The Great Resignation


An autoantonym is a word with contradictory definitions. Think of “sanction” (endorse/punish) or “overlook” (supervise/miss). While technically not an autoantonym, I want to point out the way the notion of a Great Resignation can also be understood in contradictory ways in 2023. On the one hand, the phrase names a courageous and introspective assertion of agency, while on the other, it signals a defeatist surrender to things as they are.

Let’s start at the beginning. The phrase “the Great Resignation” was coined in May 2021 by Professor Anthony Klotz in an interview with Bloomberg. In that piece Klotz gives this name to the phenomenon of statistically significant numbers of workers either quitting their jobs or withdrawing from the labor market completely. One interpretation offered, one which was quickly spread, was that the isolation and free time enabled by the pandemic quarantine, along with the anxiety about mortality it involved, had led people to re-evaluate their priorities and leave behind jobs which they found meaningless or positively harmful.

While this was not Klotz’s original reading (he was much more grounded in his reasoning), this seems to be the reading that most captured the imagination of the literati. Whether the motivating factors were burnout, stagnant pay, a refusal to return to the office, or a more profound “pandemic epiphany,” as Klotz’s interviewer phrased it, the freshly coined term earned widespread credulity and circulation in the year following the end of quarantine. The term even has its own Wikipedia entry, the mark of veridiction, and according to it, some economists dared to compare the Great Resignation to something akin to a(n informal, quiet) General Strike.

Three years later the phrase is very much alive, despite the seemingly bullish labor market. And yet, we are finally getting to the point where the flip side of the coin is coming into view. In a recent article in Dazed, Isabella Cipirska reports that “thanks to the cost of living crisis, many feel trapped in jobs which go against their values.” The argument is that younger generations do indeed profess a greater desire to have their jobs align with their values, but that persistent economic headwinds complicate the pursuit of this desire, even for those in white collar, upwardly mobile career lanes.

The sort of dissonance to which the Dazed article testifies can be understood in the context of a time of renewed idealism. At least according to many voices with loudspeakers blessed, the millennial generation was meant to be more interested in values than the previous generations had been. In the literature on “thought leadership,” endless articles underscored the rising problem of silent work dissatisfaction, and prescribed companies to define a pro-social purpose, align themselves with their values, and watch the cash and retention problems wane. That was the era of the corporate social responsibility report, and of greenwashing. It was the time of the millennial, who had lost her innocence in the wake of the Great Recession, and was saddled with the aftershocks of 9/11 and the lazy slide into climate catastrophe. They were the children of TBTF and TINA. Young, idealistic, and importantly, demographically big enough to make them a market worth courting, both as consumers and as employees. And they seemed to have one thing on their wish list: meaningful, ethical careers.

In a deeper sense, though, I think we were all children of Hannah Arendt. In her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Arendt had introduced the idea of a banality of evil. The basic idea being that we didn’t need to attribute evil genius or monstrous malice to explain how something like the Holocaust could have happened. Dispensing with the proportionality bias, Arendt ventured that all that was required for monstrous evil acts was, as the cliché goes, for people to be indifferent as to the meaning and magnitude of what they do does, as Foucault quipped. The real enemy was indifference and unquestioning obedience. The trains to Treblinka were greased with folks just going with the flow.

Not only that, though. Indifference can be seen to underwrite pretty much every social malady there is, and thus becomes an enemy onto itself. If indifference and “cultivating your own garden” was the key to understanding how a nation of great culture could conflagrate a continent and nearly eradicate a genos, it could also be the key to understanding how mass alienation, ecocide, and all other manner of ills.

The antidote of indifference is care and engagement. It is do it yourself activism, agitation, and maybe even militancy. Perhaps this is why the counterculture of the 1960s in the West exhibited so much emphasis on independence of thought and a striving to opt out of the conformity that pacified and anesthetized our ability to stay critical and strive after a value driven existence, privately as well as publicly. For a minute there, it felt like the spirit of the 60s was back, and corporations assiduously studied how to capture it.

On the eve of those rebellious 1960s, Herbert Marcuse advocated for what he called the Great Refusal. The Great Refusal meant taking responsibility for the state of the world and actually engaging in active action to transform it in whatever ways were available to the individual (organized collective action included). It meant cultivating an attitude of resistance to the dominant status quo and to refuse indifference. It also meant, crucially, to refuse easy creature comforts the price of which was exploitation and pacification. The point was to do something to make society better, not just lament. The sentiment was most poetically expressed by student Mario Savio during a sit-in at UC Berkley in 1964 (the same year Marcuse published his One-Dimensional Man). Savio now:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who ownit — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!

