Why are so many able-bodied Americans choosing not to work?
If 2020 was the year of lockdowns, it seems 2021 was the year of “footloose and fancy-free.” That’s the impression one would get, at least, from employment trends. Almost 39 million Americans said “au revoir” to their employers in 2021. September alone saw a record-breaking 4.4 million employees voluntarily quitting their jobs. Labor economists are still busy crunching numbers, trying to make sense of this “Great Resignation.”
They have theories. So many theories are circulating, in fact, that it’s clear the experts are still fairly flummoxed. Some argue that The Big Quit is just a natural consequence of rising wages. When people spy greener pastures, they get bolder about wandering afield. Others assumed that Covid-related government largesse was responsible for worker shortages, and this summer 26 states decided to reject Federal unemployment subsidies, in hopes of spurring more hiring. (It didn’t work.) Some note that COVID-related fears may deter people from returning to work, while others blame onerous workplace policies, such as vaccine mandates or mask requirements, for pushing workers over the edge. Some hopefully speculate that the COVID shake-up may have helped people to negotiate better contracts, or may simply have inspired everyone to re-evaluate their life priorities.
No one in my household quit a job this year. I cannot definitely say why so many others did. I have followed the trends with interest, though, especially because the turnover is mostly happening among mid-career employees in the 30-45 age bracket. I am 41, so these are my peers: Millennials and late Gen-Xers. As a member of the Resignation Generation, I have reflected at length on what these developments mean. Is my generation poised to remake the workforce in a way that truly facilitates human thriving? Or are we just a bunch of quitters?
I have many questions about the Great Resignation. How are people paying their bills, without the help of emergency subsidies? How many people want to return to work? What are the unemployed doing with their extra time?
This much I do know. My age cohort is extremely confused about work. Throughout our lives, we have struggled to answer the most basic questions about its meaning and significance. Why do human beings work? What sort of work is most fulfilling and honorable? What do dedicated workers deserve, from employers, the state, or society at large?
At times, I hear my elders grumble that my generation simply does not grasp “the value of work.” I can sympathize with this sentiment, in a time when prime-aged men are opting for a life of dependence and idleness, even as millions of jobs go unfilled nationwide. It seems obvious that our culture has failed to transmit certain essential truths about the dignity of work. But is the problem really rooted in a lack of appreciation for work?
Looking back on my own years as a public school student, I cannot recall any pursuit being recommended and praised so consistently as career-building. From kindergarten through graduate school, it was a given that all students were expected to join the workforce at some point. We were taught to see work as very nearly the only thing worth doing. A career was the gateway to every other good one might naturally seek in life: status, money, respectability, self-actualization, a personal legacy, a meaningful life. Even marriage and parenthood were presented largely as rewards following from success in the education-career game. We were constantly reminded to “follow our dreams,” and told inspirational stories about politicians, athletes, scientists, artists, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs whose dreams turned them into civilization-building legends. We did not, like little Greek and Roman boys, dream of conquest or battlefield heroics. We were not urged to become wise or holy. Great Americans were made in the workplace. This was clearly understood.
It’s worth noting that this was not just a progressive liberal view. Reaganite conservatives loved to stress the efficacy of the “success sequence,” which called for young people to finish school first, then find a job, and then a spouse. Children were the crowning achievement of the well-ordered life. Putting life milestones in the appropriate order was, we were promised, a very reliable way to avoid poverty, loneliness, and general life failure.
Since I was raised by Mormons, it is interesting too to reflect on the counter-cultural messaging that I received through the LDS Church. Undoubtedly, there were differences. Looking back though, it seems that my Sunday School lessons converged with secular messages more often than not. The Mormons offered a more-gendered variation on the secular message, with boys encouraged to build successful careers, while girls were urged to see domesticity as their most fitting “career.” We learned far more about marriage (and chastity) at church. On both fronts though, everyone was enthused about work, education, and the vast expanse of opportunity that were supposedly open to us. Everyone hoped that freedom, our established university system, and sustained individual efforts would together propel us into a thriving life. Why shouldn’t we do well while doing good?
Reality Strikes Back
When people expect work to fulfill their deepest hopes and dreams, reality will generally disappoint. This may partly explain why an event like Covid could trigger a flurry of resignations. Even if their current jobs are acceptable, workers want more. Why settle for a job that merely pays the bills, when things could be so much better?
This is not always foolish, of course. Things could be better for workers, and why shouldn’t they leverage their skills to achieve more of what they want? It’s possible that we will eventually look back on the Great Resignation as a kind of creative destruction, which helped us forge a labor situation more conducive to real human thriving. If that does happen, though, it seems likely that our cranky and restless workforce will eventually need to embrace a more realistic view of work. No real-world workforce could fully justify the optimism of the late 20th century. Jobs simply aren’t the only thing that matters in life.
