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Lucia A. SilecchiaMarch 16, 2022
(iStock)

[T]here are always fresh hopes, but also fresh fears and threats, connected with this basic dimension of human existence: man’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity but at the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering, and also of the harm and injustice which penetrate deeply into social life.

So wrote Pope John Paul II in “Laborem Exercens,” his 1981 encyclical on human work. Humanity’s complex relationship with work is worth revisiting in light of today’s so-called Great Resignation. Since the spring of 2021, millions of Americans have left the workforce, and many may not intend to return.

On TikTok, “Quit Tok” videos celebrate decisions to leave jobs. The platform’s most popular resignation hashtag, #quitmyjob, has received over 223 million views to date. More staidly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics began this year with reports that the November 2021 quit rate—“voluntary separations initiated by the employee”—in the United States increased to 3 percent, representing 4.5 million people. While that might seem like a small percentage, it was still historically high. Buzz surrounding this trend intensifies as surveys claim many more are contemplating resignations.

Insights on human work from Catholic social teaching can contribute more to pondering the Great Resignation than today’s ubiquitous “hot takes."

It is premature to predict the Great Resignation’s permanent impact. The reasons for resignations are many. Parents—particularly mothers—left jobs because Covid-19 closed schools. Some workers resigned with pandemic-related burnout and may return after time off restores them. Concerns about contracting or spreading Covid-19 drove others away, while still others resigned in response to vaccine mandates or changes in workplace rules. Some left overwhelmed sectors like health care, while others accelerated their paths to retirement.

Unsurprisingly, some resignations spawned more, as those left behind in the workforce saw workloads increase and schedules become unsustainable. To understand the Great Resignation, pundits must fully assess who resigns, why they resign, what they do post-resignation and whether this is merely a temporary phenomenon reflecting the uncertainty of the moment or a more permanent trend.

Because of these unknowns, deeper insights on human work from Catholic social teaching can contribute more to pondering the Great Resignation than today’s ubiquitous “hot takes.” This is particularly true of “Laborem Exercens,” with its direct focus on human work. The encyclical proposes a sober spirituality of work and a lens through which to view both the “fresh hopes” and “fresh fears” that the Great Resignation may cause and reflect.

This teaching reflects the paradox of human work as both blessing and burden. In labor of all kinds—not merely paid employment—workers participate in the act of creation and share “the activity of the Creator.” This noble mission is uniquely entrusted to humanity.

Work is also the means to satisfy sacred obligations to support self, family and those who are dependent. A “family requires the means of subsistence.” In love, and often in sacrifice, work sustains those entrusted to our care. More broadly, through work in diverse forms and settings, laborers advance the common good by using talent and energy to create or provide what helps others flourish.

Undeniably, work is also a burden. Catholic social teaching forcefully proclaims that the dignity of the worker—made in the image of God—demands working conditions that are not exploitative, abusive or degrading. It also acknowledges that many forms of labor are inherently difficult, exhausting, dangerous and sacrificial.

In this landscape, the Great Resignation reflects both “fresh hopes” and “fresh fears” as relationships between work and the human person are recalibratedin both public discourse and individual decision making.

Catholic social teaching forcefully proclaims that the dignity of the worker—made in the image of God—demands working conditions that are not exploitative, abusive or degrading.

Using Time and Talent Appropriately

It is a fresh hope when workers re-evaluate allocations of their time and talent. Reconsidering work involves courageous self-reflection and a review of priorities. If done with thoughtful care and planning for more fulfilling new work, more fruitful use of God-given talent, triumph over inertia, increased time with loved ones or a simpler life detached from trappings of consumption, this is a hopeful sign. Decisions about how time and talent are spent are among the most important choices everyone faces.

As “Laborem Exercens” explains, “[m]an must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity.” Further, “Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to…since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history.” Each person is obligated to discern how best to be both a grateful “heir” and a generous “sharer.” If the Great Resignation prompts such reflection, it can bring great, fresh hope.

