1America is in the midst of a jobs crisis. Across industries, workers are dropping out. Understaffed hospitals are battling a pandemic while nurses quit en mass. Kids are back in school, but teachers are dropping out. Restaurants have re-opened, but diners are facing harried waitstaff and slimmed-down kitchens. Unemployment remains higher than it was pre-Covid, and yet shops have “Help Wanted” signs hanging in their windows. In my own social circle I see something similar happening: Ambitious, hard-working people quitting their jobs, often without another plan in place; others just hanging on, but wondering out loud: Why am I doing this?
It’s a dynamic Karla Miller in the Washington Post has called The Great Resignation.
If you ask many conservatives, this is all about laziness enabled by too-generous benefits; end unemployment and other safety nets, and people will return to the labor force. If you ask many folks on the left, this is a win — people don’t want to work, and they only work to make money in an exploitative capitalist system; a critical mass of workers saying no to bad pay and dangerous working conditions isn’t a problem, it’s a rallying cry.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I think the left is far more correct on this one than the right. But “this is good and a sign of worker power” doesn’t tell nearly the whole story. First, there’s the fact that women remain disproportionately unlikely to have returned to work since the pandemic wiped out so many women’s jobs — a sign that this is perhaps less about choice and more about the impossibility of working for pay without childcare or basic support. And second, I’m not convinced that people don’t actually want to work — but I am convinced that almost all of us want lives that feel meaningful, purposeful, and dignified. For too many people, the American style of work brings the opposite.
One place where I diverge from a lot of folks who otherwise share my politics is on the question of whether work is even desirable. I do think human beings need purpose and structure and discipline and obligation for lives that feel meaningful, full, and purposeful; I am not sure that a life where there was no need to be productive, to be disciplined, or to sometimes do something you don’t want to do would actually be a good life. A life made up entirely of leisure certainly sounds nice as I sit here, exhausted and burned out, writing this draft on a Monday evening. But most humans are a bit like working dogs — to be fulfilled and happy, we need a reason to get up and get going. For most of us that reason has to be something more than catching up on Netflix or playing video games, even if those activities are profoundly pleasurable in the moment.
The problem with work, in other words, isn’t work. It’s the dehumanization of certain jobs, and the all-encompassing demands of others. It’s the treatment of so many workers like disposable automatons. It’s the refusal to see just about anyone in the workforce as a full human being who is best off with dignified work, leisure time, and the ability to find connection and community inside and outside of the workplace.
Do unemployment benefits probably have some small impact on whether people get back into the workforce as quickly as possible? Probably — but it’s a small impact, and cutting unemployment benefits hurts more than it helps. And as always, these moments of change force us to ask how we want our society to be. The conservative answer is that the market should decide pay, but also that the government should force or coerce people to work for that low pay. The progressive answer can be something else. I don’t think we’re going to free people from work entirely, at least not this week. But figuring out why so many people are leaving would open up a useful universe of information on how to make work work.
At this point, we understand the gender policy piece pretty well. When there’s no affordable and reliable childcare, women wind up doing it for free. That takes women out of the paid workforce and means they are virtually guaranteed to make less money than men, making them physically and financially vulnerable and putting them at increased risk of winding up impoverished later in life. Some leftists suggest paying women to stay home to care for their own children, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea in theory, except that it removes women from the employment ladder — once their kids are grown and there’s still rent to pay but they’ve been out of the workforce for a decade, then what? Far less costly and far more effective solutions are possible, we’ve just refused to implement them (here I’m talking about things like paid parental leave that incentivizes both parents to take it, universal childcare, and adequate paid sick and vacation days). And so that leaves women making these choices on their own. When Covid hit and schools and childcare facilities shuttered, suddenly there was no choice for a whole lot of women. Something had to give, and because it couldn’t be the basic safety and well-being of small children, it was paid work.
Other categories of workers are exhausted and fed up with facing threats to their physical health. Nurses, teachers, restaurant and service workers also seem to not be returning to work or quitting in significant numbers, and who can really blame them? A year and a half into a pandemic and they’ve been on the front lines with little reprieve. They’re done.
But there’s something else going on, too, other than this push-out. There’s also a more voluntary exodus of people who have spent the last year and a half living out a changed version of their previous lives. Maybe some of it was for the better — more time at home, more time with family, no more commuting, the realization that they could work anywhere. Maybe some of it was for the worse — isolation, loneliness, overwhelm with family and work colliding in a single space. For a lot of us, it was probably both. And in the meantime, 700,000 Americans died, and most of us spent at least some of our days worried about avoiding a new and potentially deadly disease. And so Covid has forced some hard questions, chief among them: What am I doing with my life, and why?
For a lot of people, the answer to that question was apparently “I have absolutely no idea.” Or maybe “something I don’t want to be doing” or “something that takes away from what I care about.” In normal times, it’s either a privilege to be able to quit your job, or quitting your job is a sign of being totally and utterly screwed — you’ve been forced out. In our current very not-normal times, quitting is, of course, still something that most people can’t do — but I suspect that Covid made it feel more possible than ever for whole swaths of the population, especially those who spent a year without spending nearly as much money on things like clothing, travel, and dining out. Maybe for a lot of people, it turned out that stuff — plus living in the large and expensive cities where jobs are clustered — didn’t matter as much as they thought. Maybe a lot of people realized that they needed less, and are making employment choices accordingly.
I also suspect that many of these same people were driven out as well, because leaving one’s job is typically a push-pull combination. In the midst of a life-changing crisis, how much did managers change their expectations? How much did bosses let up on their impulse to monitor and control their employees? As far as I can tell, not much. As far as I can tell, employees working from home made a lot of bosses and managers go mildly insane with worry that perhaps their workers were not adequately performing, that perhaps they needed to be more closely monitored, more bossed around, more managed. For people who work in, say, fast food chain restaurants, this is even more extreme — every minute of your time is tracked and observed and critiqued; there’s no room to take a pause, let alone self-direct. It turns what could be an interesting job — interacting with other people, performing a valued service, solving problems, working under pressure, giving people something they want and enjoy — into something dehumanizing and degrading.
None of this is required. Nothing (other than greed) requires that workplaces treat people like this, and nothing (other than those who celebrate and benefit from greed) stands in the way of our government stepping in and saying enough — that all workers deserve rest and healthcare, that there are limits on how much you can monitor people at work, that working should come with decent treatment and basic dignity.
They’re not saying that, though. And most of our workplaces haven’t changed. So why are employers acting surprised that employees are heading for the door?
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