Oct 28, 2021
“The Big Quit.” is not just a shift in the employment of millions, it’s an expression of our culture-wide search for purpose.
According to The Washington Post, “a record 4.3 million people — about 2.9 percent of the nation’s workforce — quit [their jobs] in August.” And, Gallup polling suggests that nearly half of working Americans are actively considering finding a new job.
What’s driving this trend away from work? It seems to be a perfect storm with many factors. Clearly, the pandemic has reshuffled priorities across society. Back in April, Forbes magazine’s Keir Weimer suggested,“How we work has changed forever.” A bit of hyperbole perhaps, but he’s touching on something obvious and important.
More than half of respondents from one survey said they would trade compensation for workplace flexibility. Having worked from home throughout the last year, they are hesitant to give up the time with friends and family, the luxury of not commuting, and a more home-centered vocational life.
At the same time, working in certain industries is more difficult. For example, in the food industry, there are a “staggering 1.2 million jobs unfilled… right when customers are crushing through the doors, ready to eat, drink and finally socialize.” Many point to the increased hours required, the unemployment benefits which exceed even increased compensation, and the stress of maintaining COVID-related policies in the workplace. And as more employees leave this industry, remaining workers with their hands even more full.
Even so, the biggest reason for workers leaving work could be because they can. Between government stimulus policies, rising home values, and money saved during COVID, many Americans are simply, to borrow words from David Leonhart of the New York Times, “flush with cash.” This is exactly the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to make a change.
Still, as important as the economic factors are, they do not tell the whole story. As more than a few observers have pointed out, “the Great Resignation” isn’t just a search for a better job. What we are witnessing is part of our culture’s search for deeper meaning. Studies suggest that rising rates of “burnout,” such as exhaustion, stress, and overall dissatisfaction across workplace sectors, are leading workers to quit.
Columnist Whizy Kim of Refinery29 puts it this way: “[We] want to believe that our jobs can not only provide financial stability, but also emotional and spiritual nourishment... In a time of increasing secularism, work remains our steadfast religion. Burnout hits when our work fails to live up to expectations of it.”
Surveys show that Americans work more hours than any other industrialized nation. That becomes an incredibly important factor when work is not seen as meaningful, i.e., not part of something bigger than ourselves. In certain extreme cases, work takes the place of God. We look to it as the source to fill our emotional, vocational, and relational needs.
That’s unsustainable. To the extent that the so-called “Great Resignation” is a cultural reset, it can be a good thing. On the other hand, it will not be unless it is a reset of more than work hours, policies, and minimum wage. It has to be a reset of our understanding of what work is for, something that would require rethinking what humans are for.
Any search for a perfect, all-fulfilling job will be fruitless. Rather than rethink their search, some are opting out of work altogether. This is a mistake, not just because savings eventually run out and bills inevitably pile up, but because we were created, in part, for work. Work existed before the fall, and is therefore inherently connected with our worship and dignity as image-bearers.
To be clear, work is not our full identity, but it is inseparable from who we were created to be. Even knowing this can help eliminate the stress of where to work; it’s easier to make rational choices when one’s entire sense of self doesn’t hang in the balance. And yet, because our work is one way that we worship God, it’s meaningful even when mundane. It’s worthy of our highest efforts when, in mirroring our Creator, we bring order out of chaos, provide for our fellow creatures, and cultivate His creation.
Especially in this cultural moment, how Christians work is part of our witness. Christians can demonstrate God’s goodness by the joy and vibrancy we bring to our vocation. We can show His love, concern, and provision for people by how we manage people in love and service. We can dignify God’s design for human beings in how we work and in how we rest.
All told, it could be that “The Big Quit” is, for Christians, an even bigger opportunity to begin.