Jon Osborne's Blog

1347: the year contingent labor was born?

In 1347, plague swept across Europe, killing somewhere between a third to a half of the population.  In its wake, it left a labor shortage of unprecedented proportion.

Landlords still had plenty of land, but now they had to compete with each other for labor.  Wages went through the roof, the terms of employment gradually began to liberalize and then the unthinkable happened: "In gaining more power, workers following the Black Death often moved away from annual contracts in favor of taking on successive temporary jobs that offered higher wages," according to historians Simon A. C. Penn and Christopher Dyer of the University of Birmingham.

Gee, that last part sounds familiar.

I am sometimes asked what will be the ultimate impact of the en masse retirement of the baby boomer generation.  Will it really matter?  The loss of skilled labor certainly will not be equal in magnitude to that of the plague, but the effect will be in the same direction.  There will be fewer of whatever the baby boomers were skilled at.  Hint: the oldest profession isn't prostitution; it's librarianship.  The average age of librarians is 51.  Librarian unemployment is already just 1.0% (at such low rates an indicator of labor shortage).  Wait a few more years when those 51 year-old librarians start retiring, and the predictable will happen: wages will rise and the terms of employment will liberalize likely including more temporary and part-time librarians.

But librarians won't be the only ones in short supply.  The same principal applies in varying degrees across the board, because baby boomers are in most occupations. 

A golden age of employment is coming with all that it implies for staffing, and isn't it nice that we didn't have to have a plague this time to get it?


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