The Great Resignation, Growing Resentment, and the American Dream

Fresno Bee, Dec. 12, 20221

People are quitting their jobs. In some industries, it’s difficult to find workers. There are nursing shortages and teacher shortages. Some folks call this “the Great Resignation.”

The pandemic changed the work environment. Some people did not want to risk catching COVID at work. Others were not willing to adapt to remote work or comply with pandemic restrictions. There were government handouts for those at the bottom and a booming stock market for those contemplating retirement.

But the Great Resignation can also be mapped onto the resentment of the working class. This problem predates the pandemic. And it will continue.

Consider two local quitters. Congressman Devin Nunes quit in the middle of his term to become CEO of a Trump company. Fresno State’s football coach, Kalen DeBoer, abandoned his team before the bowl season to become the University of Washington’s head coach. Both are pursuing power and money. DeBoer will double his salary to over $3 million per year. Trump already awarded Nunes a Medal of Freedom. If Trump runs for president again, Nunes will be well-placed.

With these kinds of examples, it’s no wonder that the average schmo is sick of working. The fat cats make millions, while the average worker faces rising gas prices and student loan debt.

This is a system rigged for the rich. The funding priorities of American universities are ludicrous when a coach earns more in a year than a professor earns in a lifetime. And when powerful congressmen jump ship for the private sector, it’s clear why the country is foundering.

We should also consider the way the American Dream has morphed into the desire not to work. The Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness” is interpreted now as a life of leisure without labor. No one seems to believe in a “work ethic.”

Americans dream of making millions on crypto, winning the lottery or becoming online influencers. These dreams imply that hard work is for suckers. The “winners” in our society are those who get rich while doing the least work.

This was not the original American dream. A century ago, the sociologist Max Weber used Benjamin Franklin as an example of the Protestant work ethic. In previous centuries, Americans were suspicious of laziness and profiteering. Work was viewed as the path to salvation, while leisure and luxury were associated with sin. As Weber explained, we once thought, “not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God.”

Nobody seems to think that way anymore. We see ourselves as consumers instead of workers. We value leisure instead of labor. Nor do we feel loyalty to faceless corporations and heartless industries that show little concern for our well-being. It is no wonder that when the opportunity arises, people quit their jobs. And if people can make millions by jumping ship, we cheer them on rather than questioning their loyalty.

Most of us don’t have the options that Nunes and DeBoer have. And so we dream, while trudging through the motions. Meanwhile, resentment grows.

This is all obviously problematic. If you didn’t work, what then would you do? Good work is needed to make life meaningful. A life without labor can quickly become hollow and boring. At some point, you’ve watched everything on Netflix. Then what?

Human beings are creative, thinking animals. We need problems to solve. That’s one reason that work is good for us. Creative labor exercises the mind. Repetitive and mechanical work deadens the human spirit. The same is true, by the way, of some forms of leisure. The goal is to find meaningful and constructive activity. We need work — and play — that inspires and engages our humanity.

The Great Resignation is an opportunity to rethink our humanity and our economy. The American Dream has narrowed. Inequality is driving resentment. Some jobs remain inhumanly dull and dissatisfying. And our economy does not generate a sense of meaning, belonging or loyalty.

Let’s enliven our workplaces so that work becomes meaningful. Let’s find ways to prevent resentment from festering. Let’s stop idolizing indolent elites who make millions by doing nothing. We should reward loyalty and dedication. And we should remember the virtue of labor and the quiet dignity of a job well-done.

Work, Pay, and Morality

Pay and work issues raise deep moral questions

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-10-20

Human beings are working animals. We thrive when engaged in meaningful, goal-directed activity. And we dutifully take care of things that must be done. While money is a concern, work also involves moral necessity and intrinsic reward. We flourish when we have good work and do it well. In an ideal world, work would be rewarding, spiritually and financially.

During a recent Fresno State Ethics Center lecture, James Sterba, a professor from Notre Dame, defended liberal ideals about work and wealth. He argued that there is something unjust about a system in which rich people build up surpluses while hard-working poor people barely survive. He claimed that poor people have a right to have their basic needs satisfied. To solve this problem, we would have to tax the wealthy in order to support the poor.

Critics worry that taxes may discourage the well-off from working. Mitt Romney explains on his website that high tax rates “discourage work and entrepreneurship, as well as savings and investment.” On this view, workers would see that it doesn’t pay them to work harder when the government takes more of what they earn. A related concern is that those who receive welfare will have no incentive to work. From this perspective, work is motivated by external necessity and the hope for monetary reward. If we didn’t need to earn a living, we might not work. And if we were taxed at a higher rate, we might choose to work less.

This makes sense in a world in which people can rationally weigh the costs and benefits of work and monetary reward. But most workers do not have the luxury of deciding whether and how much they should work. A lot of the most important “work” is done without choice or compensation. Consider how much time is spent every day doing housework and yardwork, caring for children or for the elderly and disabled. It is significant that this sort of essential but uncompensated “work” is traditionally done by women. What would our economy look like if we found ways to pay the family caregivers who now work for free?

Perhaps caregiving work provides intrinsic rewards. Maybe there is joy in changing diapers. But caregivers are often at a disadvantage. According to Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, “people in single-mother families had a poverty rate of 42.2% and an extreme poverty rate of 21.6%.”

It would be nice if all work were both rewarding and fairly compensated. But many must work at dull and demanding jobs to put bread on the table. Unfortunately, even these jobs are scarce. The unemployment rate in Fresno is above 13%; one in four of us lives in poverty.

Sometimes, due to the vagaries of the economy, hard working people cannot find work. Some people are unable to work because of illness or disability. And children can’t and shouldn’t be forced to work. In these cases, it seems that social support is justifiable.

But what about able-bodied adults who refuse to work, should we also support them? This is a deep moral question. Liberals tend to think that every human being deserves to have basic needs fulfilled, regardless of what they do or have done. Conservatives tend to think that able-bodied adults should be left alone to fend for themselves.

I wonder whether there really are that many able-bodied adults who are unwilling to work. If work were available, if work were meaningful and if work were fairly compensated, I suspect that most adults would choose to work. There may be a few sponges who game the system. But the bigger problem is that the work that is available is meaningless drudgery paid at a less than a living wage.

For many, the question is not about meaningful work but about basic survival. This brings us back to Professor Sterba’s conclusion, which is that there is something unjust about a social system that leaves many impoverished, while others enjoy luxury.

I would add that there is something unjust about a system in which much of our most essential work is uncompensated, in which single mothers and their children are disadvantaged and in which many jobs are spiritually deadening and poorly paid.