A new perspective on work brought about by stay-at-home orders, the significant emergency benefits put in place by Joe Biden, big companies being brought into question: The factors explaining the high volume of resignations being handed in in the United States are plentiful. But above all others is the loss of meaning in work, in a country where unhappiness is becoming more and more widespread.
“I quit!”: A phrase millions of employers across the U.S. have been hearing over the last few months. On this Valentine’s Day, that most grueling of days, we have decided to celebrate break-ups as a source of freedom. As always with our friends across the pond, the phenomenon bears a name: “the Great Resignation.”
What is happening? Arnaud Leparmentier, U.S. correspondent for French daily newspaper Le Monde, quotes 29-year-old Tiffany Knighten, who uploaded a video of herself to TikTok: “I did it! My mental health welcoming me back after leaving c*rporate America.” Under pressure and underpaid, Americans have good reasons to leave their jobs. But in the U.S., resigning also means losing one’s health insurance and retirement plan contributions, which are tied to one’s job.
So, what changed? Like everywhere else, the successive lockdowns have brought about a realization among many workers of how little they were seeing their children grow up and how little time they had for themselves because of overly long workweeks — holding multiple jobs is a common occurrence in the U.S. On top of it all, Biden’s enormous stimulus package has led to a vigorous economic recovery, which is making it easier to resign.
Americans Against Chains
But companies in the U.S. are also being challenged in a momentous way. Too big, discriminatory against everyone but straight white males, giant American companies are met with growing rejection in a country where small businesses, symbols of personal success and independence, have all but disappeared. And this is not just about Facebook or Amazon. In the U.S., even pharmacies are chains stores, to name but one example.
We are witnessing a similar phenomenon in our own country, with the development of chains in sectors which used to be dominated by independent businesses: liquor stores, hair salons, garages…. In the United States, as Thomas Philippon, economist and professor of finance at New York University, demonstrated, those chains very often find themselves in a monopoly position, from which they can crush suppliers, customers and employees. As well as, naturally, local politicians, of whom they can ask everything and more.
Additionally, work in those massive stores is standardized and monitored to an unprecedented extent “thanks” to new digital tools. Workers cannot take any initiative and are under the yoke of bureaucracies, as the late David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, explained in an essay published in 2015.* As a result, employees are valued neither by their company nor by their managers. Many of those who have resigned, especially among non-white workers, simply did not feel like they were a part of the company they were working for.
As Tiffany put it: “We must force companies to be better, to treat us as human beings, to be true to their word, to be human.”** This is how the oh-so-charming company Kellogg’s had to face a powerful and efficient smear campaign on social network Reddit when the company tried to hire non-union workers to replace striking employees. (Yet further proof that before disparaging social networks, we should pay attention to their content.)
Moreover, if such a high number of American women have failed to head back to the office, the factory or the store aisles, it is because finding child care has become impossible when so many schools remain closed. As for the industries affected, it is in those jobs with the longest hours, the lowest wages and the highest risk of COVID-19 exposure that the number of resignations is the highest: waiting staff, receptionists, retail workers, bus or truck drivers, home care workers….
A Country of Unhappy People
Studies are proving those resigning workers right: Those who leave see a higher wage increase than others. Their decision to quit also notably benefits young people, who find themselves in front of employers fighting to attract them. And, theoretically speaking, we can only rejoice in seeing managers discover anew that the “labor market” is two-sided, and that while, at least in the U.S., they are able to dismiss an employee out of the blue, so can employees say their goodbyes without warning.
But we should not forget that physical and psychological pain reaches such heights in the U.S. that the country is home to “deaths of despair,” according to the important eponymous essay by Anne Case and Angus Deaton.*** And the loss of meaning in work is one of the biggest factors behind this immense sadness, from which the opioid epidemic stems. Because the United States has taken the competition of everyone against everyone else much too far, and given in to all-out consumption, it has become the wealthy country where people are the most unhappy. This should give us food for thought.
*The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, Melville House, 2015
**Editor’s Note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be sourced in English. The French version, attributed to a different TikToker, Gabby Ianniello, can be found here: https://www.lemonde.fr/emploi/article/2022/01/25/la-grande-demission-aux-etats-unis-une-vague-de-departs-deferle-sur-les-entreprises_6110824_1698637.html
***Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 2020