|"Quit Now" is licensed under CC BY 2.0|
Last spring, Republican governors in a dozen states, including NH, prematurely terminated the additional $300/month unemployment benefit, paid for by the federal government stimulus program. Republicans claimed this bonus made workers lazy, encouraging them to loll around playing video games rather than going to work.
Multiple reputable studies prove Republicans are wrong. Some employees stayed home to take care of their kids, while others feared catching Covid. Others refused to return, not because they wanted to play hooky but because they hated their jobs and were looking for something better.
The federal stimulus program is now long gone, but folks continue to quit in droves. It is garnering headlines, and stacks of articles and books are being written about it. Why are people still quitting? Not surprisingly, the lowest-paid workers are leaving most often. Their jobs are the ones that tend to be dead-end without benefits: repetitive, boring, and sometimes dangerous.
A raft of self-help books have sprung up, purporting to solve the problem, usually by advising readers to reinvent their lives during the hours they are not working. These books may help upper-middle-class folks who have the financial resources and leisure time to pursue new hobbies and passions. But these rosy scenarios are pie in the sky to most working folks, tolling for long hours, often at two or more jobs, struggling just to get by.
This refusal is not a result of individual laziness but reflects long-standing American policy decisions that hamstring the average worker. It’s a fact that the voices of poor and low-income people, over 40% of our population, have been silenced in the national political conversation.1 Not surprisingly, studies show that workers are happiest in countries, such as in Western Europe, which provide a generous safety net: universal health care, childcare, welfare, and a secure retirement. Conversely, we provide, at best, just a faint echo of these robust programs.
Conservatives rejoice over this, believing that people are shiftless and won’t work unless threatened with draconian poverty. Of course, the happy yet still productive workers in places like Finland prove them wrong. The real problem is big business and corporations which have a fiscal mandate to maximize profits; they achieve this objective by bleeding wage-earners for every last dime they can while refusing to pay their fair share of taxes – if they pay any taxes at all– to further the common good.
This has lead to popular unrest and resentment, which our former president capitalized upon. But, sadly, rather than lifting up working folks through policies like Biden is proposing, Trump chose to fan the flames of our smothering cultural divisions.
In a sick sort of way, if the Republicans successfully block the Democrat’s agenda to lift up the average Joe, they will win twice by rewarding their big corporation donors while, at the same time, driving more increasingly desperate and angry workers into Trump’s camp. They will do this, like they did last election, by promising their base the freedom to openly carry assault rifles, to keep out immigrants, and to ignore any regulations they don’t like.
That’s a recipe not for freedom but anarchy. However, right under our noses, there is a way to increase individual freedom, simply by removing the straight jacket of how we define work. As Kathi Weeks, a feminist scholar, writes, “I think what you’re seeing with people refusing to go back [to work] is a kind of yearning for freedom.” …that our society is entirely too obsessed with work, that employment is not the only avenue through which to derive meaning in life and that sometimes no job is better than a bad job.2”
Defining our lives solely on how we make money has turned us into commodities. As author David Frayne writes, “For all the propaganda we hear about work as a source of good health and a way to ‘meet potential’, work so often seems to stand in the way of people realising what they are capable of in terms of their capacities for creation and co-operation.3”
The whole notion of what work entails needs to be expanded to include the work we do taking care of our family, the work we do in service to our community, and the work we do making our world better through volunteer work. To achieve that goal, we need a more generous safety net, following the lead of enlightened countries around the world.
A good case in point is Finland which has been named the happiest place on earth for the fourth straight year, based on Gallup World Poll Data, which included measures of social support, personal freedom, and gross domestic product (GDP).4
Let's start to catch up by passing Biden's "Build Back Better" bill.
3 The Refusal of Work by David Frayne. Zed Books. London. www.zedbooks.co.uk