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Sensemaker: Back to work

Sensemaker: Back to work

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Sue Gray delivered her report on lockdown parties in Downing Street to Boris Johnson, making “minimal reference” to lockdown parties in Downing Street.
  • A blizzard nicknamed Bombogenesis covered much of the northeastern US in more than two feet of snow. 
  • Rafael Nadal won a record 21st grand slam in a Melbourne five-setter for the ages against Danill Medvedev. 

Back to work

Remember the Great Resignation? So last month. The idea of hitching the family wagon to a pair of oxen named Stuff This and WTF and heading for a new life in the mountains or at least a less soul-destroying work-life balance in the Mendips was fun while it lasted – but it was only an idea. 

People are going back to work. What has changed is that many on low pay in the food, leisure and hospitality sectors are finding they can hold out for a better deal. Which prompts a couple of questions. What if they get one? And what if they vote?

By country:

  • US. This is where the Great Resignation was invented as a term of art and it’s true that i) more than 33 million Americans quit since last spring; ii) job vacancies are at near-record levels; and iii) labour force participation fell during the pandemic. But: that fall (1.4 per cent) continued a long-term decline that started in 2000. Most of those vacancies are for low-wage jobs, and most will be filled when wages rise above inflation. It turns out workers still need money; they’re just in an unusually strong bargaining position. The idea of yuppies falling out of love with work heading for the hills in droves isn’t born out by the numbers. A grand total of 360 left San Francisco for Montana in the first three quarters of last year. 
  • EU. “We are not experiencing anything like the Great Resignation,” Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank said earlier this month. Covid support funds were aimed at employers rather than individuals so unemployment never spiked as high as in the US. Labour shortages now are not as acute and labour force participation is near – or in Frances’ case above – pre-Covid levels.
  • Ireland. The idea of a Great Resignation “isn’t just overbaked” – per Eoin Burke-Kennedy in the Irish Times. “It’s just plain wrong.” In the two years spanning the worst of the pandemic, total employment and labour force participation for men and women all dipped – then rose to record levels.
  • Australia. Labour force participation dipped by two per cent last year but is back up at pre-Covid levels now. Unemployment, at 4.2 per cent, is at its lowest level since August 2008. Job vacancies in hospitality are at nearly double pre-Covid levels – because of surging demand for labour, not shrinking supply.

The UK could be the exception. New official numbers show there are about a million fewer workers than before Covid, of whom 400,000 are “economically inactive” – i.e. opting out for now. But they could be suffering from Long Covid or waiting for wages to catch up with inflation. As for the other missing workers, Tony Wilson of the Institute for Employment Studies reckons a third of the total haven’t so much quit as quit the country. They’re EU nationals who’ve tasted the Covid-Brexit cocktail, and left.

Those left behind are in a sellers’ market when it comes to pricing their time. Ditto tens of millions of US workers, especially those with union backing holding out for better deals in the tightest labour market in a generation. If they vote their pocketbook in November, could the Democrats cling on?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Misunderstood billionaire
Spare a thought for Leon Cooperman, who lives in the Florida panhandle and at 75 is still at his desk from 7am to midnight. He drives a Hyundai when he isn’t on his 25 year-old bike, likes to buy cuts of meat that are on special offer and, try as he might to give his money away, is still worth $2.5 billion. The Washington Post has profiled him at length as a phenomenally successful fund manager who agrees with Andrew Carnegie that “he who dies rich, dies disgraced”. So instead of signing up to Warren Buffet’s “Giving Pledge” to give half his money to charity, he’s decided to give nine-tenths of it away – and has gone back to work so there’ll be more of it when he’s done.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Kissinger’s problem
Putin sometimes has the same problem Henry Kissinger used to complain of in relation to Europe; not knowing whom to call. Boris Johson has put in a bid for a telephone conversation with the Kremlin but when Putin had to choose on Friday he chose President Macron. They spoke for an hour and agreed on the need to de-escalate the stand-off on the Ukrainian border. Putin said he wanted to implement the Minsk Accords – a four-way pact involving Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany but not the US, Nato, the EU or the UK. Macron then spoke at length to Ukraine’s President Zelensky too. Put aside the risk of war for a moment and the Ukraine crisis becomes, among other things, a stage for yet another Franco-British arm-wrestle for diplomatic clout. For now it’s clear who’s winning.  