If the alternatingly diffuse and violent nature of the resistance people offered the system in the 1960s with movements didn’t doom their movement, the organized reaction to it from the right did. With the arrival of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the spirit of active resistance, non-conformity, and anti-consumerism seemed relegated to a freakish fringe. By and large, the 80s killed the 60s.

That said, it felt for a minute that neoliberalism’s hiccup in the 2007-8 financial crisis raised eyebrows enough that the question of systemic change was back on the table. The millennial generation was deeply marked, not to say wounded, by that crisis and the recession that followed it. The economy recovered, sort of, but a bond of trust had been frayed, and a mood of suspicion towards something like “the system” was felt afresh. This author isn’t sure quite where that energy went, though arguably the routine refusal of the establishment to do justice to the sentiment generated the populist tides that battered establishment politics over the following cycles, a surge in the middle of which we still row. Educated online culture had embraced an ethic of personal activism. Me Too, BLM, and social justice skirmishing had become cultural forces of their own. The culture war became personal, intimate, the theatre of operations was everywhere all at once. The desire was there to feel like we could each do something, that we were each doing our part to cut the cycle of intergenerational indifference to suffering.

But the question was sharply felt again, supposedly, amid the pandemic. What would they do if it wasn’t for us? People felt entitled to demand their worth, not only in terms of renumeration, but also in terms of fulfillment and a sense of significance. But, to return to the start, something odd happened. The questioning of fulfillment at work and the impulse to transform the world failed to raise the question of the ethics of work.

Whatever the cause, the fact is that for all the rumbling about a great resignation, what we have seen is instead a resigned acquiescence. There is a comfortable omission of the question: what are the ethics of work? Should we continue to prop up the systems that we denounce in the evenings and on the weekend? Is there no option but to continue to lament the oppression we ourselves enact through our very life’s labor? These are the questions nobody seems to be seriously posing. And while one might feel compassion for those who do not have a choice as to their line of labor, what about the others, the ones amongst which critical consciousness appears to be most firmly rooted? What does it mean to decry the late-stage capitalist hellscape at night and work in advertising during the day? Are we resigned to the idea we have no options but to perpetuate the system?

It could be speculated that the emphasis on structural analysis on which the left has rightly insisted may have invalidated compartmentalized questions of personal agency from questions of social concern, and of social change. There might be no fully ethical consumption under capitalism, and there may not be any fully ethical work under capitalism. But should that stop us from trying until the revolution has come and gone?

In My Body, supermodel Emily Ratajkowski grapples with the central question: how much is enough? In other words, what is the proper aim of wealth accumulation for an individual in a capitalist world? I think this is the question with which many of us ordinary people also seem to struggle. My Body has received its share of critical appraisal, generally centered on the paradoxical position of Ratajkowski, who simultaneously aims to critique the fashion and beauty industries from the inside, along with capitalism and patriarchy, while also aiming to maximize her comfort and status within them. As Sophie Gilbert put it for The Atlantic, “My Body sits in this liminal space between reappraisal and self-defense. It’s a fascinating work: insightful, maddening, frank, strikingly solipsistic.” Becca Rothfeld for The Guardian: “for all her self-awareness, Ratajkowski stops short of exploring the full implications of her alienation.” In this sense, Emily might be all of us.

The root of Ratajkowski’s dilemma is neatly captured with her elbows perched over the infinity pool of a luxury resort in the Maldives. It’s these scenes that attracted reviewers’ attention. It’s there that we get passages like:

Money means power, I thought. And I capitalizing on my sexuality I have money. The whole damn system is corrupt and anyone who participates is just as guilty as I am. What am I going to do? Go live off the grid? I have to make a living somehow…(97)

Or, as she quotes from a screenshot she took online, “Fuck capitalism, but until it’s fucked, keep getting that bag.” (91) The problem, of course, is that as long as well all keep chasing the bag, capitalism won’t be fucked, because capitalism is reinforced precisely insofar as we keep chasing the bag.

“Fuck capitalism, but until it’s fucked, keep getting that bag”

And the reason we don’t want to fumble the bag is because we’re afraid of not having enough. The preoccupation with money is a recurring theme in My Body. How money governs, how it enables, what’s worth doing for it, and, crucially, how much of it is enough to live comfortably. The answer can’t possibly be forty thousand, the amount her parents, a university professor and a secondary school teacher, made while she was growing up (139). The answer to “I have to make a living somehow” only appears to be to become a wealthy, famous, super-model instead of, you know, something else.

