A record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August, a phenomenon most observers regard as complicated, intriguing and revealing — both about the state of the economy and how people are thinking about the nature of work nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic.

This is an extraordinary opportunity to look at the economic life of the country in a slightly different way, an opportunity millions of people are already taking. But it may not last. We could look back at this period in our history as a watershed in our approach to work, but the forces of backlash are never far behind any hint of progress.

You can see it at the elite level, with those whose message to the public is Get back to work, you bums. And stop complaining. Like this Republican congressman, expressing a common sentiment in his party:

The congressman seems unaware that if you just up and quit your job because you’d rather not work, you aren’t eligible to receive unemployment insurance. But perhaps it’s too much to expect that an elected policymaker would have even the most basic understanding of government policy.

What is now being called the “Great Resignation” has many causes. Many of those quitting are doing so because they think they can get a better job elsewhere. Some are starting their own businesses. Some have decided to retire early, even on a smaller income, because they’ve realized they value time more than money.

The quitting is happening at the highest rates in low-wage industries such as restaurants, hospitality and retail. Many have gotten fed up with low pay, difficult working conditions and abusive customers. And many who are still in their old jobs are thinking about moving on.

This isn’t happening by accident. From the beginning, the pandemic was a public health and an economic crisis, and the nature of employment was at the center. When we put the economy into an induced coma in early 2020, we began talking about “essential workers” who put themselves at risk for the rest of us. But what did they get from all those expressions of thanks? Not much.

From the earliest moments of the pandemic, Republicans worried that workers might start getting dangerous ideas about their self-worth. In April 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure,” forcing the largely immigrant workforce to stay in already dangerous jobs; thousands went on to contract covid-19. But as a White House economist said a month later, “Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work.”

As Democrats forced enhanced unemployment benefits into relief bills, Republicans loudly objected that they would make Americans lazy and unwilling to work. GOP-controlled states moved to cut off those benefits, claiming that doing so would produce an explosion in job growth as layabouts would be forced to get jobs. They were wrong; states that cut off enhanced benefits early did no better than states that didn’t.

Today, as Democrats argue about whether to extend the enhanced child tax credit and improve our health-care and child-care systems, the same arguments can be heard, sometimes from conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.): If we make people’s lives too secure, they’ll reveal themselves as the moochers they are, so let’s make benefits as stingy as possible and force people to run a bureaucratic obstacle course to get them.

This is an ongoing struggle playing out in Congress and workplaces throughout the country. For this brief moment, the balance of power has shifted a bit in workers’ direction, because labor shortages are allowing them to demand better pay and working conditions.

A more robust system of social supports would shift that balance further: If your health insurance weren’t dependent on the whims of your boss and you had affordable child care, you wouldn’t always live in terror of losing your job. The fact that you could quit without fear to find something better would give you more power.

But we shouldn’t forget that, for most Americans, this isn’t remotely the situation they are living with. We’re seeing a wave of strikes — not only because workers feel they have a chance to succeed, but because their pay and working conditions have become intolerable. In one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans said they had faced serious financial difficulty in recent months.

We have long told ourselves a story about America as a land of limitless opportunity, despite the fact that we know it isn’t true. We tell and retell stories of the extraordinary people who pulled themselves up from dire circumstances to achieve wealth and success, never acknowledging that it’s precisely the exceptional nature of those stories that is the problem. In a just society, you shouldn’t have to be a one-in-a-million genius or a maniacal workaholic to haul yourself to a life free of deprivation.

We could go either way as we emerge from the pandemic: toward an economy that provides people a baseline level of security that allows them to live meaningful lives free of fear of economic misery, or toward one that tells people they should be happy to have any job at all and don’t deserve much more.

Our history does not suggest that things will work out well for ordinary people. But at least we have a chance to create something different.