New things technology, science, engineering

The GRU’s infowar 
​The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, is running more than 1,300 local news websites targeting cities and towns along Russia’s western borders with Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics, according to OpenFacto, a French investigative journalism platform. The platform claims to have identified “a distinctive snippet of source code” that enabled it to trace content on all 1,341 sites to a bogus news agency called InfoRus which it says is run by the GRU. That is hard to confirm, but Open Facto asks whether the tight geographic focus of these sites, or portals, is in response to perceptions in Moscow that Russia’s westernmost reaches are also the most exposed to western media. It seems an interesting question. To note: InfoRus also pumps out propaganda along Russia’s southern border with Georgia.  

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Anti-vax, Canada style
Canadian truckers brought central Ottawa to a standstill at the weekend, protesting against a vaccine mandate imposed on truck drivers who cross the US-Canadian border. Canada’s vaccination rate is high. 87.3 per cent of Canadians over 12 have received at least two doses, but the unvaccinated minority is still burdening hospitals and angering the vaccinated majority. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily prevail. If money were ever a problem for the protesters they’ve solved it by raising more than $9 million (Canadian) on GoFundMe. In the UK, Johnson’s government is having second thoughts about a vaccine mandate for health workers, fearing so many of them would quit that hospitals couldn’t cope. The experience of New York state and other jurisdictions that have taken the plunge with mandates suggests such fears are overblown. 

covid by numbers

10 billion – doses of Covid-19 vaccines now administered worldwide – more than enough, were they spread equally, for everybody to have had at least one dose.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Mammoths v climate change
Harvard researchers are trying to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. They have scraps of mammoth DNA recovered from permafrost. They have CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing equipment. They have the cells of modern Asian elephants to edit with said DNA and tech, and they have host animals – also Asian elephants – which could potentially act as surrogates for baby mammoths, or at least hairy Asian elephants. We have been here before. Scientists have been about to revive mammoths since the turn of the century. It is conceivable that they’ll breed a hybrid, but their larger goal – breeding herds of them to trample the tundra and somehow turn back the climate clock – is hardly serious. Is it? 

The week ahead


31/1 – Limits on care home visitors scrapped in England as Scottish workers return to work; Foreign Office expected to announce toughening of sanctions on Russia; second anniversary of Brexit Day, 1/2 – Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, gives evidence to foreign affairs committee; first day of LGBT+ History Month, 2/2 – Government’s levelling up white paper to be published; CBI director-general Tony Danker delivers his first major speech of 2022, 3/2 – Bafta nominations announced; Southend West by-election after death of Sir David Amess, 4/2 – Deadline for deal to cover Transport for London’s pandemic revenue shortfall; sentencing hearing for former Labour peer Lord Ahmed for sexual assault and attempted rape, 6/6 – Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee


31/1 – Annual Arctic Frontiers conference begins in Tromso, 1/2 – laws on mandatory vaccination come into effect in Austria; lunar new celebrations mark Year of the Tiger; Russia assumes presidency of UN Security Council; budget presented to parliament in India, 2/2 – France lifts remaining Covid restrictions; Groundhog Day; 3/2 –  National Prayer breakfast in the US attended by Joe Biden, 4/2 – Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing; World Cancer Day, hearing for Donald Trump lawsuit over YouTube ban, 5/2 – Six Nations rugby tournament begins, 6/2 – Costa Rica general election 

Thanks for reading. Do share this around, and let us know what we’ve missed.

Giles Whittell

Ella Hill

Photographs Getty Images

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