Yet, fresh fear can be found in the fact that popular commentary and celebratory declarations of the Great Resignation reflect a—perhaps unintended—disparaging attitude toward work. Navigating between the Scylla of dangerous workism and the Charybdis of an equally dangerous disdain toward work is challenging. As “Laborem Exercens” declares, “work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth.” Work, paid and unpaid, includes labor of the physical, intellectual and creative kinds. If the Great Resignation advances a view that work is an evil to be tolerated grudgingly and avoided if possible, both the common good and the individual suffer.

The obligation to support self and family should not be lightly treated. Gleeful celebrations can be a sign of disrespect toward those who do not have the luxury of resignation. It is essential to distinguish between the good of pursuing better ways to meet obligations and the harm of abandoning those obligations.

Navigating between the Scylla of dangerous workism and the Charybdis of an equally dangerous disdain toward work is challenging.

The Value of Worker Demand

A second fresh hope lies in the way that the Great Resignation may—for now—improve worker well-being at the economic ladder’s lower rungs. Catholic teaching often assumes a paradigm in which the supply of laborers is more plentiful vis-à-vis need. Workers—particularly those who lack educational credentials, connections or skilled training—are at a disadvantage when easy replaceability weakens their bargaining power.

At the moment, the demand for workers in entry-level and lower-paid jobs is high, because the rate of recent resignations has been particularly acute in the accommodations/food services and retail trade sectors; In November 2021, the quit rates for each were 6.4 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively. The result is that wages for those at the bottom of the pay scale, with fewer educational credentials, and youngest in age are increasing at the highest rates. This sign of hope offers opportunities for broader participation in the workforce and more competitive conditions, even at the entry level.

What about this might produce fresh fear? A significant number of “prime age” workers—age 25 to 54—are still not in the workforce. Recent statistics show that one in eight men in this range is not employed. While women are employed at a lower rate than their male counterparts, their employment rate has held steadier as men’s rates declined.

This falling rate of “prime age” employment is troubling. It is crucial to understand its causes and how the greater availability of opportunities can change this. It is also important to know how adults in this cohort may best be assisted to find ways to share their talents and energy to serve the common good and to meet their commitments to those depending on them.

The falling rate of “prime age” employment is troubling. It is crucial to understand its causes and how the greater availability of opportunities can change this.

New Respect for Labor?

A third fresh hope that may spring from the Great Resignation is increased respect for undervalued labor. “Laborem Exercens” notes “the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.” Yet too often less respect is paid to those whose labor is deemed less prestigious. The current shortage of workers in critical areas demands greater appreciation for their contributions. The church’s “task [is] always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated.” If the Great Resignation calls attention to the dignity of often overlooked workers, it is a source of hope.

What fresh fear might spring from this? Four decades ago, St. John Paul II called for “rational planning and…the right proportions between different kinds of employment…in accordance with the capacities of individuals and for the common good of each society and of the whole of mankind.” This has not happened, and thus critical needs go unmet. The misalignment between the types of workers needed and the supply of workers trained for or encouraged to enter those fields is striking.

Additionally, as debates rage about growing college debt, it is timely to ask whether other paths to meaningful vocations are undervalued or discouraged. Again, St. John Paul II was prescient when he feared that “[e]ducation available is not oriented towards the types of employment or service required by the true needs of society, or when there is less demand for work which requires education, at least professional education, than for manual labor, or when it is less well paid.” It is critical to prepare and reward better those who do the important, life-sustaining work that is now so much in demand. Ignoring this need would squander a hope generated by the Great Resignation.

As debates rage about growing college debt, it is timely to ask whether other paths to meaningful vocations are undervalued or discouraged.

How and When Work Should Be Done

A fourth fresh hope can be found in the way the Great Resignation prompts healthy reconsideration of work’s modern organization. A model in which all adults in a family are employed for pay, at different locations, at set schedules approximating 40 hours a week, has not been the paradigm over the vast course of history. In the past and in other places, labor has been organized differently out of preference, necessity or both.

