(Ana Galvañ for The Washington Post)
(Ana Galvañ for The Washington Post)

Opinion How the pandemic ended America’s bad romance with work

In February 2020, few would have predicted the wave of dissatisfaction that was about to roll over the American workplace. The United States, it was common to say, was a nation of workaholics — and we seemed to like it that way.

Our professional lives had taken on the overtones of a secular religion; they were a primary way to find meaning in the world and a crucial part of our identity. We were “married to the job,” in the words of therapist and author Ilene Philipson. Even precarious, low-paying gigs were valorized as “hustle culture,” representing freedom to perform labor on our terms.

Fast-forward to fall 2022. The number of people quitting, while down from the peak, remains at the highest level since the 1970s. White-collar workers don’t want to give up working remotely. Low-paying sectors such as the hospitality industry can’t find enough people willing to work for the wages on offer. Union organizing and strikes have been on an upswing.

Myriad commenters have tried to name the collection of trends underway: The Great Resignation. The Great Renegotiation. Quiet Quitting. The Great Reevaluation. It’s not easy to nail down a movement that spans striking nurses and unionizing strippers, Amazon warehouse workers and work-from-home Wall Street bankers.

What readers told us about how the pandemic changed their work lives

But what’s increasingly clear is that the March 2020 decision to partially close down the American economy shattered Americans’ dysfunctional, profoundly unequal relationship with work like nothing in decades. And even if there was great discomfort in a shutdown that severed almost every one of us from assumptions about how we earn a living, we also found an unexpected opportunity: to remake our relationship with the labor that fills our days.

Three categories of workers

To understand what happened, it’s helpful to divide the 164 million Americans who were in the labor force in February 2020 into three rough categories.

There were the millions who thought they possessed a secure job, only to be laid off or furloughed as the pandemic lockdowns set in. There were white-collar office workers who continued to work 40 or more hours a week, but now from home. Then there were the workers — grocery store employees, food service workers and utility workers, as well as police officers, postal workers, teachers and health-care providers — whose work was suddenly dubbed “essential,” without whose efforts society as we know it would cease to function.

Follow Helaine Olen's opinionsFollow

All these groups saw their relationship with their employers suddenly upended. At the same time, parents — especially women — experienced a huge increase in responsibility at home as schools and child care shut down.

From there, the three groups’ fates diverged. The first group, exiled from their jobs, found themselves scrambling for a paycheck and a sense of meaning — but ultimately found their finances buttressed by everything from an expansion of unemployment to a student loan payment moratorium.

The second, many of whom previously spent more time with their work “families” than their real ones, found themselves working within their own homes. Minus commutes and pesky workplace interruptions (though often plus the presence of children), many found they had free time — to bake bread, engage with pandemic pets or take on increasing household tasks.

The third cohort — more likely to be Black or Latino, more likely to be lower-income — was left to labor in person. Some got temporary boosts in pay, but these were mostly rescinded after several months. They were more likely to get exposed to the coronavirus — and to be among the more than 1 million Americans who died of covid-19.

All of it — the lockdowns, the disease, the sudden change in household functioning and how or whether we worked at all — amounted to a massive psychological shock, leading many to ask why labor looms so large in our psyches. “It really was an opportunity — an unwelcome opportunity — to take a look at the mad scramble that many of us have just assumed was normal,” said Kate Shindle, who as president of the Actors’ Equity Association represents a particularly hard-hit industry.

Then, when the economy unexpectedly boomed back, Americans were poised to pivot. As many had recognized, it was one thing to seek meaning in work but another to see our lives subsumed by it — and for what? A less-than-adequate paycheck? A job that could literally kill you? “Maybe the poor safety net really kept people from analyzing the role of work in their lives,” David Blustein, author of “The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty” and a professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, told me. “Maybe the American work ethic was a form of survival.”

How workers adjusted

The United States has a long history of labor unrest. We weren’t simply given the eight-hour workday, minimum wage and laws protecting union organizing. They came about after decades of strikes and worker advocacy. Together, measures such as these helped bring prosperity and security to workers following World War II.

