The Great Resignation has employers sweating. It’s time to escalate the pressure
This is a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment – which gives workers an upper hand. Let’s demand better hours, pay and work-life balance
Mon 1 Nov 2021 10.15 GMT
Despite quizzical think pieces on the motivations behind the Great Resignation, anyone who pays rent or a mortgage knows why this “labor shortage” is under way. After years of inflation and stagnant wages, the pandemic has revealed the value of labor, the worthlessness of commutes and office culture, and the importance of finding personal comfort in times of increasing precarity.Employees are accepting pay cuts to keep working from home. They shouldn’tTayo BeroRead more
In other words, we are living in what labor economist Lawrence Katz calls “a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment” – which gives workers a once-in-a-generation upper hand.
The potential of this cultural moment is not limited to the 2.9% of the workforce who have quit their jobs in the past few months. As CEOs scramble to maintain retention rates, those who have kept their jobs can express solidarity with resigning workers and contribute to the cultural shift by slowing the pace of productivity.
What I am proposing is not exactly a “slowdown”, but a “slow-up”.
Traditionally, a slowdown is a strike tactic in which workers remain on the job but slow productivity with the aim of negotiating for a particular objective, such as higher wages. In this sense, a slowdown is a highly localized and temporary effort.
By contrast, a slow-up must be unlocalized and permanent. It would entail a grassroots redefinition of workplace expectations – and frankly, it has been a long time coming.
In 2020, 80% of US workers reported feeling that they have too many things to do and not enough time to do them – a phenomenon known as time poverty. This isn’t just in our heads: a 2014 Gallup poll revealed that US workers clocked in an average of 47 hours a week, with more than 18% working over 60 hours a week. It would be naive to attribute these statistics to the industrious spirit of the American worker, considering that full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford an apartment in any state in the US without taking on another job.
The objective is to uphold the ideal that everyone deserves a life of dignity, which includes rest and distance from work
It is no surprise that “speed up” and “slow down” evidence a cultural recognition that a fast pace moves you up the corporate ladder, while a slower pace leaves you behind. Instead, a slow up (intentionally rhymes with “glow up”) signals that slowing down can improve workers’ quality of life. The objective is not to drive down profits (though that may happen), but to uphold the ideal that everyone deserves a life of dignity, which includes rest and distance from work.
Undoubtedly, some will say that calling for a slow-up ignores the lived realities of workers or the racialized and gendered dynamics of the workplace, where people of color still have to work twice as hard to be recognized and women are still expected to do unpaid work. While such criticism is valuable, it also reaffirms the expectation that living a worthwhile life or getting a human amount of rest is a luxury afforded only to the privileged.
Moreover, such a critique intentionally ignores the work of Black activists and artists who explicitly call for a change in work rhythms. A 2019 art installation by Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Black Power Naps/Siestas Negras, responds to the fact that 34% of Hispanics and 45% of Black US residents get less than seven hours of sleep a night. Similarly, Tricia Hersey, a performance artist known as the Nap Bishop, has convincingly argued since 2016 that rest is a necessary component of reparations.
So, while it is true that groups who bear the brunt of workplace disparities would be taking the biggest risks in a slow-up, it is also true that we would have the most to gain. We would be, effectively, stealing back our lives.
Although a slow-up is not a strike tactic, it does elicit many of the same concerns of a “prisoners’ dilemma” as workers’ strikes. Because our economic structure puts workers in continuous competition with each other, a worker who slows the pace could lose an opportunity, a promotion, or employment itself. The slow-up requires solidarity, flexibility and creativity.
Depending on the job and the worker, slowing up might mean responding to emails only three days a week, blocking out time for yourself before and after draining meetings, taking unofficial breaks, following work expectations to the letter of a company’s mission statement, or strategically engaging in untrackable forms of “time theft”.
Attending to a slower pace can also help us be vigilant against corporate attempts to rebrand fast-paced exploitation. CEOs are scrambling to create a “new normal” that mollifies workers’ desire for work-life balance while keeping existing power structures in play. While more than 70% of CEOs expect that the labor shortage will disrupt their business in the next 12 months, two of the main solutions they are implementing across the board – more flexible hours and increased diversity – fall short of the policy changes workers need, such as increased holidays and paid time off. It is not that flexible schedules or emphasis on diversity and inclusion are bad for workers, but rather that both of these retention strategies are easily subsumed into the traditional rat race.
Studies show that more flexible hours lead to more work hours – specifically, 2.5 more hours of work a day
Studies already show that more flexible hours lead to more work hours – specifically, 2.5 more hours of work a day. This is not to say that flexible hours cannot be beneficial, but that workers should preemptively find ways of slowing up to make the most of their new work dynamic.
Similarly, corporate-driven diversity efforts very quickly hit the limits of their potential, particularly given that most begin and end with “we should see more diversity in our employee base and … our leadership”. In the spirit of slow-up, we could ask: What would it mean, instead, if diversity, equity, and inclusion practices were worker-led and intended to explore labor practices that can grapple with rest as a necessary part of reparations and closing the sleep gap? What if inclusion examined the relationships that emerge from labor organizing? Or if “equity” (defined as fairness and justice in the way people are treated) responded to the many reports highlighting that the US remains an outlier in overwork?
As with any labor movement, the Great Resignation is a waiting game. The longer workers remain between jobs, the more their expenses go up – an important advantage to employers. Keeping those who quit their job afloat through mutual aid and pushing for generous paid time off and parental leave during this crucial time of workplace redefinition is also in the interest of our collective wellbeing.
Does this seem impossible? The truth is, you don’t have to be idealistic to participate in the slow-up. You only have to be imaginative. You only have to think about the meaningful things that could fill your day and imagine what it would feel like to work more slowly and feel more rested – and then strategically act as though that were already possible. In the words of Courtney Desiree Morris: “What if we attempted to live as free as the many-gendered daughters that are yet meant to arrive but we know are coming?”
- Erika Rodriguez is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maine at Farmington and the director of the New Commons Project