What paradigm would be better, though? Here, the picture gets murky. Employment, in our age, can mean many things to many people. This has probably always been true to some extent, but our diversified workforce massively complicates labor questions. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, labor-interested popes such as Leo XIII and Pius XI discussed work with the evident assumption that most ordinary people would approach it in roughly the same way. Focusing especially on the lives of industrial laborers, they drew clear-cut lines between workplace, community, family, and Church. This certainly made it easier to spell out the obligations that different parties had to one another. In many ways, their encyclicals read like updates to the medieval feudal system, with employers filling the patrician role. Many people today still admire the moral clarity of these pontiffs, and we still feel a need for a holistic view of labor that harmonizes economic, social, and moral concerns. It’s difficult even to begin, though, with such an immensely complex workforce, which is still undergoing rapid change.
To illustrate the point, let us consider three models that might help illuminate the value of work. I will call them the “breadwinner model,” the “ministry model,” and the “craftsman model.” The “breadwinner model” assumes that men work primarily for a paycheck, which they can use to support themselves and their families. Workers may even take a certain pride in doing work that is arduous and boring, because these pains are for the sake of others, and for the dignity that comes from providing for them. “Ministers” might include health care professionals, therapists, teachers, social workers, professional caregivers, and many people employed in what we typically call “service jobs.” They help people. Work, for them, is experienced as a direct form of service to other human beings. “Craftsmen” see themselves as practitioners of a particular skill or art. Their professional efforts are guided by the internal demands of the relevant practice, and their professional identity reflects that. Scholars, researchers, and many STEM specialists would qualify as “craftsmen,” as would a large share of entrepreneurs and consultants.
Many jobs combine elements of different models. Teachers master a subject or skill, before passing it on to others. Police officers might in one way view themselves as “security experts,” but their job involves continual (and often very fraught) human interaction. Realtors are expected to know things about housing markets and home repair, but salesmanship is also a big part of their job. Most people, meanwhile, have demoralizing days in which the paycheck seems like the only real justification for staying at work. Nevertheless, it seems clear that most jobs fit one category better than the others. Workers’ motivations can vary widely, depending on the paradigm they use to understand their job.
When a person struggles to find steady employment, friends or relatives may advise him to shift his paradigm with respect to work. (For instance, the failed artist or struggling university adjunct may be advised to look for work that offers more financial security, even if the intrinsic rewards are less rich.) All three of the above models might be serviceable and even inspiring to us, if workers are succeeding. Everyone respects the honest breadwinner, the dedicated minister, and the skilled craftsman. These figures may have different relationships to their work, but none is “doing it wrong,” and any one of those figures might live a thriving life if his other activities and relationships put his work in the proper context.
Policy-makers dislike complexity. It is hard to address problems effectively when there are too many variables that need to be factored. This problem has long dogged Big Labor, and a Democratic Party that wishes to secure its support. As our labor force has diversified, it has become ever more difficult to craft labor legislation that genuinely helps working-class families. A tariff or subsidy may help a particular segment of workers, but usually at the cost of raising unemployment, tamping down innovation, or trapping other unhappy workers in soul-destroying jobs. In many ways, the left’s recent return to “socialism” probably reflects widespread frustration over the general failure to find a more moderate approach to labor issues.
In recent years, the political right has picked up the mantle of labor, hoping to solidify support from the disillusioned voters that Trump brought to the polls in 2016. Many Americans are frustrated with our present labor situation, so it is easy to work these concerns into political stump speeches or incendiary television spots. Effective solutions are harder to find. Politicians like Josh Hawley, and pundits like Tucker Carlson, clearly prioritize the breadwinner model of labor in their tirades on the “Great American Middle”, and this makes sense as a political strategy. It also dovetails nicely with conservatives’ rekindled interest in Catholic Social Teaching. Does it really make sense to prioritize the breadwinner model at the present time, though? How well does that model fit our nation’s present needs?
If the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it is this. No one fully understands what is happening in American labor markets. Our economy is still changing rapidly, but that’s not the only variable. Workers are changing too. Both conservatives and liberals are coming to see the defects in the paradigms that dominated their approach to labor across the last 40 years.
In the future, we may hear much less about organized labor, or success sequences. New paradigms emerge, along with new policy ideas. At some point, we may reach a new equilibrium, which perhaps will do a better job of tapping our workforce’s potential, while meeting human needs. This is less likely, however, if we allow politicians to seize control of the process, prioritizing particular interest groups with an eye to winning elections.
Keep crunching those numbers, economists! We won’t keep the socialists at bay forever.