But within a few decades, business interests reasserted themselves. When President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, it signaled a profound change in the balance of power. As inequality soared, work conditions deteriorated. The number of high-earning men who put in more than 50 hours a week at work increased sharply; college graduates spent more time on the job than those who didn’t graduate from high school. Others, mainly lower-wage employees, worked contingent schedules, unable to plan for child care or know whether they’d earn enough to pay for it. American worker protections fell behind those of other industrialized countries, with the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, peaking when the Bee Gees were still charting hits.

Today, there is still no national law guaranteeing a single day of paid vacation or sick leave. A 2019 Gallup survey found that when you measure everything from pay to control over the work environment, security and happiness, barely 4 in 10 employed Americans could be described as having a “good job.”

And we wanted one, more than almost anyone, even ourselves, realized.

Over and over, when people spoke to journalists, including me, about why they made changes in their professional lives since March 2020, they told us they liked receiving better wages when they switched employers. But even more, they wanted greater control over the terms of their labor.

Peter Contreras, comparing a prior furniture store management position with his current one in sales, told me about his better compensation, easier commute — and a boss who understands he sometimes wants to adjust his schedule to see his children play sports. Or take Colton Smith, who was working at an investment bank in New York when the pandemic hit. “You get a lot of time in the apartment to yourself, you’re FaceTiming with family and friends,” he told me about his decision to quit his job last year and bike across the country. “You start to remember what life is about.” He’s now seeking a job in augmented reality.

Business start-ups soared. Lindsay Scola quit her job with a Los Angeles talent agency to consult for celebrities and businesses on social impact investing and advocacy. “Pre-pandemic, I was just one of those people running as fast as I could,” she said. Going out on her own, she said, allowed her to “set up my life in a way that worked better for me.”

Others decided to stick with their jobs — but fight to make them better. The pandemic catalyzed some high-publicity union campaigns, with new young leaders emerging. When Amazon warehouse assistant manager Christian Smalls was fired after organizing an employee walkout to protest a lack of covid protections, he went on to found a union that won the first successful authorization vote at one of the company’s warehouses. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

While some workers rallied around jobs that became overwhelming during the pandemic, others were unified by lost wages and subpar working conditions. Take the strippers at North Hollywood’s Star Garden Topless Dive Bar, who organized a union recognition election — though almost all ballots cast are now getting challenged by management. “The clubs closed, and we were left to our own devices to make money and support ourselves. So a lot of dancers banded together,” said Velveeta — she asked me to use her stage name — a dancer at the bar. “All of this has really grown out of that.”

Where unions were already present, they pressed for better pay and treatment. Nurses in Minnesota went on a three-day strike in September, asking for not only a pay raise but also an end to understaffing that, they say, puts patients’ lives at risk. And the tentative agreement that likely headed off a strike by the nation’s freight railroad workers came down to amending a system that penalized them for taking time off, even in emergencies.

Though these group efforts got attention, even more Americans revolted against work culture individually. Consider the supposed phenomenon of quiet quitting. Rallying their peers on YouTube and TikTok, Gen Zers proclaimed they would perform assigned duties only during official work hours and say no when asked to take on extra tasks in the name of getting ahead. Scolds were aghast, but as others pointed out, this type of “quitting” is what used to be known as “working full time.”

And the newly remote workers? As companies announce return-to-office plans, they have encountered significant pushback from employees, who say they are both happier and more productive at home. Increasingly, corporate honchos are taking a stand not at five days of in-person work but three. Take financial giant BlackRock, where Chief Executive Larry Fink’s “hard line” for employees is a hybrid model. This is an enormous victory for many office workers — and one almost nobody could have imagined in February 2020.

Looking back — and forward

The new order still faces headwinds. An increasing number of companies — including Meta — are carrying out layoffs, while others are slowing hiring and upping performance expectations on those currently employed. Jerome H. Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, said he would most likely continue to raise interest rates but acknowledged “there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions.”

