'Nobody wants to work anymore': How a simple phrase became the oversimplified scapegoat for every problem plaguing the American labor market

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'Nobody wants to work anymore': How a simple phrase became the oversimplified scapegoat for every problem plaguing the American labor market
A Starbucks location in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania offered a variety of additional incentives to new hires, including "Free College" and "Free Spotify." Ben Gilbert / Insider
  • On a recent trip to Pennsylvania, I heard the phrase "nobody wants to work anymore" over and over.
  • It's become common since businesses began reopening fully this spring.
  • As with so many memes this year, this one began on TikTok and spread quickly.

Maybe you've seen it on a sign at your local Taco Bell drive-thru, or as part of a screed on social media: "Nobody wants to work anymore."

The phrase has become strikingly common in current American society, and taken at face value, it stands to reason that everyone has collectively decided to stop working.

On a recent trip near Reading, Pennsylvania, I heard the phrase no less than three times in 24 hours from three completely different people.

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My colleague Áine Cain recently traveled through several states and saw the same signs everywhere, from Virginia to upstate New York:

'Nobody wants to work anymore': How a simple phrase became the oversimplified scapegoat for every problem plaguing the American labor market
Signs in Virginia (left) and New York. Courtesy of Kevin Greenlee

It even spread to the most popular show on cable news, "Tucker Carlson Tonight."

"The government is paying people more to not work than to work," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his primetime show in May. "So why would they work? Would you?"

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While some Americans are receiving more money in unemployment than they would from a minimum wage job, the situation is much more complicated than Carlson makes it out to be.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been the catalyst for a variety of huge changes in the labor market, including a drastic decrease in women - especially women of color - participating as a result of lacking access to childcare and major retailers like Amazon hoovering up available workers with higher wage minimums.

Some workers simply say they've had enough of being overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated during a particularly stressful moment: So-called "rage quitting" has become more common after 15 months of life with the coronavirus. And that's all before we start talking about long-term trends in worker wages, which have been on the decline for years.

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"Instead of no one wants to work anymore," former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said, "Try no one wants to be exploited anymore."

'Nobody wants to work anymore': How a simple phrase became the oversimplified scapegoat for every problem plaguing the American labor market
9 employees quit en masse at a Burger King location in Nebraska. They cited egregious working conditions. Rachel Flores

So why, exactly, is the phrase "Nobody wants to work anymore" so common, even across political, class, and cultural lines?

Like so many things in 2021, this meme appears to have its origins on TikTok: On April 9, a user shared a video of her local McDonald's drive-thru.

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"We are short staffed," a sign above the drive-thru microphone said. "Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore."

That video - more specifically, the sign in the video - quickly transcended TikTok: A phrase that originated with frustrated retail and fast-food chain managers rapidly became the go-to explanation for why it took so long for your aunt to get her burger at Chili's.

"I suspect this is a mix of media amplification of critical opinions of Millennials/Gen Z workers who want to change what work is and the growing job shortage," Diara Townes, a program manager at the Aspen Institute who has studied narratives and patterns of spread, told Insider.

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Older generations will always believe younger generations to be lazier and more entitled than their generation was, just as our parents' grandparents told them about hardships "back in my day."

"It leans on the long-held belief that 'young people are entitled' and prefer instant gratification," Townes said. "And it appears bipartisan likely because - as social research has shown - as some people age their politics shift to be more conservative, adding to the generational effect."

One thing is clear: When businesses offer higher wages, they're able to attract more workers. Whether they will do that or continue to criticize potential employees remains to be seen.

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Got a tip? Contact Insider senior correspondent Ben Gilbert via email (bgilbert@insider.com), or Twitter DM (@realbengilbert). We can keep sources anonymous. Use a non-work device to reach out. PR pitches by email only, please.

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