While idealizing other models is risky, it is beneficial to re-evaluate assumptions about whether the current organization of work well serves workers and community. “Laborem Exercens” predicted “new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and the distribution of work.” The Great Resignation may herald the arrival of these new conditions and demands.

A fresh fear in this case lies in the unintended consequences of the rapid reorganization of work. Numerous surveys indicate that many workers now want more flexibility in the time and place of their work routines. Many indicate that they would seek other employment within a year if they did not receive sufficient flexibility on these two matters. In some ways, it is healthy to see the individualized preferences of workers take center stage. However, just as it is right to criticize employers who see employees as part of a mere contractual transaction, it can also be harmful if employees adopt a similar perspective.

Of course, this does not mean that new models should not be pursued when appropriate. But this movement may increase divisions among classes of workers in newly dramatic ways because workers in so many fields such as manufacturing, health care, child care, hospitality, sanitation, public safety, food service, agriculture and many other fields do not have these same options. It is also important, as many workplaces change so rapidly, to devote thoughtful care to maintain workplace communities, ensuring that young employees have personal mentors who truly know them and fostering social ties among workers. These can suffer if the sense of common purpose is lost. This is not an inevitable consequence, but sustaining the intangible humanity of the workplace can be easily overlooked.

“Laborem Exercens” predicted “new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and the distribution of work.”

Appreciating Re-creation

A fifth fresh hope comes in the way the Great Resignation may enhance appreciation for meaningful rest. “Burnout” is cited as a factor in many resignation decisions. This should prompt renewed appreciation for properly ordered rest. The Catholic tradition has consistently valued the right to rest and, specifically, “a regular weekly rest comprising at least Sunday” to devote to worship of God, care for loved ones and recreation. In a society that has largely abandoned the Sabbath rest, the Great Resignation may point anew to the sacredness of renewal time.

A fresh fear that emerges with this new appreciation for leisure is that the modern world no longer understands meaningful rest. One day of rest is no panacea for those stretched too thin to make ends meet. It never will be. But evidence suggests that “rest” and “leisure” are increasingly lonely and passive. The latest available American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2020 Americans spent, on average, over three hours a day watching television. People ages20 to 24 spent, on average, an additional 1.4 hours daily playing computer games. Rest should “re-create,” strengthen laborers for work and foster loving bonds of faith, family and friendship. The Great Resignation, while prompting reconsideration of work, must also prompt reconsideration of holy leisure.

One day of rest is no panacea for those stretched too thin to make ends meet. It never will be.

Restoring Communities

A sixth fresh hope lies in the possibility that those who resign, retire or restructure work may have more time and energy to contribute to their families and communities. In addition to the potential for more meaningful rest, the Great Resignation has significant potential to advance the common good if it frees workers to engage in community involvement, increased volunteerism and time with children, elders and the needy. Unpaid work in homes, building communities, sustaining culture and serving the most vulnerable is priceless and must be treasured and celebrated.

Unfortunately, information about adults’ current allocation of time does not bear out this hope. The Time Use Survey reports that in 2020, the time Americans spent volunteering was merely 0.08 hours per day on average, and only 0.09 hours were spent daily on religious activities. Caring for and helping household members (excluding children) occupied an average of 0.43 hours a day. Caring for non-household members averaged only 0.14 hours. While Covid-19 significantly reduced opportunities for volunteering and the opportunity for communal religious activities, these numbers reflect trends that predated the pandemic. This does not bode well for our communities unless the Great Resignation spurs new ways of contributing to the common good.

With a certain realistic optimism, St. John Paul II used “Laborem Exercens” to call for “the discovery of the new meanings of human work.” With an embrace of fresh hopes and a commitment to address fresh fears, the Great Resignation may be a call to find, in the ancient command to work, something new and meaningful.

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