Employers are clearly feeling more emboldened. Goldman Sachs is insisting all employees report to the office five days a week, no ifs, ands or buts. For all the attention paid to new union organizing at places such as Starbucks, overall membership continues to fall.

A cynic will recall we’ve been here before. The 1970s also saw union activism and questioning of the meaning of work — it’s the decade that turned the career guide “What Color Is Your Parachute?” into a bestseller — only for both to crash and burn in the 1980s.

But there are crucial differences between then and now. An increased level of remote work, likely in a hybrid format, is almost certainly here to stay, says Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, who has studied the topic for decades. Employees want it, technological advances continue to make it easier, and companies that forbid it completely are likely to find themselves at a disadvantage.

And while labor laws need to be updated for our new reality, from protections for remote workers (yes, you should be paid for that email you sent after dinner!), to long-sought changes to empower union organizing, states are beginning to step into the breach. California, for instance, recently enacted legislation to set up a council governing conditions and pay for fast-food workers.

Perhaps most important, demographic trends favor today’s workforce. In 1990, about 20 percent of the workforce was over the age of 50. Now 1 in 3 workers fall into that cohort. One recent working paper posted on the National Bureau of Economic Research website found a large percentage of the workers who exited the job market during the pandemic were baby boomers — with some retirements pushed up by the pandemic. The main beneficiaries? Younger workers, now having an easier time getting promoted.

The past 2½ years brought immense upheaval, and we’ll be struggling to process the resulting changes for years. But it’s undeniable that some of these shifts were long overdue. Workers are highly unlikely to forget what we learned: namely, that our jobs are much more flexible than we thought. And after decades of subservience to work, Americans have finally made significant strides toward restoring it to its proper role in our lives. Now it’s our job to keep it there.

The Opinions Essay: Read more in our long-form series

Sign up for the Opinions Essay newsletter to get the next essay in your inbox.

Ruth Marcus: Originalism is bunk. Liberal lawyers shouldn’t fall for it.

Helaine Olen: How the pandemic right-sized the American relationship with work

Ruth Marcus: The tragedy of John Roberts

Bob Woodward: The Trump Tapes: 20 interviews that show why he is an unparalleled danger

Ruth Marcus: You thought the Supreme Court’s last term was bad? Brace yourself.

Steve Brodner: Look! It’s the winged monkeys of the Wizard of Trump

Michael Gerson: Trump should fill Christians with rage. How come he doesn’t?

Dana Milbank: The GOP is sick. It didn’t start with Trump — and won’t end with him.

Christian Caryl: Russia locked up Vladimir Kara-Murza for telling the truth about Ukraine

Karen Tumulty: How Gabby Giffords found her voice again

David E. Hoffman: ‘Liberation is born from the soul’: Oswaldo Payá’s struggle for a free Cuba

Molly Roberts: Susan Collins confronts a moment of truth

Emefa Addo Agawu: Why we should pay people to stay off drugs

Karen Tumulty: Disease took my brother. Our health-care system added to his ordeal.

Christine Emba: Consent is not enough. We need a new sexual ethic.

Josh Rogin: Biden doesn’t want to change China. He wants to beat it.

Sebastian Mallaby: Behind the ‘power law’: How a forgotten venture capitalist kick-started Silicon Valley

Ruth Marcus: The Rule of Six: A newly radicalized Supreme Court is poised to reshape the nation

Perry Bacon Jr.: Have Democrats reached the limits of White appeasement politics?

Robert Kagan: Our constitutional crisis is already here

George F. Will: The pursuit of happiness is happiness

Megan McArdle: America forgot how to make proper pie. Can we remember before it’s too late?

Michele L. Norris: Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?

Mike Abramowitz and Nate Schenkkan: The reach of authoritarian repression is growing. Now, not even exile is safe.

George T. Conway III: Trump’s new reality: Ex-president, private citizen and, perhaps, criminal defendant

Fareed Zakaria: The pandemic upended the present. But it’s given us a chance to remake the future.

Read other Opinions Essays and see more special features.

Loading...
Loading...