentials.
The broad use of this concept is misleading. Of course companies and educators have to provide training—just as they always have. But analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggests that a large pool of overlooked talent exists today. These workers may not have formal credentials, but they have acquired skills in their jobs that prepare them for more advanced roles. It would be more accurate to speak of an opportunity gap than a skills gap.
Further, a company’s inability to recruit or retain workers might reflect the unattractiveness of their job offerings more than available skills of prospective applicants—when restaurants complain they can’t find workers while Costco, with a $16 starting wage, is “inundated” with applications.
Don’t default to blaming “skills gaps.” If you are going to use the term, make sure you show your work.
Always annualize wages. We often read about workers’ hourly wages. But it has likely been a long time since policymakers and executives who determine workers’ compensation were last paid by the hour. Like many of us, when they hear hourly wage figures, they don’t always have an intuitive sense of how much money is at stake.
Take $15. In 2012, fast food workers in New York launched “the fight for $15.” Since then, business and policy leaders have talked about $15 as an aspirational wage (never mind that $15 in 2012 is equivalent to $17.30 today). Companies like Amazon and Target proudly advertise their $15 starting wages. This winter, the Senate refused to pass a $15 minimum wage, concerned it is too generous (and therefore bad for business).
But it doesn’t sound so great when you annualize it at a realistic weekly schedule. In the service industry, “full time” is 30-35 hours a week. At a $15 hourly wage, that’s $23,400-$27,300 a year. Those who think $15 sounds like a decent wage will understand that earning around $27,000 a year isn’t enough to live off.
When you talk about how much a worker earns, always include a realistic annual figure.
Put pay in context. Annualizing is a good start, but many executives, investors and other high earners have no idea what it costs to get by in America. Like New York’s mayoral candidates, who underestimated average house prices by a factor of 10, they often think life is less expensive than it is. So even if they understand that $27,000 isn’t much, they assume you can survive on it because it’s what some people earn.
When you use a tool like MIT’s living wage calculator to show them that it doesn’t cover the cost of even basic necessities, they’re shocked. Take PayPal president and CEO Dan Schulman. He recently conducted a financial assessment of the company’s call center workers, assuming it would be a good news story. Yet he found that 60 percent of these employees were struggling to get by. Even Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, seemed surprised when congresswoman Katie Porter (D-Calif.) showed him that even at $16.50, a single mother working for his company wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.
So don’t just annualize pay—indicate what percent of essential costs it covers.
Stop talking about “The Future of Work.” You would be hard-pressed to find a phrase more beloved by consultancies, think tanks and Andrew Yang than “the future of work.” There are two reasons you shouldn’t use it. First, like all buzzwords, it is both too vague and too replete with meanings, leading to unproductive conversations.
People most often use the phrase as shorthand for saying that “the robots are coming for our jobs.” Yet all evidence suggests that we are not going to see a decline in available jobs. Yes, technology replaces labor, but it also complements it, driving new demand (that’s why when ATMs were introduced the number of bank teller jobs actually increased).
Second, while we may not be facing a job quantity crisis, quality is a different matter. And focusing conferences, reports and task forces on the “future of work” makes it seem short-sighted and Luddite-ish to raise concerns about working conditions today. Handy for established interests, but bad for the rest of us. Because the best thing we could do for the future of work would be to build an economy founded on good jobs right now.
We will have a more nuanced and accurate conversation about work in America if we can all follow these style guidelines. The pandemic has helped us recognize the workers who put their health and safety at risk to make sure we had food and health care, and ensured that businesses could keep operating. But as we slowly move forward from the pandemic, the predictable tropes are reemerging. We’re hearing more about labor shortages, hybrid work and inflation. As the light at the end of the tunnel gets closer, let’s retire that language and adopt a new vocabulary.
Katie Bach advises companies on how to improve low-wage jobs.
Alison Omens leads strategy for JUST Capital with a focus on high-quality jobs.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.