Everyone has been talking about the “Big Quit” movement sweeping across the U.S. and beyond. Experts are grappling with statistics showing record-breaking labor shortages — from Amazon warehouse floors to centers of the care and knowledge economy.
For centuries, work has been at the heart of how the vast majority of us measure our worth — as citizens and as human beings. Today, it is the ticket to survival in 21st century America.
For the first time in recent memory, workers are wresting back some of their power as employers struggle to fill vacancies and devise new methods to entice people back to work. Could this be the end of corporate exploitation, bad bosses, long and thankless hours and the beginning of something new? A new form of “freedom”?
As a historical sociologist of labor, I believe this is a crucial moment for reflection. What exactly are we running toward? Is the solution to the ills of modern work to go out on our own? What lessons can history teach us?
After slavery was abolished in the 19th century, ex-slaves, migrants and the working classes were all told to cherish their “freedom” — but they quickly learned that freedom meant work. Productivity became central to the human endeavor, the gold standard for personal flourishing and social progress.
The free labor contract too became the law of civilized nations. No longer could individuals be coerced, bound or whipped into work. The age of consent had arrived. Yet, what did this mean when to survive was to — voluntarily — sign away all waking hours to the factory, mine or plantation owner?
Some relief was found in the 20th-century social contract with the welfare state — due in large part to the victories of organized labor. But since the 1980s, the state has rolled back many of these protections, leaving it to the private sector to provide — in the name of the “free” market.
Benefits and social protections needed to survive in modern America are now more than ever tied to the traditional work relationship. Quietly, corporations have increasingly opted for leaner subcontracting and temporary work arrangements — in the name of flexibility.
The “Great Resignation” signals a collective realization that there is a serious problem with work. Many are simply not returning to traditional jobs at all. A record number of women have been forced out of the job market — exposing a glaring rift between the social versus the economic “value” of care work.
For others, mental health now trumps the relentless pursuit of a career. Still, others have simply reached their limit with employers that prioritize profit and gain over their people. Everyone — from Trevor Noah to Robert Reich — has been offering up explanations as to why people are quitting.
But beyond working from home, what does this demand for “flexible” work really look like?
Trends indicate that many are opting for the autonomy of entrepreneurism, freelance, contract or gig work. This move is being celebrated as the “Great Contingency” — a new era of freedom and flexibility. After a grueling 18 months, these flexible work arrangements seem more alluring than ever. In response, companies are already contemplating part-time contracts and freelancers as a permanent hiring model.
We must be cautious about jumping too quickly into this new era of autonomy and self-dependence. Who will be there to catch us when we fall?
The economically secure can pump social and financial capital into new startups, fall back on savings and flit between opportunities — but do we all have this luxury? History shows us that “freedom” comes with new risks. Study after study has warned us of the decreased earnings and growing insecurity of gig work, as the most economically marginalized are barely earning a minimum wage.
The “Great Resignation” could be a golden opportunity — a chance to radically transform the central place of work in our lives. But are we marching headlong off a cliff — voluntarily opting out of the lifelines provided by the employment relationship, no matter how problematic?
If this trend continues, this could be a mass flight into precarity. Many are caught between a rock and a hard place. We must tread carefully, demanding new ways to live economically secure lives — while resisting the urge to blindly follow the siren song of freedom.
Mishal Khan, Ph.D., is a social scientist with a focus on the regulation of labor after slavery across the globe and how these shifts affect the future of work.
©2021 Chicago Tribune.
Visit at chicagotribune.com.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.