Everybody knows somebody who quit their job in the past year. In 2021, over 47 million American workers voluntarily left their employers, meaning that 32.7% of the workforce elected to pursue new personal and professional opportunities. This movement, commonly known as “The Great Resignation,” has rattled American employers and households alike, and while there is still no uniform explanation for this trend, dozens of commentators continue to speculate about why American society is in this situation. Journalists and company leaders raise questions about why people are choosing to leave their jobs. They ask, “What is making them leave?” and “What are they looking for?”
For the ten years leading up to the pandemic, voluntary turnover rates had been steadily increasing. In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the highest quit rate to date, at 28%, but this figure dropped to 25.2% in 2020—the first year of the pandemic. Despite the various adjustments that individuals and families had to make in order to meet their employers’ new policies (such as remote work), more workers chose to stay with their employers than in prior years. It was not until after a full year of Zoom meetings and mask-wearing that these rates began to rise again.
While the pandemic appeared to keep many Americans from quitting their jobs, it likely only delayed them. In 2021, the quit rate jumped to 32.7%, a new record high (over 4 percentage points higher than the 2019 high), meaning that nearly a third of American workers voluntarily changed their employment situation last year. Clearly, the onset and fallout from the pandemic have affected the way Americans approach work, but the data around quit rates indicates that the pandemic only served to make an ongoing trend more pronounced. If workers were voluntarily leaving their positions at high rates in the years leading up to the pandemic, then it is likely that workers were already in the habit of searching for something else—perhaps something more.
This may be why some commentators prefer to call this movement, “The Great Reconsideration.” These observers notice that the waves of resignations rippling through the job market echo murmurings of questions that are more existential than circumstantial. Particularly in white collar industries, like consulting, law, tech, and finance, workers are questioning whether the prestige and perks are worth the burnout they suffer. With the standard for working hours in the United States consistently exceeding the 40 hours once considered normal, workers are left wondering whether their companies are deserving of the time committed to them. When workers contemplate a career change based on points like these, they are reflecting on something closer to the core of their being. They are questioning the role of work in their lives and wondering whether a career change could affect their identities and their sense of worth.
One of the reasons that work is part of a person’s identity is the language we use to describe work and workers. Many cultures refer to a worker by giving him or her a title based on his or her primary talent or occupation. For instance, a person who bakes bread is a baker and a person who manages accounts is an accountant. Consequently, we identify ourselves and each other not by who we are but by what we do. Turning the person’s activity into the person’s title takes the emphasis away from the person himself and places it on the activity instead. Regardless of particular occupations, if we see ourselves as workers rather than persons who work, we attribute more of our identities to our work than to our simply being.
In addition to providing the means for modern people to define themselves, work sets the criteria by which modern people are to evaluate themselves. Twentieth century French philosopher Yves Simon remarked that modern society holds an exalted view of work. He noticed how when people believe “that work is the highest value, the fullest and perhaps the only meaningful form of human activity,” they begin to value themselves and each other in terms that accord with it. For example, quantitative values like hours and compensation, as well as qualitative values like reputation, all offer measures for people to use in determining the value of a person by valuing their labor. Work, therefore, being a modern person’s primary activity, determines not only how they identify themselves but also how they value themselves.
The workplace, then, becomes the setting for the modern person’s search, in which they endeavor to find the source of their fulfillment and then to be fulfilled by it. Modern culture conditions us to expect his work to fulfill us and convinces us to continue offering our labor, day after day. Sadly, many men and women are caught in a cycle of futilely worshipping work. They sacrifice and surrender to work as an idol, degrading themselves from workers to workaholics, not realizing that work will never fully satisfy their desires.
While it is impossible to speak for the millions of workers who resigned from their jobs last year, the degree of this change suggests that people are looking for something else (something more) and they are willing to abandon the source of their livelihood to pursue it. Workers have said that they left their employers in favor of better compensation, benefits, prestige, and flexibility. While this may be true, Christianity reveals that these things will still not be enough to meet workers’ needs; these motivations cannot provide lasting happiness. While many workers are Christians, who profess a faith that states that such worldly things cannot fully satisfy, they still struggle to clarify and live by their values in a world of buzzing dissonance.
The Catholic Spirituality of Labor
The Church offers clarification of humanity’s relationship with labor, and why labor is an essential human activity. It teaches about work as a vocation and as something that has been an integral component of life since the moment God first created human beings. Christians believe that when God created human beings in his own image and likeness, he commissioned them to create, just as he does. In doing this, God bestowed humanity with a personhood like his own, making the human person “a conscious and free subject” who is “capable of acting in a planned and rational way” (Laborem Exercens, §6).
