(Austin Stone, American Institute for Economic Research) News outlets are calling it a “Great Resignation”: millions of able-bodied Americans refusing to work. This phenomenon, so alien to America’s ethos as a leader in production and innovation, has authorities scratching their heads and desperately seeking answers.
Our nation was founded with an entrepreneurial mentality. The earliest colonists and later pioneers built beachheads from nothing in New England and tamed the western wilds. Both devout Puritan Calvinists and secular types exemplified by Benjamin Franklin prized values like punctuality and industriousness either as articles of faith or good sense. America itself was a startup whose value was its human capital and sweat—sometimes blood—equity.
Over the centuries, Americans have emphasized work culture and made it busier and more productive than any other nation, according to a multi-level analysis released in 2020, just before the pandemic. Indeed, our European friends think we work too hard, but most Americans have historically expressed satisfaction with their work conditions, hours, and workload, according to Gallup polling.
That is, until now. Labor experts are debating the cause of the Great Resignation brewing in America’s workforce because it’s an extraordinary phenomenon in economic terms. There are plenty of open jobs—employers are desperate, actually—but millions of Americans have stopped showing up.
Specialists have attempted to diagnose this malady before it metastasizes into an irreversible economic crisis. Free-market capitalists point to the pandemic unemployment expansions and stimulus payments that incentivized workers to either quit or get themselves fired and offered Americans who live month-to-month more financial flexibility to work less. They are correct: despite best intentions, when people can make more from unemployment than from a job, we’re inviting economic underperformance. But the stimulus and federal unemployment bonus have now ended, and the Great Resignation is accelerating.
Left-leaning pundits have tried to call the Great Resignation a symptom of “labor militancy,” pointing to the strikes and walkouts that have repeatedly cropped up in several industries. However, many of these rowdy rebellions have been grassroots resistance to vaccine mandates and lingering Covid restrictions. Union leaders have been the tip of the spear for enforcing these directives, even penalizing and coercing their own members who appeal to them for help.
The Great Resignation is not just a story of economic policy incentives or Marxist analysis, or even exasperation with rude and difficult customers. It’s not a matter of attitude adjustment, as if Americans were adopting the Chinese practice of tang ping—”lying down,” the new trend of young people giving up trying to achieve or accomplish anything. Quietist philosophy—at least when it comes to professional occupation—is foreign to the American culture of liberty and self-determination.
Solving the mystery of the Great Resignation phenomenon is not difficult. We must pay attention to who is resigning—what kind of workers—and put ourselves in their shoes.
The “laptop class,” John Tierney’s term for college-educated workers whose workday is largely computerized, is not resigning. Graphic designers, software developers, and the assorted cohort of spreadsheet surfers and keyboard warriors have not been the primary driver of unemployment during or after the pandemic. Most companies and employees adapted to remote work, a development that was long overdue given the technology available. Now, the only office employers struggling to fill cubicles are those who still think cubicles are the future.
The workers resigning are those most brutally impacted by policy over the last year and a half. They wear uniforms, or at least boots, and most of their customers are strangers: police officers, airline pilots, healthcare workers, builders, repairmen. We used to call them “frontline heroes” and “essential employees”—now we oppress them with litanies of Covid mandates in their workplace.
And don’t forget about the workers in retail and restaurants who have always lived just above the poverty line. At a time of unprecedented economic instability, they don’t see much difference between their paltry wage and welfare, with poverty even being preferable to an exploitative or abusive workplace.
The Great Resignation is a blue-collar movement. Data from the Department of Labor and privately-conducted surveys bear this out. In short, the backbone of America, the ones who keep the country up and running, are walking off the job. And we all know why.
We’ve all walked into a restaurant or grocery store where masks are not required for customers, but “corporate office” wants all employees to wear them. We’ve all had a friend or relative whose job has been threatened by public or private-sector vaccine mandates. We’ve watched the disunity over Covid restrictions split churches and tear school districts apart—so why should we be surprised it demotivates workers?
Working in these conditions comes at a price—and for blue-collar jobs especially, that price is not justified by the salary. Workers in these jobs value job security, schedule regularity, and constancy of tasks—a job to be proud of, but not to prioritize over values, free time, or personal dignity.
As a country, we’re shackling our own economy by forcing these workers to make the choice between their livelihood and their dignity or autonomy. We need blue-collar workers: their ingenuity, energy, and constancy are what built this country and, despite our current crisis, can now build it back. Many progressive policies have already targeted the industries that are crucial to the national infrastructure, like manufacturing or oil and gas. More politically-driven regulations might be the straw that breaks the economy’s back.
Unfortunately, our national disunity over Covid and a host of other issues won’t be going away any time soon; it’s already escalated into a conflict with inevitable winners and losers. We can’t reform government, public-sector unions, schools, or corporations overnight. But we can build alternative institutions and parallel economies that create opportunities for hard-working Americans who won’t be pushed around. We can return to an economy where businesses focus on business, not irrelevant agendas using corporations as a vehicle for politics.
The American entrepreneur of the future must rally the workers being squeezed by these coercive policies. Their productivity and ingenuity—currently subdued by short-sighted agendas—may be America’s greatest untapped resource.
Austin Stone is Managing Partner at Beck & Stone. He is currently on assignment in Washington D.C., serving as COO for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE).