COVID19: Worker Exodus

I spent yesterday walking around town with an extraordinary project of putting something in the regular mail.

That project required mailing a form to some place. The form was online so I had to get it printed out. I assessed my current home situation and found the following. I do not have a printer. I only have one more stamp so I need to get a new book because I have to have at least one stamp in the house. I do have some envelopes but they are of the self-stick variety and they are so old the adhesive had soaked through the other side of the paper and wouldn’t stick well any more. I also don’t have a good way to send outgoing mail from my house. This required an excursion that turned out to be several.

My plan was to go to the office store to print out the form. Although I could get the envelopes and stamps there, I didn’t want to carry them around because my next step was to stop by the grocery store. I figured I would pick up the envelop and stamps there to include in the bags I’ll carry back home. I had a pen so I could fill out the envelope and drop it off in one of those blue boxes. That was the plan.

The first stop went as planned, but as I was leaving I noticed someone approaching from the outside carrying a large box so I naturally rushed to open the door for him. He seemed genuinely disturbed by this gesture because that resulted in the two of us being less than six feet apart, much less in fact. Lesson from now own, do not hold doors open to anyone.

The store was a nice walk away and it was a nice day. People were out but walking in zig zag motion to avoid getting close to each other. It felt like we were trying to avoid some active sniper. People would also size each other up from a distance, eyes would lock especially between mask wearers and naked face people where the latter would attempt a subtle smile and the latter’s eyes would show some form of disapproval or fear. It was a beautiful day to be out.

At the store, I got the meal for today and visited the fish counter to get something fresh as we tried to communicate through our masks. I ended up pointing and hand waving until he picked out what I wanted. He wrapped it up and handed it to me in an outstretched way so that I could only the grab the very end closest to me. We maintained our six feet. I did get the envelopes so I am one more step closer to mailing something. I used the self-checkout so I had to go to the service counter later to get the stamps. No one was at the counter, and after a decent wait, I decided to find stamps later. Right then, I had what I needed with the one stamp at home.

My route home is different than the one to the store. The return route follows more office buildings. Each one had some variant of the message about the requirement to wear masks and socially distance. The signs were well produced to make this seem like a competitive advantage or a very happy thing. There were slogans to go with the signs. We are all in this together. The one sign that stood out was a plea to obey the rules in order to protect the building.

This latter message solved a mystery about why COVID19 is considered a pandemic when it is not particularly a threat to most people. Its high consequence threat is to buildings. If the health officials determine someone testing positive was in the building, the building would need to be thoroughly sanitized at least in the locations that person visited. More importantly, if regular tenants in the building start to show a hot spot of positive tests, the building may be forced to close or significantly reduce capacity. There is a real high consequence threat, but it is from the government and it is directed at buildings.

I got home and filled out and stamped the envelop and then needed to find a mail drop box. It has been a long time since I mailed something and I knew where the boxes were. I still remember when they were just about everywhere. They keep disappearing. I don’t really mind walking a little further to get to one, if only I knew where to look for them. The walk was much longer than expected because I was trying to find a box by luck, trying to guess where a likely location would be after discovering them missing where I expected them. This walk had the secondary purpose of finding some place that would sell me a new book of stamps.

I stopped by the drug store and their counter had a long line. I was ok about waiting until I noticed the line was long because one customer had a large basket and was doing price checks for each one and then deciding whether to keep it. There was a plexiglass shield between the customer and clerk, but there was a lot of handling of the products between them. I decided to look elsewhere and still continue my hunt for a blue box drop-off for regular mail. I finally got my stamps at another spot but I still had the envelop to drop off. The store that sold me the stamps would have accepted the envelop into their mailbox, but I was determined to use the outdoor blue box.

I headed in a direction that I was certain a box would be but it is not my usual walking route. The box was still there, or at least it was at the same intersection. I recall it being on the other side of the street but at least I could see it. I checked the pickup times and noticed it had already been picked up for the day. This was not an urgent mail and could sit overnight but I decided to follow the suggestion to go another that had a later afternoon pickup.

I then proceeded in that direction along a street that was unfamiliar to me. The street name itself was familiar. The problem is that it has new buildings that I gave me the sense of being lost. I walked ahead confident that the road would lead to where I wanted to go and I was right. The target mailbox is on the other side of a busy intersection with a lot of impatient traffic. Also there was a lot of pedestrian traffic. Normally we would huddle together to wait for the crossing light to turn on. Now it is a dance of sots to figure out who should be standing where.

It occurred to me that there is a new etiquette that I have missed by not walking around as much. There are rules as to sorting and distancing at the intersection waiting for a crossing light. Besides myself, an older man, there was a younger woman with a child, and an middle age women. There was not a lot of room on the sidewalk. Glancing quickly so as to not make a locked eye contact, I think we were all asking the same question. Gone are the days or just huddling together to cross at the same time. I really wonder if we should walk out in waves so each person was six feet ahead before the next one would enter the intersection. That is probably the rule. Imagine how long it would take if there were many dozen people waiting.

Mission accomplished, the mail was in the desired blue box collection box. I realize this was ridiculous. I could have done everything at the first stop. I just had set some rules before hand and I followed them. I didn’t mind it taking nearly all afternoon. The walk was nice.

It was getting around the start of dining hour. I recall from the walk a day earlier at about the same time walking by a restaurant that once upon a time was very busy with people coming in and out without being turned away. Now the place was nearly empty but had a sign that said the waiting time for a table was 90 minutes due to capacity restrictions. There were people waiting.