It is therefore by divine design that human beings find meaning in their labor. Through their work, they carry out the task given to them by their creator and embrace the sublime office generously offered to them. As an exercise of a faculty given to them by God, labor is one of the ways in which men and women can profess and reinforce their dignity. Hence, capacity for labor is not only a gift that enables man to care for himself and assure his survival, but it is also an activity that “reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (LE, §4).
The Creation story also conveys a second key characteristic of God that human beings are designed to imitate: his capacity for rest. Genesis states that after making the earth, sky, animals, and human beings, God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3); after the greatest known exercise of power, generosity, and wisdom, the Creator rested. Rest, in its non-activity, appears to be diametrically opposed to work, yet they are both conditions that demonstrate qualities particular to God. Scripture reveals and the Church teaches that “man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest” (LE, §25). Therefore, work and rest are intrinsically related, and together, when properly ordered and balanced, they represent the fullness of man’s created being.
In contemplation and discernment over these foundational truths, the Church has developed a rich tradition and a robust teaching on the subject of human labor. This Christian heritage maintains that in every era and no matter the task, “human labor is not without dignity; is not a distasteful and burdensome thing, but rather something to be esteemed, an honor and a joy” (Fulgens Radiatur, §29). It is from this long and evolving history that the Church speaks when it encourages workers and speaks against their exploitation.
The Failures and Limitations of Modern Labor Organization
Unfortunately, the Catholic vision of human labor is currently more of a dream than a reality. Rather than constructing a work environment that exalts human beings to fulfill their calling to co-create with God, company policies and practices can degrade human beings and waste the gifts they offer. When this happens, human work can become distorted, falling short of the perfection given by God at creation. When human beings labor in a way that fails to honor their dignity, they resemble objects rather than persons.
There are countless ways in which work can devolve into something sub-human and compromise the dignity of the human person. History books and newspapers offer obvious examples where people have been made to work in dehumanizing ways, such as under chattel slavery or lethal conditions in factories. In these situations, the organization or employer managing labor denies a principal truth about humanity—that the human being is a person—by reducing the person to a brutish animal or an impersonal machine. When humans are treated like animals or machines, they are held to production standards and conditions that their bodies are not capable of meeting.
While slavery and sweatshops are extreme and obvious cases of vicious labor practices, bad work is not uncommon in less physically oppressive settings, like office environments. Like manual labor, intellectual labor can be structured mechanically. Around the world, call centers and help desks focus on limiting the scope of employee responsibilities to make tasks short, repetitive, and predictable. Then, to the extent that tasks can be automated, companies invest in software and willingly replace workers with an automated solution. These practices do not honor the workers’ abilities to reason or think creatively; instead, they are narrow and reductive.
Another problematic example is the billable hour model, which is commonly used by professional services firms. While each individual consultant, lawyer, or accountant may bring unique skills and depth of knowledge to their clients, the billable hour is the ubiquitous method for collecting pay for services rendered and reduces the worker from a person to a body, valued at 2,000 billable hours per year. Although these business practices help assure quality, consistency, efficiency, and profitability, they do so by reducing human beings to mere objects.
This tendency towards objectifying human beings comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about the human person. In the examples described above, the person’s inherent dignity is denied, as the laborers are treated as objects, rather than people; they are means, rather than ends in themselves. Persons become fungible resources, inanimate and interchangeable, anytime they are seen as merely inputs to some greater production model. Business scholar Lloyd E. Sandelands observes that objectification permits companies to leverage techniques “that size, weigh, and index workers by their objective qualities of knowledge, skill, ability, experience, and demography.” These practices enable companies to make impersonal and objective decisions without the need to consider each employee’s individual needs, desires, and gifts. Consequently, objectification can be an attractive strategy as it absolves the company of any duties to its workers that go beyond assuring their basic well-being. This allows for a productivism to emerge which places the focus on the perfection of the work rather than on the perfection of the person who works.
Although objectification in the context of labor has allowed humanity to improve its standard of living, it has not made employees more human. Rather, material progress has come at the cost of degrading humans and the rest of creation. Servant of God, Romano Guardini cautioned the emergence of “objectivity as the most modern of virtues,” which he viewed as “an attitude that ignores personal feelings and focuses solely on achieving a desired result.” He challenged the allure of objectivity, which promises to free humanity from the temptation of its preferences and the weight of emotional influences. He saw how when human beings objectify each other, they adopt an instrumental stance towards creation. Taking creative control into their own hands, they dismiss (or at minimum, reduce) the role of God.
