“Sorry for the long wait,” the barista apologises. “A double espresso to go?” I look up from my newspaper and nod. In his late thirties, I guess, sweat beading on his forehead. His bloodshot eyes and a pile of dirty cups on the counter indicate that he hasn’t had a break in a while. Just as he is about to start my coffee, an obtrusive beeping sounds from the kitchen. The man sighs. “Sorry, just take the apple pie out of the oven.” Behind me in line, a woman grumbles: ‘All those staff shortages. Where have all those people gone?’
Wherever you go, the coffee shop, the doctor or the supermarket, there is a notice ‘staff wanted’ everywhere. The labor market has never been this tight in fifty years. According to Statistics Netherlands, aging is an important reason, but also the post-corona consumption explosion. Eating out, on holiday, trips to the residential boulevard. When everything was ‘open’ again, the population started spending en masse. Only the staff had left silently during the lockdown. Waiters became call center employees, set builders turned into flash delivery drivers. In healthcare and education, people traded their jobs in the front line for one in the shadows. The number of educational advisers grew explosively. Not to mention the proliferation of independent coaches. Two years ago, with 63 thousand, there were already an alarming number of helmsmen calling ashore, but the Netherlands now has 95 thousand.
And don’t think all those advisors and self-proclaimed coaches are twiddling their thumbs. They have their hands full with people who are at home with a burnout. Like Kees, who has been team manager for almost 12 years at a large listed international chemical company. “Every new CEO announced new cuts,” he says at a birthday party. ‘My department kept getting smaller, while the amount of work remained the same’. One colleague after another collapsed under the pressure of work. After the third round of cutbacks, Kees couldn’t take it anymore either.
Sickness absence in the Netherlands reached a record high this year. Due to the large staff shortages, more work has to be done by fewer hands, which in turn leads to larger gaps. Meanwhile, the tight labor market threatens to throw sand in the busy wheels of our economic growth machine. Just when we need the money so badly for billion-dollar investments.
So worrying times. Or not? Perhaps the current shortage of personnel is not at all the terrible curse that it seems at first glance, but rather the canary in the coal mine that warns us just in time of greater danger. Decades of economic growth have brought undeniable prosperity, but also unbridled consumerism, a crazy labor market and growing inequality. And with that, unprecedented damage to the earth and the environment.
Let’s face it, will we really be happier if we can do our shopping 24/7? From a bulging house full of unworn jeans, drawers with sneakers in all colors, air fryers, portable speakers, electric can openers, bread makers and the latest iPhone? Does a cold beer or pizza delivered within five minutes give so much more joie de vivre than a home-cooked meal?
While I’m waiting for my double espresso, I read in the newspaper that the European Commission wants to tackle the huge waste mountain of disposable coffee cups. They must be replaced with a reusable variety. “Less disposable coffee cups?” says the woman in line, reading over my shoulder. ‘Isn’t it about time for fewer coffee shops?’ She is right. Also immediately solves the staff shortage. But now time for coffee.