The U.S. economy has been gripped since early 2021 by the phenomenon of the Great Resignation: American employers logged 47 million employee resignations last year, which equates to roughly 30 percent of the country’s total workforce of about 162 million people. But there’s more than just quitting: In October, workers were on strike at 235 organizations in the U.S., which is more strikes than there were in the country during all of 2020. More Americans want to retire sooner, with 50.1 percent of survey respondents saying they planned to work past the age of 62, a record low in response to a question asked by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank since 2014. Some economists had meanwhile speculated that the Great Resignation could be explained by workers quitting to take advantage of the $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit approved by Congress; that extra benefit expired in early last September, but the number of people who quit jobs set a new U.S. record that month—broken again in October and then again in November. Is it possible that more and more Americans just don’t want to work anymore?

Jonathan Malesic is an author based in Dallas, Texas, and the author of The End of Burnout, a book examining Americans’ relationships to their careers. In Malesic’s view, many workers’ feelings toward their jobs are shifting significantly. Discontent with work had been building before the pandemic, he says, as many employees realized their jobs were providing them with neither sufficient material rewards nor a sufficient sense of purpose. For decades, Americans had sought to find meaning in their work but worsening labor conditions, such as stagnant wages and decreasing job security, undermined that idealistic vision. These changing dispositions—and employers’ many unfilled job openings—are now giving workers a degree of power in the workplace that they haven’t had since the peak of union membership some 50 years ago. It’s a new situation, Malesic says, that might also inspire Americans to start thinking more about how to find meaning outside their jobs.

Michael Bluhm: How do you see U.S. attitudes toward work changing?

Jonathan Malesic: It’s clear something’s changing. The unemployment rate in America is low by historical standards, but the workforce-participation rate is also low by historical standards. There are a couple of percentage points worth of people who are of working age and not in the workforce—and a couple of percentage points in the United States means millions of people. The big question is, Why?

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