Last summer, we went on a long-overdue family vacation out to the Black Hills in South Dakota, and one of the most noticeable changes in the world since the COVID-19 pandemic hit was in businesses, especially in the number of people working across both states we traveled.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
There were the “help wanted” signs everywhere, of course. Some were simple, but some promised specific wages, significantly higher than before the pandemic, and even signing bonuses. Others had signs asking for patience on the part of customers because, the business being short staffed, service would be slower. One of those even had a political argument on whom to blame.
The effects were obvious enough. You’d go into a restaurant and it was clear one or two people were covering the entire room.
All this has a name — the Great Resignation. And it has only continued. According to CNN, a record 4.5 million American workers quit their jobs in March.
I confess I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around all of it, especially how people can afford it in these precarious times. On the other hand, it’s easy enough to understand the reasons for it. Among the causes usually cited are job dissatisfaction and burnout, concerns over wages, ongoing fears over COVID-19, and a desire for remote work options. Having a lot of employers competing for workers may have also given people a feeling of having more choices and therefore the ability to be selective.
Two years of pandemic strains and stresses have affected everyone in some way. Many lost jobs involuntarily. (Many lost their businesses too.) Some had to work in stressful situations even while most people were locked down — often the very people who work low-wage jobs with a lot of contact with a frustrated public. On the other hand, many who spent a year or more working from home have discovered that they liked the arrangement and stayed productive, and they’d like to keep doing it.
I suspect the pandemic and all that came with it has shifted people’s priorities, too, and often in a good way. Many spent more time with their families, cooked more meals at home, and rediscovered some of those simple joys that our normal “rat race” obscured. It wouldn’t surprise me if many people, while wanting to work, no longer have that rat race mentality that treats work as the be all, end all.
I don’t have any idea how this is all going to shake out, but I do have a suggestion on how to think it through: take inspiration from St. Joseph the Worker, whose feast day was May 1, and from Catholic social doctrine’s treatment of work.
Scripture makes clear that St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was a carpenter, and although little detail is recorded in Scripture about it, the church has long upheld him as a model for workers. The reason is simple: Here is a just, holy, prayerful man who quietly went about his work supporting his family, passing on the trade to his son.
In all this he is a model of the biblical ideal of work, which begins in the Garden of Eden, before the fall, when Adam is given the task of tending that garden. In Catholic social doctrine, we see work as part of the essential original vocation of the human person and, in a sense, as a cooperation with God the creator, developing the gifts given in creation in a harmonious way to support oneself and one’s family and one’s community, not only through the wage one earns but through the actual work one does. And while the fall of the human race has made that work more toilsome, it remains something good and necessary for us.
At the same time, Scripture makes clear that workers have inherent dignity and must be treated that way. For instance, withholding a just wage from a worker is one of the Bible’s sins that “cry out to heaven” (James 5:4). Catholic social doctrine strongly upholds this dignity, which should be reflected not just in wages but in working conditions and in the work itself and more. It teaches that the contribution of labor to the creation of wealth ought to be clearly recognized.
And it places work in the context of an integrated life, too. Work should not be incompatible with our duties before God, nor should it be something that works against our family life and leisure. Rather, all of these should be a balanced, harmonious whole. Our economic system ought to reflect that.
If we, as a society, are “rethinking work,” I would argue this is the best starting place. Work is a good: good for us as individuals in the various ways we live it out (not all work is paid), good for our families and communities, good for the world. It ought to be done in harmony with creation and with the common good and with the other human goods of life, and should contribute something of value to the community. It ought to be justly rewarded. And workers are right to seek to be treated with the dignity that is justly theirs.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].