What Is Stagflation?
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What Is Stagflation?

Learn about the World Bank’s global economic outlook.

By HARRIET TORRY
Wed, Jun 15, 2022 10:27amGrey Clock 3 min

Stagflation—a toxic cocktail of stagnating growth and rising prices—is generally viewed as a relic of the 1970s. But economists are warning it could make a comeback.

What is stagflation?

The term is broadly defined as sluggish growth tied with rising inflation. Economists haven’t given it much thought since the 1970s, when U.S. consumers lined up to fill their cars with high-price gasoline and the jobless rate hit 9%.

Earlier this week, the World Bank sharply lowered its growth forecast for the global economy this year and warned of several years of high inflation and tepid growth reminiscent of the stagflation of the 1970s.

Stagflation spells trouble for the economy. Rising inflation erodes consumer purchasing power, and weaker demand hurts companies’ profits and causes layoffs.

Stagflation also puts the Federal Reserve in a bind because the central bank’s job is to keep both inflation and unemployment low. The Fed can raise interest rates to curb inflation—a path it has started on and intends to continue this year—but if it moves too aggressively it risks strangling spending and tipping the economy into a recession.

Why is stagflation a risk now?

Inflation is close to a 40-year high, and economists are worried about economic growth because of the war in Ukraine as well as lockdowns in China and supply-chain disruptions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Are we in a period of stagflation now?

Not necessarily. Inflation is high, but unemployment remains near a half-century low. The U.S. economy contracted in the first quarter as supply disruptions weighed on output, but most economists expect growth will resume in the second quarter because of strength in consumer and business spending. Stagflation would be a sustained period of both higher inflation and slower growth, not just one quarter.

Stagflation remains a risk to the U.S. economy, and there are similarities between the situation in the 1970s and today. Surging prices for oil and food are pushing up the cost of living, and business executives are voicing concerns about the outlook for the economy.

But the key difference between the situation in the 1970s and today is employment. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the unemployment rate at times was around 10%. It was just 3.6% in May 2022. U.S. layoff announcements, for now, are few and far between.

What is the difference between stagflation and inflation?

Inflation refers to an increase in prices for goods and services. The Fed likes to see a bit of inflation. It targets 2% inflation a year, because that signals healthy demand in the economy. But if inflation rises too quickly, the rapid price increases erode households’ purchasing power. Stagflation is a situation in which prices are rising, but demand is weakening and economic growth is slowing or contracting. As a result, businesses make less money and cut jobs, driving up unemployment. At worst, that pushes the economy into a recession.

Has stagflation happened before?

Yes, stagflation occurred from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, when surging commodity prices and double-digit inflation collided with high unemployment.

British Parliamentarian Iain Macleod is credited with first using the word stagflation in 1965. “We now have the worst of both worlds—not just inflation on the one side or stagnation on the other, but both of them together. We have a sort of ‘stagflation’ situation.”

Its seeds were planted in the late 1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson revved up growth with spending on the Vietnam War and his Great Society programs. Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin, meanwhile, failed to tighten monetary policy sufficiently to rein in that growth.

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon, with the acquiescence of Fed Chairman Arthur Burns, tried to tame inflation by imposing controls on wage and price increases. The job became harder in 1973 after the Arab oil embargo drastically drove up energy prices, and overall inflation. Mr. Burns persistently underestimated inflation pressure: In part, he didn’t realize that the economy’s potential growth rate had fallen and that an influx of young, inexperienced baby boomers into the workforce had made it harder to get unemployment down to early-1960s levels.

As a result, even when the Fed raised rates, pushing the economy into a severe recession in 1974-75, inflation and unemployment didn’t fall back to the levels of the previous decade.

The stagflation of the 1970s ended painfully. Fed Chairman Paul Volcker drastically boosted interest rates to 20% in 1981, triggering a recession and double-digit unemployment.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: June 14, 2022.



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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