It was a Sunday afternoon and I was setting up for a game of musical chairs on my back deck. As the sun shone, I carefully counted black lawn chairs and placed them facing out, in a circle, with one chair less than the number of RSVPs for my daughter’s seventh birthday party. It felt a little cruel to set up a rigged game like this, but I reasoned it was a classic of childhood competition. What could be more American?
Before the pandemic, the labour market felt like a game of musical chairs. Employers created jobs, expected more applications than positions, and when the music stopped, they chose the best employees for the role. Of course, some were left out, but they could be trained to run faster next time and grab a chair, right?
But in the last two years, for both employees and employers, it feels like somebody tipped over the chairs, threw some into the yard, and shut off the music. And half of the kids left early from the birthday party, deciding they didn’t really want to play musical chairs anyway.
Not only has the pandemic created a labour shortage, it has changed the world of work for all us. We now desperately need to find new ways to infuse life into a weary workforce.
A Cloudy Labour-Market Forecast
Well before March 2020, the storm clouds of the labour market were threatening to rain on the economy. Droves of older workers were leaving the workforce through retirement to the tune of an estimated ten thousand people per day. On the other side of the demographic spectrum, declining birth rates were pinching the supply of new workers—and turning up the dial on competition for a shrinking pool of college students.
To add to the storm, the US labour market couldn’t supply enough new immigrants to fuel the economic engine because partisan gridlock kept comprehensive immigration reform from being passed—or even considered—for the better part of the last thirty years. Moreover, the skilled-labour shortage was already widespread—particularly in middle-skill jobs that require more than a high school degree and less than a college degree. And to add one more rain cloud to the labour market, social scientists were sounding the alarm bell of a decreasing labour participant rate for working-age men ages twenty-five to fifty-four, which had hit the lowest rate since the Great Depression.
Millions of workers were retiring, having fewer kids, prevented from working in the US, not taking the “dirty jobs” the economy was producing, or collecting unemployment benefits indefinitely while disconnecting from marriage, community, and work.
And then the pandemic hit.
An unknown disease. Shelter-in-place orders. Entire segments of the economy shuttered. Millions in hotels, restaurants, and retail fired within weeks.
As remote work and video conferencing spread like wildfire, news stories hailed as heroes the labourers who were keeping the economy functioning. And yet churches, schools, and businesses were faced with impossible decisions—shut down or risk infection? So were working mothers. When schools and child-care providers shut down, early in the pandemic the working world lost 3.5 million mothers. Most didn’t return to their jobs.
The pandemic also put a spotlight on the yawning economic divides of our culture. The real wages of working-class (those without a four-year degree) labourers and professionals had been diverging for over a half century. Yet the pandemic took a yellow highlighter over growing economic inequality and held the truth up to the masses. You can go home, work from a laptop with a latte on your desk, and still pull down $100,000 per year? And here we are either fired or made into “heroes” so we can keep this whole system running while making $11 per hour and putting ourselves at risk of a killer disease?
Nah, I don’t think so.
The majority of workers also experienced a plummeting sense of agency, feeling that they were disconnected from the halls of power. For black and minority communities, the spark was the killing of George Floyd. For white working-class and conservative communities, it was vaccine and mask mandates. What both held in common was a simmering resentment and distrust for institutions and their leaders, and a political and social anxiety that became a widespread mental health crisis.
What began as a health crisis with economic, political, and social consequences soon became a spiritual crisis. Many felt alienated from all that used to be familiar—including our jobs.
Workers realized they didn’t need businesses as much as they thought, and businesses realized they needed workers much more than they had ever imagined.
Business Is Back, but I Don’t Care
Soon after the pandemic hit, the US federal government responded by pumping an estimated $4.5 trillion of aid in the form of stimulus cheques, forgivable PPP loans to businesses, and child tax credits into the US economy. One result: workers realized they didn’t need businesses as much as they thought, and businesses realized they needed workers much more than they had ever imagined.
An estimated 50 million left their jobs in 2021, and just about everybody was asking why. The most common argument was that workers were having their moment. Workers were in demand and were tired of low pay, disrespect, and chaotic schedules. They could drop their jobs like a bad habit and pick up something more lucrative, and convenient, on the other side.
But I think something else is going on. It feels like the air in our workplaces has changed. Indeed, our entire attitude toward work seems to have shifted.
In a feature for the New York Times Magazine, Noreen Malone makes the convincing case we’re now living in the age of anti-ambition. Hearing your job is nonessential invites “creeping nihilism,” writes Malone, noting the new nomenclature about work the pandemic introduced. “This thing we filled eight to 10 hours of the day with, five days a week, for years and decades, missed family dinners for . . . was it just busy work? Perhaps that’s what it was all along.”