This is an issue that jumps out from the pages of the book, but one which Ratajkowski doesn’t broach explicitly until Amia Srinivasan is able to gently bring her to it in their interview. “You said it’s a topic for another book, but that was actually the question I was going to ask you. When is it enough money?” nudges Srinivasan. “I’m wrestling with that,” says Ratajkowski, “I write about the experience of being around really rich men. I’ve seen what real money looks like and what kind of lifestyle that guarantees. But I have noticed, and since writing this book, that I feel much more comfortable saying no to things.” Indeed, this question was so glaring as I read the book that in my memory this line was found in the book itself, and not in a subsequent interview.

As an aside, keep in mind that part of what makes Ratajkowski’s case so fascinating is that unlike many wealthy celebrities, she openly cheered for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 election. So here is a case of someone who appears starkly aware of problems stemming from power and inequality, advocates for social democratic policies, understands her own complicity in those structures, and still feels stuck.

But here’s the rub, Ratajkowski has enough. She’s had enough. And still, she hasn’t stopped. I don’t mean to criticize her, I respect her work flawed though it is, and think that she’s at the start of her cultural critical career, not its end, and hope to see her develop her thinking in more books and that her income from books will let her feel free.

For Ratajkowski, and apparently for many of us who are not forced by the silent compulsion of the market due to real poverty, scarcity consciousness conspires to keep us mired in capitalism. We can only say no when we feel like we have enough, but who can ever have enough when insidious precarity gazes furtively from every corner? Might the capitalist imperative to accumulate freedoms restrict?

There’s a perception of precarity that seems to be endemic to our generation. We feel like we’re always at risk of destitution. Comfort is evasive because under conditions of precarity, whatever you have could always suddenly vanish. The answer is then that you can never relax because there is no such thing as enough. However, it is manifestly morally and spiritually injurious to collude with a structure the injustice of which you are plainly aware. So where’s the exit?

I don’t presume to have the answer, and I acknowledge that the answer varies according to individual and familial circumstances. But I wonder if we don’t need to reevaluate what we count as enough. And I wonder if it’s capitalism itself which makes us feel so precarious and insufficient, why it is that we seek solutions by enhancing its functioning by the fruits of our efforts.

If we feel like whatever we have is never enough, and fear ever stopping for losing it all, is anything ever really gained? This question becomes especially urgent when the drive to accumulate and stave off destitution nudges us away from a meaningful bond with our own agency. Indeed, when that perception of precarity disarms us from making any attempt to bring our actions into line with our words.

A century before the death of the death of the 1960s counterculture, Peter Kropotkin penned his “Appeal to the Young.” That pamphlet, addressed to the rising teenage generation of the aristocratic and merchant classes exhorts these young adults to direct their talents in the direction of their passions and interests, but to place those talents at the service of improving the world, especially the lot of the oppressed and dispossessed. Instead of enriching themselves and their offspring, they should use their talents to improve the world.

A lot has happened in the 140 years since Kropotkin wrote that letter, and in the 60 since Marcuse encouraged us to put our work lives where our mouths are. But the need to pose the question has not diminished in the least.

In that Dazed piece, Cipirksa concludes that “ruling out any remotely unethical employers from your job search soon becomes an idealistic fantasy,” and warns that “a soul-crushing job is better than no job at all.” However, the young workers that she cites as framing ethical choices as impossible seem to be quite comfortable, they are all college degreed and salaried. It’s difficult to imagine that its really true that they simply have no choice.

Resignation has two meanings; one is to reject and the other to accept. When people speak about a Great Resignation, they mean to say that our generation is standing in principle to push away the options offered to them. But in fact, what we are really experiencing is a continued sense of resignation to the status quo. That resignation may be more aware of bad faith than at previous historical points, but it appears less hopeless about the possibility of something different, something better, and especially about the possibility of real resistance and dissent.

Resignation may be more aware of bad faith than at previous historical points, but it appears less hopeless about the possibility of something different.

Cipirksa ends her piece with an example of someone who did quit, left her salary behind and took service industry work to support herself while looking for something better. By better, she means more ethical. “I’m at peace inside,” the woman says. Whether peace is what we should aim for is unclear to me, but the question seems worth asking: When it comes to how we expend our labor and half our waking life, what should we aim for, and which resignation will we choose?