Touring a Santa Monica startup last year, President Obama told young tech entrepreneurs that he’s “chronically optimistic” about an American economy driven by the innovation of the millennial generation. And he should be. But right now, he just needs to get out of the way.
Taking care of business and working overtime has always been a virtue in the workplace. On Monday night, though, Obama announced plans to unilaterally extend overtime eligibility to more than five million Americans. Although well intentioned, this decision places a premium on personal initiative, harming those the president hopes to help.
Right now, overtime’s not that bad of a gig for beginning workers. Clock more than 40 hours and, by law, your employer must cut a check paying you time and a half for your extra work that week. Currently, only employees making less than $23,660 dollars are eligible. But the president’s new plan would more than double that salary threshold to $50,440 dollars annually. Once exempt, rookie white-collar workers in every industry will now receive an entitlement we can’t afford: a right to overtime pay.
Supporters say this is a veritable economic elixir capable of bringing stagnant wages in line with excessive profits, decreasing unemployment, and giving million Americans a raise overnight. But while that all sounds great, it just won’t work. Why? Because, basic economics say so.
Fixing Prices Causes Big Problems
In a Huffington Post op-ed, the president argues that, “a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.” And he’s right. But as a result of his plan, more folks will punch in at work to punch out fewer hours and take home less pay.
The former chief economic advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Jared Bernstein, predicts employers will do “more hiring to avoid overtime.” Even as HR department aggressively police workplace flexibility to ferret out potential overtime, Bernstein still thinks the added employment benefit would be “an awfully good thing right about now.”
But Obama and Bernstein’s scheme is better suited for the industrial economy of the New Deal era. And it should stay there. In today’s information age, innovation is king and quality trumps quantity as process pales in comparison to product. Managers don’t care about timesheets. They want results.
People At the Bottom Will Be Hurt Most
Ask any ambitious kid on a main street storefront or in Silicon Valley, and we’ll tell you the same thing. During those first few months or years, we can never outperform the veteran salesman or senior technician. But given the opportunity, you better damn well believe we’ll outcompete him.
After all, success isn’t an accident. It’s a product of effort and sweat. Or at least that’s what we used to believe. In the past, a boss might pat you on the back for staying late. Now he’ll just see your extra effort as an additional cost, and push you out the door. If the president really wants everyone to have “a fair shot” as he says, he should stop pulling the rug out from underneath the youngest Americans. It’s not like he’s done us any favors recently anyway.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the millennial job market has never been worse. As employers hack away hours to avoid the healthcare mandate, any nine-to-five job seems like the American Dream. For so many recent college grads still languishing in part-time positions and unpaid internships, this overtime initiative makes a bad situation even worse.
We’re young, we’re jobless, and unless we do something, we’ll be out of luck for a long time. Millennials must demand occupational autonomy; we should demand our right to work. We don’t need a handout, just the same opportunity our parents enjoyed.
If President Obama wants to make good on his promised optimism, if he really wants to unleash this generation’s potential, he should free us from this unwanted burden. Instead of acting unilaterally, the president ought to work with lawmakers to craft a labor policy that makes sense for the modern economy.
Philip Wegmann is a Staff Writer and Radio Producer for The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.