The feeling of worker burnout was assuaged only by the thought that if we can just get through the next few months, we’ll be okay. Until those months dragged on and on, while offices closed, restaurants never reopened, and constant anxiety from work seemed to morph into something like sloth.
The desert fathers called it acedia, which was more than laziness, but a boredom with life itself. Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century Egyptian desert hermit, describes an attack from the “noonday demon”:
Swap out a monk’s cell for an office, and incessant checking of email, scrolling your Twitter feed, and waiting for the last Zoom call to be done, and you could have the modern worker. Far easier to scroll and click than do what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” Apathy gives way to a sorrow at having to do something good but difficult, avoiding the worthwhile for the ephemeral. My previous essay on bullshit jobs now seems to have become a widespread feeling about work in an aimless world.
Might acedia be seeping into the workforce on a massive scale?
There’s ample evidence. Steam is picking up for a four-day workweek, as workers hope the extra day off will help them deal with stress and burnout. The rate of entrepreneurship continues to decline in the US, as one writer for The Atlantic makes the case that America is running on fumes. Colleges now are trying to actually recruit low-income white men, as they see rates of matriculation bottom out due, in many cases, to a lack of motivation.
In China, one man’s dejection with work started a social movement around rejecting the demands of work. Jeff (we’ll call him) left his hometown of Hangzhou for a highly paid job as an app developer in Beijing. Work became his life: he put in sixty to seventy hours per week. Then he decided to take a vacation to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and one day he observed old men just relaxing and chatting, watching soccer. He came back home, deciding that he’d simply lie flat, literally. He inadvertently started a social trend among Chinese. Ting pang, or “lying flat,” has spread like wildfire among young Chinese professionals who are fed up with the relentless demands of their employers.
Has the spirit of work changed in modern culture?
And it’s not just a phenomenon for bored, burnt-out office dwellers. The US Chamber of Commerce reports that leisure, hospitality, transportation, and social assistance have all seen an exodus of workers, and a deep net loss to the total workforce since the pandemic began.
Not all labour-market churn is bad. Indeed, some is good, providing mobility and opportunity for workers. But I’d still ask: Has the spirit of work changed in modern culture? Has the pandemic initiated a new age of languishing in the long, afternoon sun of acedia? If we’re honest, do most workers really care about what they’re doing each day?
The Light of Vocation
In Civilization: The West and the Rest, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that, beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six new ideas that allowed it to surge past its global competitors: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the Protestant work ethic. This work ethic had its roots in what the Reformers simply called vocation.
Imagine there are two definitions of the word “vocation” that are related to each other like an oil lamp and its light. Vocation as an entire life lived in response to the voice of God is the burning lamp. Vocation as a type of work that is not just a means to a paycheque, but an expression of person’s identity is the light flickering on the walls. I used to think these two definitions were in opposition, a Christian version and a secular one. But I no longer believe this. They are related like a lamp and its cultural light.
I’d argue that this second definition of vocation, while limited, should be embraced in our public conversations about labour, work, and our economy as a critical way to breathe life back into weary workers throughout the modern world.
Historically, these two definitions are related. Vocation as a response to God was one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation, consecrating previously “secular” work and daily tasks. Puritans and their Reformed successors created modern Western economies largely with this Christian assumption. The process of unhinging biblical ideals from the word “vocation” took place slowly, particularly in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. But the endowment of work as intrinsically valuable has endured from this theological seed, and some have taken up the mantle of reviving it even in conversations about public policy.
For example, Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the case that a dynamic, healthy economy requires the idea that “fulfilling one’s potential is essential to happiness, especially when such becoming occurs through one’s vocation.” Streeter argues, “When we speak of people’s aspirations we are talking about more than wishful thinking; we are referring to goals that require a journey, which is itself meaningful because of the sense of achievement and fulfillment along the way.” Work as an expression of one’s gifts, interests, and talents, rather than simply extracting maximal wages for minimal effort, is the critical element of a dynamic, growing economy.
Streeter’s colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Brent Orrell, makes the case for vocation even more simply. Through his research, he’s found that if you want to get somebody out of poverty, eventually they’ll need a job they enjoy—that aligns with their interest, knowledge, skills, and ability—and is not just a means to a paycheque. Even in difficult, painful jobs or tasks, we can find satisfaction in our work and a sense of pride and public contribution. Vocation is part of a growing conversation about soft skills, or noncognitive skills, including a worker’s sense of purpose and human connection, that’s critical to closing the opportunity gap.