That reminds me of a scene much earlier when I walked by the public library during a busy period for it. There was a line of people from the entrance and going all the way to the parking lot. People were queued up waiting their turn for the limited capacity of the library. I haven’t used the library since this era started, but I imagine I would not be welcomed using it the way I did: I just spent all afternoon in one, browsing the stacks and pulling down a book to read for a while and the picking out a different one. I imagine someone is still doing that, but they are causing problems with the capacity restrictions. Actually, I imagine some librarian tracking down such as loiterer and telling them to check out as many books as he wants and then read them at home. As doable as that would be, the library’s reading areas have a nice view to glance up from when reading a book.

It is obvious that we are stuck in this new normal. Nothing will ever go back to the way things used to be, at least not when I can enjoy it. I expect this will continue for the remainder of this decade, or the remainder of my 60s.

Recently, two headlines caught my attention. I only read the headlines. The articles certainly would have more details and nuance, but the message of the headline was enough for me.

The first headline describe the concern companies are having with an unexpected exodus of older workers retiring early, as much as a decade earlier than the official retirement age based on eligibility for full-benefit social security. The recent events are motivating them to leave early. People are deciding to enjoy retirement now given that there is a disease that primarily threatens the very old. Alternatively, and probably more commonly, these are people who are used to the old normal and are not interest in living out the new one. This is no longer their world to work in. To the extent they can make retirement work, now is a good time to do so.

The concern was that this was going to cause a labor shortage. That simple statement seemed ridiculous to me. Even though 55 may be young for retirement, it is not a young person. There must be a large pool of young people eager and capable of being promoted to fill the gap. They would fill the role in a matter of weeks, in most cases. There is more to the concern than mere lack of labor.

In an earlier post, I described an artificial intelligence experiment that learned to play hide and seek where the ultimate end state after hundreds of millions of iterations was the seekers breaking the physics of the game by using the ramp to get one top of boxes that would then move instead of the body. The seekers learned how to surf boxes that allowed them to peer over any barriers the hiders would make. They had the ultimate high ground in that game. I imagine the current crop of older, near-retirement, workers to be like those seekers. They have in some sense broke the physics of normal career life-cycles. There are many people working well into their 80s and still have no intentions of retiring.

The concern for earlier retirees is that the successive generation will not be able to break the physics in the same way. The companies would lose the competitive advantage of the box surfing seniors.

The second headline described another exodus. This one concerns younger workers who have been working comfortably from home for the past year. They are considering resigning their jobs when they are requested to return to their offices now that the vaccines have been so successfully rolled out. The tone of the headline struck me as encouraging this decision. The reasoning is that the experience of the past year showed that working in offices were not necessary. People can get work done without being in a common area.

I can see many people quitting when required to show back up to the office. There are a lot of jobs listed as permitting remote working. They have the options to avoid office work if that is what they desire.

The two headlines are intricately related. Given the exodus of older workers, there is an urgency to transfer institutional knowledge from the older worker to the younger worker. In my analogy, the older worker needs to teach the younger one how to break the physics of the game. This transfer of magic requires older workers and younger workers to work in the same space. This transfer requires the building of a relationship, it is not merely a matter of supervising or grading work. The replacements need to see for themselves how the physics of this game works for the older worker.

There is a generational transfer occurring right now. It is accelerated ten-fold. The younger people are adapting to the new culture of masks, distancing, and scheduling around establishment’s occupancy restrictions. The older people are struggling more to try to regain some semblance of what worked well in the past.

A few days ago, I noticed a pair of older men who appeared to either have just met or had a reunion after a long absence. They were looking for a bar to have a place to sit and talk over a drink. They walked up to one place and ritualistically the last moment putting on their masks. It was mid afternoon, but the bar was closed due to the limited hours. They looked around wondering where else to try. The area has a lot of bars.

I left them there and continued my walk home. I had walked several blocks to wait for a stop light. I was surprised the same two men approaching the same spot from a different direction. They had been checking out multiple spots and they were all closed. They were going to cross the street to see if there would be better luck over there.

We did not acknowledge each other, not even an eye contact. I am not a bar person so I had no suggestions anyway. But I understand the need.

The new normal is for people to host guests in their own homes. The old normal was that even if a person had a nice arrangement for hosting guests, the preferred meeting place would be at a public space equally familiar or unfamiliar to both. Also, it would have someone else do the serving, where that person knows the conversation has nothing do do with him.

This is a metaphor for what is happening in the workplace. The older men are looking for offices to go back to work in. All the offices are empty because everyone is working from home. The older men know a secret that the younger men do not understand. Their secret concerns how to develop into managers, leaders, or advisors. This involves building a relationship that goes far beyond daily scrum meetings discussing the specifics of a particular sprint. This involves having lunch together, joining for happy hours immediately after work at a spot near the office. It involves traveling together, or jointly presenting some material to an adversarial or skeptical audience.

It is also about becoming a high value man in the sense of building a network of people who you know and who know you where collectively you can benefit each other. This is not going to happen when people are working from home, no matter how much time they spend on Zoom calls.

We are not going back to the old normal, although I think we could and should. The current situation is a transition phase mistakenly described as a new normal. This current situation is not sustainable. I think the actual stable new normal will become apparent in about 2023, or about two years from now. The possibilities are all over the map, but ultimately it will come down to the resolving the oxymoronic concept of social distancing. Either we become social again, or we distance. The distance option may be stable in the same way a tree that is losing its grip on earth is stable in is progress in falling.


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