An epochal shift is underway; one that social scientists will dissect for decades. And it doesn’t bode well for corporate America.

In what economists are calling ‘The Great Resignation’, one-third of the employed workforce—over 47 million laborers—quit their jobs in 2021, a 50% increase over the twenty-year average. In fact, nine of the top ten monthly records for employee quits were set last year.[1] “It’s like nothing else we’ve seen in two decades,” writes Business Insider. Fortune reports that “73% of CEOs say a labor/skills shortage is the most likely external issue to disrupt their business in the next 12 months.”

Those who haven’t thus far participated in the Big Quit are thinking of doing so. Gallup reports that 48% of employees are actively job searching, and 74% are “actively disengaged” from their jobs. “The Great Resignation caught so many employers flat-footed,” writes Phillip Kane of Inc., “because it ran contrary to everything traditional management thought they knew about labor markets.”

CEO’s are scrambling for talent, dangling pay increases, signing bonuses, and work-from-home perks to entice workers. Management journals brandish “retention strategies” like setting clear expectations, improving managerial skills, and offering more opportunities to “learn and grow.” But all the carrots, sticks, and retention strategies fail to address the underlying problem in corporate America: people hate their jobs.

“While the current resignation behavior may seem like a new trend, data shows employee turnover has been rising steadily for the past decade and may simply be the new normal employers are going to have to get used to,” writes Univ. of California’s Ian Williamson.

During the pandemic, people had a taste of working from home, spending more time with family, and experimenting with lifestyle choices they had never previously pondered. “About 1.6 million working mothers left the labor force during the pandemic,” writes Aaron Renn at The Institute of Family Studies. “Some of them are now homeschooling.” And fathers too. “The pandemic changed the way people work and how they view work,” finds Gallup. “Many are reflecting on what a quality job feels like, and nearly half are willing to quit to find one.”

Even accounting for bailouts and stimulus checks that drained an already shallow labor pool (if you pay people not to work, they probably won’t), it takes an enormous amount of momentum to break people out of the natural orbit of their own families and homes. It is not that people don’t want to work, it is that they want their work to mean something, and they want to perform it with people who mean something to them.

What God Has Joined Together

The practice of families working together to provide the things they need is not an antiquated notion belonging to the dustbin of history. It is how human beings were originally designed to live. The practice is found in the first chapters of Genesis and still holds force today: the family economy is God’s original plan for productive households, resilient communities, and stable societies.

Even our word economy, deriving from the Greek oikonomia, means simply, household management or household law. “In the beginning, it was all in the house: the whole economy,” says C. R. Wiley.[2] It was within the context of the home economy—not the factory—that family members found meaning and fulfillment as they worked together towards a common purpose. They also found comfort and care, apprenticed and mentored, and transmitted faith, culture and values on to the next generation.

But with the rise of the factory system, work has driven a wedge between family members, dividing husband from wife, father from son, mother from daughter, and family from home. Historian Allan C. Carlson writes, “The most socially disruptive effect of the industrial revolution was the way it severed the place where adults work from the place where adults live. Most of our current family questions—from loud disputes over gender roles to child care to low fertility—derive from this great disruption.”

As a result, families today have abandoned nearly all of the functions traditionally practiced at home: work, education, apprenticeship, childcare, eldercare—and often cooking, cleaning, and brewing a cup of coffee—have been delegated to corporations, specialists, and governments. Even our entertainment is age-oriented and consumed apart more often than together. Historians record that, prior to the industrial revolution, “every household was a self-producing and self-sustaining community.”[3] Today, with so many domestic functions lost, the typical American household more closely resembles what sociologist Pitrim Sorkin calls “a mere overnight parking place.”[4]

This is not the model God had in mind when He instituted the family. It is not surprising, then, to find an unprecedented breakdown of social order in our generation, and wholesale abandonment of a cultural heritage that has been passed down for centuries, primarily through families.

Putting Us Back Together

If sacrificing family on the altar of efficient markets and economies of scale has not delivered the career satisfaction and personal fulfillment we had hoped for, perhaps it’s time to revisit the contract.

The reasons for rethinking work are many. Some are trying to unplug from a dizzying matrix of always-on technology. Others desire a simpler, if less lucrative, life. For some the desire is to become “uncancellable” in today’s cancel culture and capricious workplace mandates. “I am awaiting the verdict of the Supreme Court today to decide the fate of my 22-year teaching career,” one reader wrote me, speaking of OSHA-enforced vaccine mandates for all companies with 100 or more employees.