Empowered by their belief in their own control, they rearrange human life into something artificial and construct “an order of time that is [their] own making,” eventually coming to believe that there is no common perfection towards which they should be aiming. As a result, the emphasis shifts from excellence to authenticity, which encourages each individual to be expressive and original. Individuals who grant themselves the authority to see others as objects also grant themselves the authority to define the meaning of what is good and what is true. In a world where human beings do not recognize their role as secondary creators in relation to God, the primary creator, they believe they have the right to decide why and how they should live.
Philosopher Charles Taylor describes what has resulted what he calls an “Age of Authenticity,” characterized by individual expression and achievement taking precedence over all else, and this push to be authentic informs the mentality with which workers and leaders approach the workplace. The idea that work can be an avenue for individual expression and authenticity is a rebellion against the objectification problem while also being a contributor to a new state of confusion in the work environment. With each individual acting out of his or her own authority, there are no longer universal truths, and the modern virtue of objectivity clashes with a culture of individualism and its new virtue of tolerance.
In a society dominated by individual self-expression, tolerance demands that “[o]ne shouldn’t criticize the others’ values, because they have a right to live in their own life as you do.” In this way, “the harm principle is widely endorsed,” and individuals are expected to tolerate the preferences of one another both inside and outside of the workplace. Together, tolerance and authenticity anesthetize modern workers from the objectifying effects of their work environments and place their attention instead on securing worldly goods. The success of employees in working together for their companies indicates that employees do not need to agree on all aspects of the human life in order to earn their daily bread; they need only respect each other’s freedom and collaborate to the extent necessary to assure their mutual benefit. This collaboration is essential, but it is also sensitive given that the work they do together is based on personal value systems and individualized conceptions of what is good and what is true.
Still, as tolerance becomes a priceless virtue, it conflicts with official but unstated company values, such as growth. In cases where companies pursue relentless growth, true tolerance is not possible because leaders cannot tolerate many concessions from employees needing to prioritize personal needs ahead of the company’s pursuits. Whether employees need to spend time away from work to care for themselves or their children, non-work time presents an opportunity cost for the company. As such, business leaders never totally escape the temptation towards objectification.
In pursuit of wider margins and record profits, they impose policies that cut costs, optimize productivity, and discourage employee lifestyle choices that inhibit profitability. Company support for abortion access is the latest of noteworthy policies aimed towards enabling the productivity of workers by eliminating non-work priorities. Doing only what is necessary and practical for maintaining the effectiveness of workers as factors of production, the experience for workers becomes conclusively reductive rather than tolerant.
Even so, all workers look for purpose in their work, regardless of their role or status with their employers. Upper-class workers, might find satisfaction in defining the mission and value on behalf of corporations they lead, while lower and middle-class workers might find purpose in providing their family’s daily bread or earning the paycheck that affords them to enjoy their lives outside of work. Unfortunately, while looking for their jobs to deliver on these purposes, many workers instead find “a sense of malaise, emptiness, a need for meaning.” As they hear their employers refer to them as “heads,” “hands,” or “bodies,” they begin to notice how their employer’s business model accounts for them as objects; work, rather than being a source of fulfilment becomes “flat, empty,” and workers are unable to find what they seek “within, or beyond it.”
Companies recognize this disengagement and the productivity losses that accompany it. To remedy this, they try to convince their employees that they care about them as people by offering increasingly creative and competitive benefit packages. They offer meals, transportation, and state of the art facilities in an effort to attract and retain talent. Notwithstanding, these efforts are carefully calculated rather than authentically generous. By hiring chefs to prepare gourmet meals, companies hope to convince their employees to dine at the office rather than at home. In chartering transportation services, they hope employees will work while they commute. By offering on-site gyms, dry cleaners, and daycares, they hope to help workers save time and energy on personal affairs and recommit that surplus to their work. All of these amenities attempt to send the message that the company wants its workers to be happy, but many workers see through these perks and know that their companies simply want them to be productive. They find that even the most comprehensive programs cannot outweigh “the depravity of work that reaches to no end higher than making money.”
Companies will also step in by trying to make employees feel that they are part of something larger than themselves. They conceive and implement systems of core values that heighten contemporary virtues like “integrity” and “inclusion,” and they construct convoluted ecosystems of secular principles to assure employees that their work makes a difference in the world. These initiatives create “moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday, and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves,” but too often, these attempts fall flat as they fail to legitimately transform the hearts of participants. Disappointed, employees question whether the company’s values are core to their operations after all, but they avoid scrutinizing the values for fear that they will simply deflate as hollow markers of the company’s branding. Of this, Taylor bemoans, “[F]aced with the immense disappointments of actual human performance, with the myriad ways in which real, concrete human beings fall short of, ignore, parody and betray [their] magnificent potential, one cannot but experience a growing sense of anger and futility.”
