The Not-So-Great Resignation indicates few workers understand leisure.
Two weeks ago I wrote a piece on the Great Resignation. The statistics for workers quitting work entirely are more sobering than I realized then. Nicholas Eberstadt brought a few to readers’ attention in a Wall Street Journal interview. If you’re a subscriber, here’s the link.
If you’re not a subscriber, here’s my take on Eberstadt. He feels recent resignations won’t turn out so great. In addition to the problem of whether nonworking Americans can afford to quit work, his research reveals the “dreary lifestyles” of a rising number of them.
Let’s talk about this for a moment.
Dreariness is the result of disenchantment. Max Weber said the Protestant Work Ethic led to “the disenchantment of the western world.” Workers feel trapped in an “iron cage,” having to make ever more goods but having to make ever more money to afford them.
Some feel this disenchantment, others don’t. The “haves” don’t. They live in what HGTV defines as the good life: elegant homes, exotic travel, exquisite dining. God isn’t necessarily opposed to these things—and the Protestant Work Ethic did create more “haves”—but it also widened the gap between “haves” and “have nots,” those can’t afford the HGTV life.
Communication technologies exacerbate this. The “have-nots” can now watch the “haves” supposedly “having it all.” This fuels disenchantment, with many quitting the workforce. To hell with this. Eberstadt wrote a book on this in 2016, focusing on prime working-age males quitting work. But the trend also applies to women—and it’s been a long time coming.
In 1961, labor-force participation for prime-age men was 96.9 percent. Since then, the rate sinks. By November 2021, it was 88.2 percent, almost 1 in 8 men is sitting out work. “Would we think it was a crisis if the work rate fell below the Great Depression level?” Eberstadt asks. “Well you can check that box. We’re already there.”
But here’s the really troubling part. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonworking men report being in front of screens 2,000 hours a year. In 2019 childless women without jobs said they spent seven hours a day in “leisure,” a category dominated by entertainment.
This ain’t leisure. It’s idleness, generated by entertainment. The word entertain means to hold, or to be held. Most viewers are being held in the grip of entertainment that foster a consumerism fueled by discontent. We feel we never make enough, are never good-looking enough, can never “have it all.” U2 saw this coming: Too much is not enough.
The pandemic has accelerated this trend by shutting people inside, making idleness easier. An abundance of streaming movies, videogames and social-media sites consume ever more of most people’s time, driving folks deeper into dreary lifestyles. This malaise is evident in volunteerism dropping in nonworking men and women.
What then can be done? For starters, the faith community can resurrect the ancient notion of leisure and idleness. Leisure is contemplation, opening our bodies receptively to whatever God offers so that he enters into us, so to speak, without any effort or strain on our part.
This is not a leisurely lifestyle, however. That has connotations of takin’ my time. Leisure is stopping time, being visited by an awareness of what holds the world together, for only a moment perhaps. This lightning intuition must be recaptured, rediscovered in hard work.
Augustine had these experiences. A proponent of the passive life—leisure—he adopted the active life in times of pandemics. C. S. Lewis also had such experiences of illumination, as did Einstein. I wonder how many American Christians experience leisure this way?
Idleness is sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. It’s stimulus checks encouraging workers to quit work entirely. As Eberstadt notes, it’s hard to prove that these programs “caused the male flight from work.” But he argues that they at least “financed it.” The benefits cushion the impact of dropping out.
Eberstadt confesses he has no grand plan on how to change this. The church should. Leisure is not an escape from work. It is opening ourselves to whatever God might say to us about our current condition of disenchantment. That’d be a good start.
 Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (Templeton Press, 2016).
 Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Ignatius, 1952), 48.