It’s a Sunday evening, and what better way to celebrate the end of a long week than heading out to eat a nice dinner at your favorite restaurant—only to find it empty, with the lights out, and a piece of printer paper taped to the door saying, “unfortunately due to staffing shortages we will be closed today. We are sorry for any inconvenience.”
What is to blame for this disappointing situation? Many cite “the Great Resignation,” a term coined by Texas A&M professor Anthony Klotz who used it to describe the millions of Americans who have voluntarily quit their jobs since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thirty-three million Americans have quit since the spring of 2021, and the labor force participation rate is still lower than it was pre-pandemic. The worker shortage is often framed as an issue caused by those who quit and therefore shoulder the responsibility of the resulting supply chain disruption and increased inflation rates. A more accurate perspective is one that frames quitting as an appropriate reaction to grim working conditions. The Great Resignation is not only the consequence of capitalist workforce neglect but also a demand for an improvement in conditions for workers.
Workers are quitting and not returning to work for various reasons. In the private sector, most employees are quitting due to a toxic work culture, a feeling of job insecurity, bosses who ignore employee performance, and a failure to respond adequately to the pandemic. Other reasons for this mass resignation are baby boomers retiring early, parents (mostly women) needing to care for their children at home, and the search for better work opportunities. These myriad reasons all point to two major flaws in our current economy: worker alienation and a lack of social protections.
From a Marxist perspective, alienation occurs when capitalists control the means of production, reducing the workers to machines that produce in compliance with market forces. This eliminates the expression of human creativity in work and causes the detachment of laborers from the products they produce. Many people feel overworked and burnt out from their jobs as a result—especially when companies foster toxic work cultures and do not affirm their employees’ hard work. The pandemic has led many to re-evaluate the role work should play in their lives, or retire altogether, as they have found alienation intolerable.
For many, the Great Resignation is helping to mitigate the alienation of work under capitalism. People are searching for better opportunities in jobs that are more fulfilling to them. With the looming prospect of a precarious future, more people are looking for work that is more meaningful and provides more immediate gratification, rather than continuing with the current strategy of working for years in an unsatisfactory job in order to see economic returns in the long term. Thus, the Great Resignation is also being called “The Great Reshuffle” since people are not merely leaving the workforce but also repositioning themselves. Many are now working freelance, starting small businesses, and pursuing side gigs that are more aligned with their values. Although this is still capitalism at the individual level, this pursuit of autonomy closes the gap between one’s ideal life and the reality of their work.
Although the Great Resignation has been called a general strike, it is not a coordinated movement. Wealth inequality has restricted the types of people who can afford to leave their jobs to a privileged bunch, thus limiting the Great Resignation’s utility as an anti-capitalist alienation movement. Many might recognize and reject the detachment they have with the work they produce under capitalism, yet only some have the opportunity to work for themselves or for enterprises that allow them to pursue more rewarding endeavors. In other words, the Great Resignation, as influential as it has been, has meant little to those who have not had the privilege to quit their jobs throughout the entire pandemic. Many workers of color have not felt the benefits of the Great Resignation either because of financial strain and cultural obligations. Furthermore, those who remain in the workforce end up bearing the burdens caused by the labor shortage, carrying the extra weight of leftover work with mostly empty promises of improved conditions on the horizon.
As companies engage in last-ditch efforts to mitigate the effects of the labor shortage with improved benefits for new hires, the US’s poor social safety net has become increasingly evident. Businesses, particularly of low-wage industries such as food service, are scrambling to retain their workers by finally offering benefits like signing bonuses and insurance plans. They are trying to increase worker retention in the short-term by providing lateral career opportunities, remote work arrangements, company-sponsored social events, and predictable work schedules—all of which were absent prior to the current economic pressure. Employees now have more leverage and bargaining power than ever to demand better pay and working conditions.
While it is great that workers are gaining more perks than before, the frantic efforts of companies to maintain employment should not be seen as long term solutions, as they alone do not address the root issues of alienation or insufficient social programs. Wage increases are not enough to address the underlying issues that caused droves of workers to quit in the first place—especially with inflation often discounting such raises. What the companies’ efforts can do is demonstrate to workers that they deserve better and can attain better. These improvements should be treated as the means to an end where individuals have agency to determine the role work plays in their lives. Labor activists and legislators, however, need to figure out how to translate this movement into improved conditions for all workers, especially those in blue-collar industries.
Market regulations that improve labor conditions can mitigate the negative effects of the labor shortage and supply chain disruptions by increasing worker retention at least short-term. Additionally, providing more robust unemployment benefits can allow for more people to survive periods of temporary unemployment as they transition from one job to a more fulfilling one. Funding childcare programs can also allow for parents to return to the workforce. It is imperative that the government build upon recent improvements—such as the expansion of the child tax credit—through an extension of social welfare programs that grant people the financial stability for them to quit their job and settle into a better situation. Together, these solutions can expand the inclusivity of Great Resignation benefits and lead to a more sustainable workforce.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the harsh reality of work for many Americans under capitalism, which led to the Great Resignation. As damaging as inflation and supply chain shortages are to consumers, these consequences of the low labor participation rate do put workers in a unique position of power and agency. Therefore, this moment must evolve into efforts that grant more people the opportunity to return and reshuffle into a more meaningful place in the labor force. They need to be supported financially in the pursuit of a more sustainable, fulfilling work-life balance that minimizes alienation. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said, “we don’t work for the economy, the economy is supposed to work for us.”