Modern workers are familiar with “restlessness, dissatisfaction, and weariness,” and to the extent possible, they want to avoid these feelings. Undeniably, America’s culture is marked by material wealth exceeding any other civilization in history, yet its citizens are still unhappy. Of this, pro-business scholar, Michael Novak remarked with vexation, “the aftertaste of affluence is boredom”; even with more than adequate comforts and opportunities, we find ourselves disinterested and disappointed. Similarly, Dominican scholar, Nicholas Lombardo, declares that the world becomes boring because “our infinite desires cannot be satisfied with the finite.” Since human beings are made for eternal goods, all the raises, perks, and volunteer events that a company can offer will inevitably fall short.
Given this, companies can only do so much to address the issue of employee disengagement. In many ways, companies step in and attempt to provide for needs that were historically attended to by the church, the family, or the community. While they may not necessarily want to be in the business of providing services like meals or daycare, they recognize that such offerings have become essential to maintaining their workforce and keeping the machine running. Ultimately, though, companies’ means for addressing workers’ needs are limited, as they are not set up to facilitate integral human development and satisfy the full desires of the human heart. Companies cannot encourage employees to seek transcendent goods, not only because they cannot endorse particular religious views, but because doing so could be potentially self-harming.
The realization of transcendent goods might inspire change, which is unattractive to employers since change is often disruptive and expensive. Consequently, there is no incentive for companies to address the root causes of employee disengagement because doing so could inhibit delivering on their core competencies, and so instead, they foolishly continue investing in whatever perks and programs will treat the latest symptoms of worker dissatisfaction.
While all this depicts a rather dismal outlook, the case of rising resignations should lead us to hope rather than despair. Workers’ willingness to leave their employers voluntarily in search of something better indicates that their hearts are stirring for more. It would seem that for some workers, resigning is an act of rebellion. Disposed to fight the malaise, they reclaim their personhood and the dignity of their labor. They seek to resolve the discord in their lives and adjust their employment situation as one step in this direction. The scale of this movement suggests that among a vast number of working adults a “yearning is there for the inward, for quiet, for leaving the mad rush and refocusing.” These workers realize that they “have need of a stance in themselves and in something deeper than themselves from which to come to grips with the world again.”
Unfortunately, many of these workers will inevitably find that their new job does not necessarily answer their existential questions. With surprise, they discover that their new employer is just as unsuited for answering moral and existential questions as their old employer. The hope we can have, then, is that the worker will come to understand that work alone cannot fulfill him—that the answer to his malaise is actually tied up in a transcendent reality that requires greater attention. Certainly, work is an essential activity for expressing the likeness and image of God inscribed in every human person, but it is not the only way human beings can participate in and reflect the goodness of their Creator. As scripture reveals, humans also imitate God through rest—an activity, which might seem diametrically opposed to productive work, but is actually complementary to it. Humanity’s fulfilment entails both work and non-work, the sum of which make up the whole of human life.
While a company can reach no higher than the goodness of humanity, the Church can reach higher to the goodness of God. Where companies cannot provide the means for their workers to navigate moral and existential questions, the Church can and does. So long as workers remain concerned with only the trivial things of the temporal world, they will either press on in vain or abandon their search altogether. If they are to find what they are truly looking for, they must abandon their “invisible religion of work,” reflect on the purpose for their search, determine whether they are looking for answers in the right places, and adjust their expectations for what work can and cannot deliver.
The Need for a Great Contemplation
In the modern era, to commit ourselves to non-work is to do something countercultural. Yves Simon remarks that in our culture it is “honorable to be called a hard, obstinate, and indefatigable worker,” and that non-work is disdained, as “no one wants to be called an idler.” The modern citizen therefore concludes that “hard work, then, is what is good,” which Josef Pieper disputes by citing St. Thomas Aquinas who contends that “not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more meritorious.” Simon and Pieper both looked at the industrialist and capitalist culture around them and saw that work alone was not making people the fullest they could be. They understood that in addition to work, human beings also need leisure in order to be fulfilled.
