Corporate Culture is the Final Holdout of Mainstream America

At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson wants to push back against the anti-work narrative . Contrary to what you may have heard, he insists that Americans are in general, quite content to work.

In his view, Americans do want to work, they’re satisfied with the jobs they have, and the recent increase in quitting reflects not an increase in Marxist sentiment, but rather an increase in opportunity. People don’t quit because they hate capitalism, they quit to take better jobs.

Just looking at top level indicators, there’s good evidence for this. Since the start of the pandemic, quits are way up, but the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) seems on track to recover:

Monthly Nonfarm Quit Rate. Source: FRED

Labor Force Participation Rate. Source: FRED

Those are the only two graphs you really need to make Thompson’s point. People are quitting their jobs, but they’re not quitting the workforce. So the Great Resignation is, as Thompson puts it, the “Great Job Switcheroo”.

…Except that Thompson doesn’t use those graphs. Instead he relies on a mishmash of poorly chosen and even more poorly interpreted metrics.

Let’s start with his argument that Americans are satisfied at work:

From 2018 to 2021—after an economic crisis, mass layoffs, and a surge in unemployment—the share of very or moderately satisfied workers fell from about 88 percent to … about 84 percent. These numbers aren’t outliers. They’re part of a boring tradition of American workers telling pollsters that they aren’t drowning in a sea of misery.

First, note that there is some selection bias happening here. The satisfaction numbers Thompson uses are only drawn from people who have full-time or part-time jobs. So if someone is so disgruntled that they leave the workforce entirely, that actually pushes job satisfaction numbers up.

Second, the 4% drop might not feel like an outlier, but it is a serious departure from historical norms. It’s lower than the metric has been since 1984, making it the second lowest satisfaction rate on record. And just looking at recent years, a fairly clear departure from the norm:

Data from the General Social Survey. Source for charts.

It’s worse than even that chart would suggest. Since we’re debating the existence of employees quitting out of burnout or resentment, we should we really be looking at the other end of the spectrum: the rate of respondents reporting “very dissatisfied”. Here, the rate was at 5%, over twice the 2018 rate of just 2.46%. That is a serious departure, and on a metric more important for explaining an increase in quit rate.

Similarly, this is the worst the metric has been since 1984 when we hit 5.5% “very dissatisfied”, and the second worst report on record since the survey started collecting data in 1973.

You might feel that even with big swings compared to historical averages, the absolute numbers just aren’t that big, and this still doesn’t feel like a huge shift towards worker resentment. Aggregated across the entire national population, a 4% drop is equivalent to 6.6 million people newly dissatisfied [1], constituting a fairly substantial cohort.

Next, Thompson turns to another leg of the Great Resignation narrative, attempting to debunk the idea that quits are driven by resentment. As he writes:

let’s address this pesky claim that the Great Resignation, or “quitagion,” or whatever is a reflection of job hatred and burnout. The Great Resignation isn’t a dramatic shift in worker sentiment. It’s a dramatic shift in worker opportunity.

…A greater share of people say they are contemplating quitting than express dissatisfaction with their current job," wrote Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who helped run the survey. Put simply, resignations are rising because people are seeing more job listings, not because they’re feeling more Marxist.

I’m all for relying on the credentials of established experts, so long as you actually represent their work correctly. But follow Thompson’s link, and you’ll find that Shieman explicitly denies this interpretation:

In 2018, about a quarter of respondents said finding another job would be very easy. I asked the same question in my 2021 survey and found that number had actually decreased to around 22%.

This means that worker confidence or optimism about finding a palatable alternative job has not climbed all that much, making it less likely to be a factor in driving the current wave of resignations.

Thompson is right that not all quits are driven by increased dissatisfaction, but that doesn’t mean a large share of them can’t be. And more to the point, it doesn’t actually provide evidence for his “increased opportunity” narrative, which is hard to square with the reality that fewer workers feel they could get another equally good job.

So what’s actually happening? I think The Great Resignation is less about the recent increase in quits and dissatisfaction, and more about the voicing of a long term trend. I mentioned at the beginning that the Labor Force Participation Rate was on track to recover to its pre-pandemic highs, but that’s only half the story. The other and much more important trend is the long term decline in LFPR that’s been going on for decades:

Starting around 1965, we see a steady increase as civil rights, progressive social norms and innovations like birth control enable the entry of more Americans into the professional workforce. There are pronounced effects on LFPR for women, black and hispanic Americans in particular.

But by 2000, we shift course. LFPR for women plateaus just under 60%, ending rapid “catch up” growth. Meanwhile, the entire time, another trend has been steadily pushing LFPR down. For Men, LFPR has been dropping as long as we’ve been measuring it, from a high of 87.4% in 1949, down to our current rate of just 68.3%.

Even for women, the rate has decreased modestly since its early 2000s peak, now down to 56.8% from a high of 60.3%.

Again, these are seemingly small changes that correspond to huge demographic shifts. Nearly 2 out of 10 men who would have been working in 1949 are now neither working, nor pursuing work. More speculatively, I’m willing to guess that these are the kinds of people who would have disproportionately showed up on the General Social Survey as “very dissatisfied” at work, meaning that the 5% figure we see today could be artificially lowered by selection effects. Basically, it’s not a good indication of the percent of people who actually dislike work.

I think what we’ve seen lately is a relatively small shift in quits and LFPR, accompanied by a massive cultural change in how acceptable it is to say you hate work. And not in a “water cooler conversation” kind of a way, but in a “I literally don’t want to have a job” kind of way.

This isn’t quite “Marxist sentiment” as Thompson describes it, but it’s an important shift in norms all the same. Ten years ago if you said you never wanted to work, people would think you were pathologically lazy. Now you can proudly say that you “don’t have a dream job because I don’t dream of labor”, and it’s not seen as a character flaw, but as the awareness that capitalism is exploitative. So exploitative in fact, that refusing to work is actually a kind of radical resistance, and any ensuing financial troubles actually a kind of noble martyrdom.

In some ways, this is just hippie rhetoric seeing a revival, but that doesn’t mean we should underestimate it. A common refrain is that a genuine counter-culture can’t exist anymore because there’s no longer a coherent mainstream culture to rebel against. This is true for television, and for news and for radio and everything else, but it’s not true for work.

There’s some variation, but not so much that we can’t all laugh at the same Dilbert jokes about bureaucracy, corporate jargon and office politicking. By and large, corporate cultures converge on the same optimally gray morass. It’s the last truly ubiquitous force in American culture.[2]

That means that anti-work is viable as a genuine subculture in a way that nothing has been for decades, and we ought to be prepared.[3]

[1] Civilian Noninstitutional Population of 263m, with a Labor Force Participation Rate of 62.4%, means a shift from 88% satisfaction to 84% satisfaction corresponds to 263m * 0.624 * 0.04 = 6.6 million people.

[2] There’s public school too, but only for children.

[3] It won’t all come in the form of resignation. It will look like playing video games while working from home, working multiple jobs in secret, starting side hustles, retiring early, contracting for Uber, becoming increasingly overeducated, working for DAOs, moving to areas with a lower cost of living, having more roommates, moving back in with your parents, living more frugally, and making your own coffee.