The Not-So-Great Resignation

The Great Resignation might not be so great.

Much ink has recently been spilled on what’s called “The Great Resignation.” It’s a great wave of employees who are quitting their jobs, mostly millennials between 30 and 45 years old, mostly in the tech and healthcare industries. No doubt it’s a great wave in terms of raw numbers. But I’m not so sure it’s great in terms of social well-being.

Here’s what I mean. First, a great wave of resignations is nothing new. In the 1960s and ‘70s many people, mostly boomers, quit their jobs more often than they have in recent times (perhaps why Johnny Paycheck’s You can take this job and shove it was a hit in 1977).

And consider that according to a pre-Covid (2017) Gallup study, two-thirds of workers feel disengaged at work. Of the country’s approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent felt no real connection to their jobs. Another 16 percent were “actively disengaged.” They resent their boss, their jobs, their co-workers, the office.

So we’re primed for another wave of resignations. But I think we’ve been primed for a long time. I’m referring to the “iron cage” of capitalism that Max Weber described in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber felt the Protestant view of work led to a form of capitalism which organizes and measures space and time as never before in human history. This relentless maximizing of efficiency traps workers in an iron cage of productivity and long hours, resulting in what he called the “disenchantment of the world.”

Now I’ll grant you the term “disenchantment” doesn’t trip off the tongue of most workers. It’s more a feeling, a low-grade fever that doesn’t incapacitate us but sure doesn’t feel like joy at work. We learn to live with it, even though it’s not what God would call living. With this in mind, let’s revisit The Great Resignation.

It’s mostly millennials battered by the Great Recession (2008) and now Covid. According to data from an Experian consumer debt study, this generation owes an average of $87,448. That’s a lot of debt, fueling a lot of disenchantment (life wasn’t supposed to turn out this way). Add to this the fact we’re seeing the highest rates of inflation in 40 years. Gains in hourly wages have been eaten up by higher prices for gas, groceries, cars, and so on.

But I’d say millennials in the tech industries are feeling this pinch less than those in other industries. Tech is mainly about maximizing efficiency, so tech workers are making out like bandits, many resigning because they can bid out their services to the highest bidder (see Meta Platforms poaching Microsoft code writers, often doubling their salaries).

It’s a different story for healthcare workers. Their work is less about efficiency, more about well-being. On average, they make less and their work is demanding in the best of times, so Covid is driving out many as patient loads soar, patience is stretched thin, and staffing is down. It’s disheartening, disenchanting. As one writer put it, many say, “to hell with this.”

It’s a similar story with teachers. They too work in vocations that on average make less money, are less about efficiency, more about effectiveness, social well-being, and mentoring. My wife Kathy taught in the public schools for 20 years. Covid, online learning, staff shortages—it’s pretty disenchanting. Like healthcare workers, many teachers say, “to hell with this.”

Believe it or not, it’s a similar story with pastors. They too work in vocations that are less about efficiency, more about social well-being. A recent Barna report notes an alarming finding: 46 percent of pastors under the age of 45 (millennials) are considering quitting. Only 35 percent of all pastors are “healthy” when measured by six categories of well-being.

So it seems to me that The Great Resignation is great for a few, mainly tech workers. It’s not-so-great for others. Most are stuck in an iron cage of capitalism rewarding efficiency and economic prosperity but less so those vocations tilted toward social well-being.

Which gives us a way forward. Predating Protestantism is a model often called “common-good capitalism,” depicted as a figure-eight of two interconnected spheres. The right sphere is social wellbeing. The left is economic prosperity. In this model, the right sphere (well-being) drives the left (economic prosperity). It’s both/and, shalom and profitability.

What’s fascinating is this right-driving-left model (well-being driving economic prosperity) aligns with how the brain’s two hemispheres interact. The right hemisphere thinks social well-being, effectiveness. God created it to drive the left, which thinks economic prosperity, efficiency. We however live in the western world that biases the left brain. Efficiency most often drives the equation.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Some are being drawn to common-good capitalism, including religious skeptics and “nones.” This model makes work about more than making money (or making gobs of money and “tipping” a little to charity). It makes work about love, seeking the well-being of all through seeking economic prosperity for all.

This is the model being taught at The Busch School of Business. Established in 2013, business students learn about common-good capitalism. My hope is this model replaces our reigning model of capitalism. The Great Resignation would be great if it catalyzes this shift.

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks, Mike. Common-good capitalism sounds similar to the Economics of Mutuality that Mars and Steven Garber that is being taught at Said Business School at Oxford University (see https://eom.org/). Having believers at the table, and folks who value more than just maximizing shareholder value, is crucial for re-thinking and re-teaching the purpose of business. I am grateful to serve with a ministry that is impacting MBA programs in the US and future generations of business leaders by introducing them to such alternative frameworks.

  2. By the way, it’ll be interesting to see whether these efforts impact leaders in finance such as Jamie Dimon, Chief Executive Officer of JP Morgan Chase. He has been calling for – and I quote – “a reformation of capitalism.” He believes we need to re-think the current model. Amen. May his tribe increase as well…

    … and may his tribe and your tribe, Mark, intersect.

  3. I work for an engineering company that has made a strong push in recent years to be “employee owned” initially by simply giving company shares to employees, but more recently by emphasizing and engaging all employees in the decision making processes. I’d be interested to hear how you think employee ownership fits with the model of common-good capitalism versus left-brained economic capitalism.

  4. Happiness and Meaning/Purpose driving from the right steering morality that’s on the left. Makes sense only because the jot and tittle of Morality is a bad driver, mucking up Happiness and Meaning/Purpose.

  5. Dallas Willard has a deep take on this “well being” circle…from Divine Conspiracy…

    “The various scenes and situations that Jesus discusses in his Discourse on the
    Hill are actually stages in a progression toward a life of agape love. They progres-
    sively presuppose that we know where our well-being really lies, that we have laid
    aside anger and obsessive desire, that we do not try to mislead people to get our
    way, and so on. Then loving and helping those who hurt us and hate us, for exam-
    ple, will come as a natural progression. Doing so will seem quite right, and we will
    be able to do so”
    Many put lots of effort to plan and work towards “economic prosperity” and can define goals and even end points for where this leads to in life… while this is good, it is so much more if the well being plan more and more drives elements and decisions and goals in the economic prosperity plan…
    Thanks for your insights as usual…
    BTW…I am curious on reviewing the Legatum Institute (briefly) if it has Jesus as part or core in its well being circle?

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