For most, the desire is to restore meaning to the most central focus of their time. But are there any options for families today who want to work together and build a lasting inheritance?

This was precisely the question I set out to answer when I began writing Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time. It was a question I intended to answer for our own family first, but also for the benefit of others who, like ourselves, were looking for another way forward.

This research inspired our family to begin moving towards a more self-sufficient life, one in which we could cooperate with each other rather than be separated for the better part of our days. We planted apple trees and a large garden. We began raising chickens, keeping bees, and milking goats. We started hosting workshops to share what we were learning with others. Not only have these experiences brought us together as a family, they have supported us during times of recent upheaval: we were minimally affected by recent worker shortages and supply chain disruptions resulting from the pandemic—we had our own supply chain.

And we discovered that we were not alone. Since the book’s publication we have received hundreds of letters from families who are reconsidering the priorities they place on work and family, and who are beginning a new family economy of their own.

Josh and Kristi Pauling left full-time teaching jobs in order to find fulfillment at home: “If you would have told me that we would one day have a bustling home economy on five acres, we would have chuckled and said, ‘no way.’” But after 13 years as a public school teacher, Josh recognized that decoupling work from family was not producing the “good life” he desired. While Kristi honed her arts in the home and homeschooling, Josh developed his skills in building furniture and repairing vintage machinery. After several years, the Paulings were able to grow their fledgling home economy into a viable enterprise. The rewards are more than material: “Turning homeward has offered a more holistic and unified approach to life,” Josh said, “where faith, family, education, and economic productivity all align.”

Is it possible that we have reached the limits of industrialism’s promise? That, turning back from the abyss, the mass of men are trading in their lives of quiet desperation in exchange for meaning, fulfillment, and belonging?

“We may . . . look back to the pandemic as a crucial inflection point in something more fundamental: Americans’ attitudes toward work,” writes The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. “Since early last year, many workers have had to reconsider the boundaries between boss and worker, family time and work time, home and office.”

Carlson agrees:

In the midst of pandemic, economic crisis, violence, and the apparent breakdown of law and order, I turn again to some of the most basic questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? How does God want us to live our lives?

The answer, according to Carlson, is inextricably linked to our original design. Were we created merely to maximize productive output—to be efficient ‘cogs’ in a machine? Or were we created to live, work, produce, and provide together with ‘community’ as the mission rather than the ‘bottom line’? If we were created to labor together, then job promotions and salary increases will never satisfy our thirst for meaning. Neither will flexible working arrangements or challenging work. Meaning and fulfillment derive from connection—connection with our Creator, and with those He has joined together. And we can recover what was lost if we prioritize family and community ahead of modest gains in efficiency, if we reclaim time together rather than paychecks apart.

Footnotes

  1. BLS, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey 2001-2021.
  2. C. R. Wiley, “Against the Recreational Household.” Recorded at The Grovestead Farm (Aug 27, 2021).
  3. Harriet Robinson, Loom and Spindle (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell & Company, 1898), 2.
  4. Pitrim Sorkin, The Crisis of Our Age (New York: E. P Dutton, 1941), 191.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Rory Groves

Rory Groves is author of Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time and director of Gather & Grow, a non-profit ministry dedicated to rebuilding the family economy. He resides in southern Minnesota with his wife Becca and five children.

2 Comments

  1. If we acknowledge that factory life was driving a wedge between work and factory, then we should recognize that unions helped chip away at that wedge with their demands for 40 hour work week, certain benefits, negotiations for pay rates and so forth. And yet, we see membership in unions at a very low rate today and partly because of the conservative animosity toward the ideas of unions.

    Along with admitting that unions helped chip away at the the wedge created by factory work, we need to admit that Capitalism’s most foundational ethic and motivation, the maximization of profits, contributed to that wedge. Before the great resign, many Americans lost their jobs to offshoring and that put them in a bind. For some it required that they seek training for jobs that they did not have talents or preparation for and for others it demoted them to lower skilled, lower paying jobs. With the latter case, the lower paid/skilled job market was flooded and that kept the pay for those jobs down.

    Some jobs provide the option to work remotely and have a greater opportunity to set one’s own hours. Other jobs require one physical presence. For children of parents in both circumstances, public education is a necessity even though public education is in need of great repair. That is because public education provides for achieving some universal standards that home-schooling on a large scale cannot provide.

    Reply

  2. […] “Resignations and Reunions: Industrialism’s Broken Promises.” Rory Groves writes about the Great Resignation: “It is not that people don’t want to work, it is that they want their work to mean something, and they want to perform it with people who mean something to them.” […]

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.