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John W. MillerFebruary 15, 2022
A hiring sign hangs in the window of a Taco Bell in Sacramento, Calif. on July 15, 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic’s “Great Resignation” has shown that workers have more power than they had realized. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)A hiring sign hangs in the window of a Taco Bell in Sacramento, Calif. on July 15, 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic’s “Great Resignation” has shown that workers have more power than they had realized. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

In “Office Space,” Mike Judge’s 1999 cult comedy, I.T. workers wrestle with soulless cubicle jobs and dream of something better. One, played by Ron Livingston, gets a promotion after he starts acting recklessly. His authenticity is what makes him more valuable.

It seems like the whole country is going through an “Office Space” moment, spurred by a global pandemic that has forced a reckoning with mortality and meaning, with the freedom offered by government stimulus checks and Zoom calls, and with a broken system of low wages and insecure work conditions.

It seems like the whole country is going through an “Office Space” moment, spurred by a global pandemic that has forced a reckoning with mortality and meaning.

One result? In 2021, a record 47.4 million Americans quit their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the social media platform Reddit, the “Antiwork” page (Tagline: “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”) has 1.7 million members. More and more Americans are dreaming of something else; they are taking early retirement, job-hopping or signing up for the so-called FIRE—financially independent, retire early—movement.

The reasons so many people have been quitting their jobs are complex and numerous, but here are five major ones.

One is that people thought about quitting their jobs when the pandemic first erupted in 2020, but waited because it seemed too risky. “There was a backlog of resignations in the economy,” Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M University, told me. Mr. Klotz earned fame last year for coining the term “Great Resignation” in an interview with Bloomberg News that went viral.

The second is a massive burnout caused by the stress and anxiety of the global pandemic. “Frontline workers, health care professionals, caregivers, especially parents educating their kids at home, everybody was burned out,” Mr. Klotz said. The way that people cope with burnout typically is by taking a break. But over the course of the pandemic, that has often been difficult.

Underlying all of this is a work system with wages that for tens of millions of Americans are simply too low to enjoy a dignified life.

Third, the pandemic has forced a reckoning with what is really important. Stuck at home, faced with mortality and scarcity, people have wondered: Am I really happy? Am I doing everything I want in life? These questions have been magnified because other structures of community, like churches, unions and social clubs, have already frayed over the past few decades, putting more pressure on work to fulfill our needs for friendship and connection.

Fourth, there is the impact of technology, which has broadened an environment where working from home is a real option, allowing for millions of jobs and opportunities that did not seem feasible before. Within five years, 27.7 percent of all U.S. workers, or 40.7 million people, are expected to be remote workers, according to Upwork, a technology company that matches freelancers with jobs. That’s up from 22.9 percent in a November 2020 survey. (To be sure, this may not turn out well for all workers if it amplifies trends in the gig and freelance economy like fewer benefits and hourly pay instead of salaries.)

[Related: Down with credit cards. Up the minimum wage.]

And underlying all of this is a work system with wages that for tens of millions of Americans are simply too low to enjoy a dignified life.

The result is “what you might [also] call a ‘Great Awakening,’” said Mr. Klotz. “One great thing that might come out of the pandemic is that it’s forced people to reconsider work. This is a moment of worker empowerment.”

“One great thing that might come out of the pandemic is that it’s forced people to reconsider work. This is a moment of worker empowerment.”

That should be something to celebrate.

In the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis wrote that “work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts.” Work, Francis wrote, “gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people.”

Working conditions are a result of employees making demands and employers cooperating because it is in their interest or because they are motivated by a higher good. And though we are in a world with weaker unions, the Great Resignation has shown that workers have more power than they had realized. Wages, including at companies like Walmart, Amazon and Target, have recently been going up.

In the end, it is important for employees to hold companies responsible for creating a good work environment. “We know that work can be a source of purpose, but it’s only through companies imbuing jobs with meaning and purpose and satisfaction so they become that lasting source of fulfillment and intrinsic satisfaction for people,” said Mr. Klotz.

It is also important to communicate with employers. Mr. Klotz said he advises people to think about how they might improve the job they have. Instead of quitting, he advises people to look at something called “job crafting,” he said. “You work with your boss to turn your job into the job you want,” he said.

Let’s get back to the anti-work movement. In a Fox News interview last month that went viral, host Jesse Watters openly mocked Doreen Ford, a moderator on the anti-work Reddit forum: “Doreen, why do you like the idea of being home and not working and still getting paid by corporate America?” he asked, referring to government assistance. But it would be a mistake to think that people are looking not to work, said Farah Stockman, a member of The New York Times editorial board whose recent book,American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, is about factory workers in Indianapolis losing their jobs. “I’m uncomfortable with the anti-work movement because nothing is as demoralizing for people who are working really hard as seeing people who aren’t working getting compensated. I think most people really want to work,” she told me. “They want that structure, that community.” The factory she wrote about, she said, “was a place that gave people a context. It was a place they could go every day.”

At the end of “Office Space,” after a criminal scheme backfires, Livingston’s character ends up working construction with his blue-collar neighbor. It’s not his dream job, but as he puts it: “This isn’t so bad, huh? Making bucks, getting exercise, working outside.”

He realizes how lucky he is to find a little bit of meaning in work, even if it is just for a moment.

[Related: Ten things Pope Francis and Catholic social teaching taught me about the economy]

Editor’s note: The quote from Farah Stockman has been updated for the sake of clarity.

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