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A spiritual awakening is behind the ‘Great Resignation’

By Matthew Delaney

There’s more to the droves of people quitting their jobs as a part of the “Great Resignation” than mere practical considerations — it’s a spiritual awakening that’s changing our relationship to work. 

Media outlets have largely documented how workers are fed up with low pay and high expectations in unglamorous jobs. So, they’re using the government assistance provided over the past year and a half, or their own beefed-up savings from not eating out or vacationing, to hold off on rejoining the labor force.  

Some of them are “skilling up” by going back to school or picking up a new trade that will help market them in a lucrative field, such as one former cook-turned-coder spotlighted by CNBC. Some quit due to burnout. This is especially common in the tech and health care fields where demand surged during the pandemic. And some were laid off and can’t find another job. Now, they’re even retiring early due to a lack of options. 

These quitters are turning toward entrepreneurship — reversing a 40-year decline — or are finding less of a need for work in general. Of course, there are also people still wary of Covid-19 and its many variants.  

Companies have bent on many things we previously would’ve been shocked by in order to lure people back. 

Employees said they weren’t making a living wage, so entry-level jobs began offering a $15/hour starting wage seemingly overnight. Others felt that companies weren’t investing in their future, so places like Target and Walmart now offer free tuition. Those who got a taste of remote work in Spring 2020 liked the flexibility it offered them, so some jobs made it a permanent feature

These are what we’re told matter to workers (by the media), so you can understand the air of celebration around these gains (by the media). The Atlantic excitedly proclaimed that the old way of “everybody working in urban areas for old companies that they never leave” is dying out. Now, “The Great Resignation is speeding up, and it’s created a centrifugal moment in American economic history.”  

Huzzah…right? Apparently, that hasn’t been enough to convince people to put a name tag back on or rejoin their nearest cubicle farm. 

The most recent November jobs report missed expectations badly when only 210,000 new jobs were added (of around 570,000 expected). With 34 million people and counting quitting their jobs as of September, it’s on track to easily exceed the 36 million who did the same in 2020. 

We’re left thinking that all the money and perks in the world can’t beat the feeling that your work has meaning. According to those on the ground level, that’s what most people are looking for.  

“I find a lot of people go into careers and end up making very great lives for themselves. But at the root of it, there’s something missing still,” said Jo Maurina, who runs her own life coaching business GloWithJo out of Salt Lake City, Utah. “And typically, it’s [that] they’re finding no fulfillment in what they’re doing. It’s really just providing.” 

That “something” that’s missing is a purpose. The same thing that motivates entrepreneurs to spend every bit of cash on their idea is the same thing that motivates scientists to document climate change in total isolation. 

Having their needs met is just a byproduct of making a difference. That’s why some businesses are rebranding themselves as more holistic, purpose- driven companies that attract employees looking for a mission to achieve. 

It’s been a different set of circumstances for the people Maurina works with. She said her clients are high-achievers — they don’t make up the mid-career (and likely listless) demographic that’s driven resignations nationwide. But even getting that “mission accomplished” feeling can’t overcome the lack of satisfaction it provides. 

There are times where working less is helping more. She’s instructed one client, who founded his own finance firm, to work toward a purpose outside of the demands of his business.  

“I’ve noticed it a lot with CEOs and founders of companies, you can’t just walk away from what you’ve created. If you’re in it, [then] you’re in it,” Maurina said. “But he’s adventuring into different things and finding his other creative spark to where he’s finding fulfillment in his whole life.” 

However, there are growing pains to be expected with people divesting their energy from work.  

As the Rand Corporation put it, “In a market democracy, whatever their motivations, workers ultimately decide the nature and amount of work they want to pursue, thereby determining the aggregate labor supply and economic outcomes.”  

Basically, if people don’t show up to work, you shouldn’t be surprised by lousy service, shipping delays and a general bumpy ride whenever you choose to be a consumer. Not to mention its overall effect on GDP, which becomes another factor dragging down everyone’s quality of life.  

I doubt we’ll have a lot of patience for people trying to “find themselves” once the pandemic unavoidably ends in 2022. When we want something in this country, we want it immediately. That’s why many corporations are turning to trusty robot alternatives instead of looking for new hires.  

A least half of the U.S.’s restaurant operators are looking to use automation to fill gaps in employment within the next two to three years. For example, White Castle is deploying a burger-flipping robot, McDonald’s is piloting automated drive-thru ordering and Chick-Fil-A is experimenting with robot delivery. Automated task management and guest communication is on the rise in hotels around the country as well. 

This rebellious moment for the American worker will end. Pandemic savings dry up, over-ambitious dreams are humbled by personal limitations, and, besides, there are only so many places you can road trip to in the states (take it from me). 

If anything long-lasting is to come from the Great Resignation, we should hope that it gradually shrinks the gap between rote jobs that pay the bills and meaningful jobs that fill the soul.

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Matthew Delaney


Matthew Delaney is a local journalist based in Washington, D.C. When he’s not questioning why he joined the media, he’s doing his part to restore some of its credibility with quality work

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