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Goodbye to job: how the pandemic changed Americans’ attitude to work

One morning in October, Lynn woke up and decided she would quit her job on the spot that day. The decision to quit was the climax of a reckoning that began at the start of the pandemic when she was first laid off from a job she had been in for three years.

“I’ve always had the attitude of being a really hard worker,” Lynn said, explaining that she believed her skills made her indispensable to this company. “That really changed for me because I realized you could feel totally capable and really important when, really, you’re expendable.”

A few months after being laid off, Lynn, who wished to be referred to by just her first name for fear of professional repercussions, got a job as a diagnostic technician for a solar company in Massachusetts. After a year at the company, work started to become an endless cycle of stress. Her company was in the process of eliminating her department and was trying to decrease her pay.

“I just needed out,” she said.

Lynn is one of the millions of Americans who have experienced a tectonic shift in their outlook to work during the pandemic. In September, 4.4 million people – more than the population of Oregon – quit their jobs. Job openings have surpassed 10m since the beginning of summer. Workers have been going on strikes and speaking out about their working conditions online, particularly on the popular subreddit r/Antiwork, which has over a million members.

“Quit my job last night, it was nice to be home to make the kids breakfast and take them to school today,” one Reddit user wrote on a post that has received more than 267,000 upvotes.

“I may not have health insurance, but I feel so free!” another user wrote in a post that included screenshots of their resignation via text message.

To experts who study the history and cultural role of work in the US, the fact that this moment occurred during the pandemic is largely unsurprising. Millions of Americans have long been exhausted by harsh working conditions – long hours, low pay and little flexibility – and many, especially those who were deemed “essential workers”, have been burnt out by the pandemic.

“People are saying that they are systematically underpaid, they get a ridiculously low share of the value that they produce over the course of the day. They’re doing most of the work, and yet they’re treated badly and receive wages that they cannot live on,” said Kathi Weeks, an associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University and author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. “The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa who has studied the role that work plays in the lives of Americans for decades, describes it as a mass re-evaluation of the promise that a job can be more than a means to an end and can deeply fulfill us as human beings.

Work as we know it is a modern invention, Hunnicutt points out, a product of the Industrial Revolution. The revolution separated work life from home life and made it a distinct part of people’s lives. While the payoff for society was huge, it also made work the dominant factor in our lives, with people working over 70 hours and having fewer days off.

Hunnicutt notes that progress in the early 20th century was defined as higher wages and shorter working hours. Notable economists predicted that this trend would continue and people would work less. The famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, people would be working 15-hour work weeks.

“Free time was seen as that place where human beings could flourish,” Hunnicutt said. “Work was good, but it’s still a means to an end – the end being making a living and the promise of free time to enrich life so that we become better parents, better participants in our community.”

Instead, we have been stuck at the same 40-hour workweek that came out of the Great Depression. Why we have not budged away from the 40-hour workweek, despite technology that has made workers far more productive, is a question that Hunnicutt says his research from the last 50 years has been trying to answer.

Since the 40-hour workweek was developed over 80 years ago, Americans have developed an almost religious devotion to work, Hunnicutt argues, one where work is seen as an end itself and is “fraught with expectations”.

“Our expectation is that work will continue to be ‘full time’ and it will be that place where our humanity can be fulfilled,” he said.

But while Americans were raised on the idea of a dream job, one that could be both personally and financially fulfilling, work has often fallen short of providing people with what they need to live.

A statue of ‘Elena the Essential Worker’ is seen at a One Fair Wage and the Poor People’s Campaign rally in Washington earlier this year.
A statue of ‘Elena the Essential Worker’ is seen at a One Fair Wage and the Poor People’s Campaign rally in Washington earlier this year. Photograph: Leigh Vogel/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

There is a huge gap between the productivity of workers over the last 40 years and the amount that wages have grown during the same time. Wages today offer workers the same purchasing power that they had in 1979, with the highest tenth of wage earners seeing the most meaningful rise in wages each year. About 43 million Americans have student loan debt worth a total of $1.7tn. Gig and contract work, which typically comes without health insurance or retirement benefits, has risen 15% over the last decade.

Even before the pandemic, the reality for many millennials is that they will financially be worse off than their parents, having less wealth than previous generations, largely because of the rising cost of homes and student debt.

This reality of work has created a disillusionment with work among young Americans that Hunnicutt said had been observed before the pandemic but had also been exacerbated by it.

“The experience of being away from work has awakened people,” Hunnicutt said. “There are other things to do – there are walks to take in the park, there’s life beyond work that [people] had not thought about before.”

Companies have caught on to the decreasing tolerance for work – particularly work with long hours and bad conditions – and have indicated they are willing to implement some change. Dozens of companies have announced they will allow their employees to work remotely indefinitely. Some companies, like Kickstarter and Shopify, are experimenting with four-day workweeks, which some argue does not affect productivity while increasing employee satisfaction.

Policy action at the federal level, while limited, suggests lawmakers have been paying attention. Paid family and medical leave, while currently under heavy debate in Congress, made their way into a major spending bill passed by the House on Friday. Mark Takano, a US representative from California, has introduced a bill for a 32-hour workweek.

Some experts say the phenomenon is temporary, a product of a hot labor market that is empowering workers, and things will eventually go back to the way things were.

But others are hopeful that the pandemic has permanently shifted the way that people think about work and will inspire them to question – and even change – the role it plays in our lives.

Weeks said that she is excited that so many people are active on the r/Antiwork subreddit, and that they seem to come from different industries and backgrounds.

“People are identifying this as a systematic problem with work,” Weeks said. “What’s interesting is the way people are making connections between their individual experiences and identifying patterns: ‘Actually, there’s something systemic here. There is a deeper problem that’s producing these similar experiences.’”

Lynn said reading the subreddit made her feel validated about quitting her job abruptly. She posted her story on the page and received dozens of comments of support. One person messaged her and said that her post inspired them to quit their job.

“My mindset has totally shifted on how I allowed myself to be treated,” said Lynn, who has since started a new role at a different company that is giving her higher pay and better benefits. “I definitely value my own personal time and family a lot more now that I recognize the value that a corporate entity actually sees in you.