Leisure, as they understood it, is much more than the absence of work, and not all time spent away from work constitutes leisure. The ancient Greeks did not see leisure as non-work; rather, they saw work as un-leisurely. This subtle difference places leisure, rather than work, at the center of culture. Leisure is a much higher activity than work; it is “by its nature a celebration.” When human beings practice leisure, they look upon the world with delight and imitate their Creator, who upon looking “at everything he had made . . . found it very good” (Gen 1:31). God’s eternal and unchanging nature reveals that his act of resting on the seventh day is not so that he can recuperate but so that he can contemplate. God did not create leisure “for the sake of work”; contemplation is an end in itself rather than something we do for the sake of recovering our strength for another day. Insofar as employers and employees see time off as an instrument for productivity, Pieper contends that “leisure cannot be achieved at all.”
If leisure, then, is not about enabling the next phase of productivity, it appears to conflict with modern culture, which centers itself around work. A work-oriented society clamors for something, always hoping that by doing, we can achieve more and be more; it insists that human beings have control over their own well-being and destiny. By contrast, a leisure-oriented society acknowledges the importance of surrendering control and humbly recognizes that, as Dominican Simon Tugwell says, “the final remedy for the human condition is totally in the hands of God.” When human beings do not have leisure to ground them in a view of the eternal, their understanding of life and morality can become distorted, and they risk falling into the trap of placing exaggerated importance on worldly goods. Leisure, therefore, is fundamental in providing us with a direct complement to work and teaching us to confine work to its proper realm.
However, true leisure is uncommon and can even be seen as incompatible with modern society. In a culture steeped in a utilitarian view of work, there is no reason to do anything unless it is useful. Provided that companies continue to primarily focus on productivity and profitability, they cannot encourage or promote true leisure because they benefit from a culture of total work in which employees overly devote themselves to their work and expect it, unreasonably, to be their sole source of fulfilment. As a result, many companies capitalize on and perpetuate a work-centered culture that misleads workers to expect more from their work than their jobs can ever deliver.
Understanding the muddiness of countless situations in the modern era, Romano Guardini implores Catholics to look upon the world “with incorruptible hearts [and] remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it.” The disposition he describes is the contemplative perspective of Jesus Christ, who looked upon his flock with the same loving gaze as he stood preaching on the mount as when he hung painstakingly upon the cross. This attitude of contemplation, which we can only hope to adopt through leisure, is what opens up a person to see as God does and respond to difficult circumstances with love. In contemplation and beholding the goodness of God, workers can learn to see that meaningful work is only one component of a fulfilling life. This realization might lead to any number of decisions in an employee’s life, including, but not limited to, quitting his or her job and finding a new one.
It would be unfair to suggest that the millions of people who left their jobs in 2021 did not weigh their options and carefully discern whether leaving was the right thing to do. At the same time though, with workforce quit rates in the United States trending higher and higher every year, it seems that workers are ultimately more inclined to try to solve their problems by leaving than by pulling some other lever.
In looking toward the future of labor and industry, Romano Guardini once asked, “Is a life supported by human nature and fully human work possible?” To this, Christian hope animates us to answer, “Yes, but only through the grace of God.” Across geographies and eras, people have failed to honor the dignity of the human person through the ways they have organized and managed labor, and despite the apparent progress in the modern era toward more efficient and humane working conditions, there remains a gap between the perfection of work and the sanctification of the person who works. It is through contemplation, in which we turn our eyes toward the transcendent and learn to labor with a longing for the eternal, that we will see the purpose of labor in its proper context. By working in this way, we will learn to order our lives and priorities in accordance with the primacy of God.
 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, 2008-2022, Series JTU000000000000000QUL and JTU000000000000000QUR, Generated by Mara Cable using https://data.bls.gov/, (accessed March 23, 2022).
 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings and Labor Turnover – January 2022.
 Yves R. Simon, Work, Society, and Culture, ed. Vukan Kuic (New York: Fordham University Press, 1964), 41.
 Lloyd E. Sandelands, Being at Work (Lanham, Maryland: University Press Of America, 2014), 67.
 Ibid., 108.
 Guardini, Letters from Lake Como, 17.
 Taylor, A Secular Age, 484.
 Ibid., 484.
 Ibid., 302.
 Sandelands, Being at Work, 52.
 Taylor, A Secular Age, 517.
 Charles Taylor, Catholic Modernity, (Dayton: The University of Dayton, 1996), 31.
 Nicholas E. Lombardo, “Boredom and Modern Culture,” Logos (Saint Paul, Minn.) 20, no. 2 (2017): 37.
 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 6.
 Lombardo, “Boredom and Modern Culture,” 46.
 Guardini, Letters from Lake Como, 95.
 Simon, Work, Society, and Culture, 3.
 Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 32.
 Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 49.
 Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1980), 65.
 Sandelands, Being at Work, 43.
 Guardini, Letters from Lake Como, 81.
 Guardini, Letters from Lake Como, 78.