If you want to get somebody out of poverty, eventually they’ll need a job they enjoy—that aligns with their interest, knowledge, skills, and ability—and is not just a means to a paycheque.
Why is this important? The labour market has a spiritual undertone, and the message of vocation—that you have particular gifts to give to the world through your work—is the idea that can heal the economy and revivify everyday workers and the companies they inhabit.
This is not simply a Protestant idea for Americans alone. Catholic social thought has a history of over 150 years of teaching about work, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerun Novarum in 1891, extending to John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens 90 years later, and even filling papal writings today.
“There is no poverty worse than that which takes away work and the dignity of work,” wrote Pope Francis in his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. “In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts. Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people.”
It’s important for leaders responsible for institutions and their wilting workers to take the idea of vocation seriously for at least three reasons.
First, human purpose is a universal need. Speaking about one’s gifts and contributions to our community through work resonates everywhere from public schools to corporate America. Nearly all can get behind this language, whether you’re a progressive working to close the purpose gap by creating conditions for minorities to thrive or a conservative wanting to reinvigorate a sense of personal responsibility.
Second, the future of the economy is eminently human and will require a workforce with emotional and social skills. Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, argues that, in an age of automation, workforce development programs need to prioritize building skills that only humans can do: think critically, solve problems, relate to co-workers, and respond with empathy. And workers need to believe what they’re doing has value. The essential message of vocation, which tells workers they have something to give the world, is a necessary foundation to the people-centred economy of the future.
Third, vocation is a way to recover a sense of agency in a media-saturated world ruled by powerful tech, government, and media elites. In a culture of growing resentment, anger, and feelings of powerlessness over huge global issues—ranging from war in Ukraine to a global pandemic—vocation says simply you can do something. It awakens individuals to their own ability to make a meaningful impact on their communities.
Indeed, vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission of God. It’s also essential to helping workers rise up for the challenges ahead.
We need to re-centre work and the lives of workers as the social issue of our time.
I’m not the only one to make this case. Both conservatives and progressives see the centrality of work to everything from our political life to our schools to economic development. Work is the nexus of liberty and justice, where we express the freedom to create and also look to the needs of our neighbours. Why we do our work, and what we make, is ultimately the civilization we get.
The creep of resentment, alienation, and acedia can, however, be countered with the message of vocation: that work is an expression of your identity, a central part of your contribution to the human story.
If work is critical, not just in a labour shortage, but to the broader culture, what might it look like for leaders to join forces to heal both workers and our broader workforce?
It would mean pastors and church leaders taking up the great questions of capital and labour in the twenty-first century. It would mean neither demonizing work nor deifying it, but seeing work in light of the larger call for pastors to equip the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4:11–13).
It would mean non-profits and job-training organizations both advocating for workers and uplifting work itself as intrinsically noble, because it is done by people who have infinite value and are made in the image of their Maker.
It would mean higher education linking arms in the next generation with work-based learning programs, connecting university conversations about vocation with the real needs of the workforce. It would also mean striving to understand the two-thirds of workers who will never graduate with a four-year degree and providing more pathways to a good career for all workers.
It would mean policy-makers doing what they can to heal caustic partisan divides and creating policies that encourage work and serve workers, whether they be immigrants, retirees, the handicapped, mothers, fathers, AI software coders, or agricultural workers.
It would mean those in media, music, and the arts using the power of beauty to recognize and appreciate work that’s seen as undignified—or not seen at all—by the broader culture.
It would mean workers themselves hanging on to the idea that work is central to a meaningful life, even in the face of underpay, disrespect, professional setbacks, racism, or injustice.
And it would mean that business re-centres its very purpose around workers. It would mean reimagining business education itself, which is currently focused primarily on quantitative disciplines like accounting, marketing, data science, operational efficiency, and finance. It would require a refocus on serving the good of people, most centrally the emotional, spiritual, economic, intellectual, and relational health of workers. And it would require a widespread increase of intelligence around workforce development, and an embrace of the idea that holistic worker health is a competitive advantage. For if workers are happy, customers are happy. And if customers are happy, so are shareholders.
Changing the Tune
The pandemic changed not just the labour market but also how we feel about work and our jobs. The creep of resentment, alienation, and acedia can, however, be countered with the message of vocation: that work is an expression of your identity, a central part of your contribution to the human story. Vocation raises the sights of workers and implicates employers and cultural leaders in building systems that are thoroughly good.
Today the lawn is still littered with chairs and half the kids have left the party. But perhaps tomorrow we can reset the chairs, and when we turn the music back on, ensure there’s now a chair for everyone.