Opinion

Giving notice

Why Americans are quitting their jobs in droves

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

When a plague recedes like a spent tsunami, it reveals a world forever altered. Outbreaks of infectious disease — the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, the Spanish flu, AIDS — have been pivot points in human history. Plagues fueled the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. They eroded feudalism and gave rise to capitalism and the middle class. They devastated indigenous people in the Americas and paved the way for European colonization. We have just begun to see the first glimpses of how COVID-19 will reshape our society, but it's already clear that work will never be quite the same. We're in the midst of "the Great Resignation," with more than 12 million Americans quitting their jobs in the last three months alone. Given a pause during the pandemic to re-evaluate what matters to them, and vivid reminders that life is fragile and uncertain, blue- and white-collar workers of all kinds have decided to fire up that old Johnny Paycheck song: "Take This Job and Shove It."

I've gotten a paycheck every week for 40 years, and am a firm believer in "the dignity of work." But for work to provide dignity, people doing it need to be treated with decency and respect, not as cheap, replaceable cogs in a vast, soulless machine. Technology, globalization, and mammoth corporations have created an economy that depends on millions of worker bees doing tedious labor with lousy pay and benefits, long hours, and little or no autonomy or security. With so many burned-out Americans just saying "no," even after enhanced unemployment benefits came to an end, there is palpable panic in businesses large and small. Get back to work, you shiftless moochers! Um, please? People do need money, of course, so those who've quit dehumanizing gigs will need to figure out a Plan B. If they succeed, and if employers are forced to treat workers like human beings, the COVID plague will leave at least one positive legacy.

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