The Great Resignation — Brought to You By: Women

Many people are talking about The Great Resignation, also known as The Big Quit – an economic trend in which employees voluntarily resign from their jobs en masse. Beginning in early 2021, and primarily in the United States, The Great Resignation is one of the largest unorganized social movements of our time. Despite increased labor shortages, the diaspora continues. All told, over 38 million workers so far have quit their jobs during 2021 in America alone. 

In social democratic Western Europe, a stronger safety net has led to somewhat less disruption in the workforce. But similar trends are at play. “Data collated by the OECD, which groups most of the advanced industrial democracies, shows that in its 38 member countries, about 20 million fewer people are in work than before the coronavirus struck,” reports Politico Europe. “Of these, 14 million have exited the labor market and are classified as ‘not working’ and ‘not looking for work.’ Compared to 2019, 3 million more young people are not in employment, education or training.”

Many point to the stimulus checks and unemployment benefits as part of the reason for what Atlantic writer Derek Thompson has described as “a centrifugal moment in American economic history.” But most of the workforce quit after the checks and benefits stopped coming. So what’s happening?

This is not just a trend, it is a mass global exodus, a giant middle finger to work as usual and to a system that treats humans like a cog in a great wheel of production and consumerism. Many people who were forced to pause and catch their breath during COVID lockdown had time to reflect and reconsider the quality of their lives. They discovered time with loved ones, time in nature, time to slow down and listen to inner voices that had been silenced by the headwinds of frenetic contemporary pace. 

And that is one side of The Great Resignation story. It’s a positive side, and one that brings hope that when people have half a chance, they make choices that are more life- and spirit-affirming and in so doing create a groundswell that shifts societal norms. It proves to me that one of the singular most powerful things we can do is live our lives authentically as individuals and that one brave act conjoins with others who are doing the same which is the change we need to see in the world.

The other side to The Great Resignation is lesser known, yet important. A large part of the migration is actually mothers forced to leave the workforce, and unable to return. Women have exited the work force at twice the rate of men and of those women, the majority of them are mothers. 

So while we celebrate the popular redemptive narrative of personal epiphany journeys, this is not the case for millions of mothers who basically have nowhere to put their kids. This is not the case for millions of women who are the primary caregivers for members of their family who are elderly, or suffer chronic illnesses, mental health issues and disabilities. For them, the pandemic has provided not more personal space for insight, but more backbreaking relentlessness. 

Schools were closed for almost two straight years and still suffer interruptions, quarantines, and closures. Daycare centers, already unaffordable and in dramatically short supply before the pandemic, closed in record numbers over the past year. Now, costs have been driven even higher; waiting lists can stretch for months, and the labor force for those institutions are also radically reduced. And let’s not forget the increased demands on women during the pandemic for elder care and the care of those in their families with disabilities.

As Moira Donegan writes in The Guardian, “It might be more accurate to say that as far as working mothers [and caregivers] are concerned, the Great Resignation doesn’t reflect women leaving the workforce. It reflects them being forced out.”

This phenomenon is not seen in countries where sane and responsible investments in the childcare and elder care infrastructure are in place. Countries with universal and publicly funded healthcare and education / childcare such as Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark (also known as the Nordic model) remain the happiest in the world, even throughout the pandemic. 

Not so in the US. “The result has been a massive loss of talent, creativity and human potential from the paid economy. When care is not invested in, women are not prioritized – and that means that half of the nation’s minds risk being exiled to the domestic sphere.”

My concern is not only for the loss of talent the economic domain, but the increased loss of sovereignty, dignity, and power to American women, in general and to American mothers specifically. While it is too soon to analyze the metrics, the pandemic for American women may have created the largest setback we have ever collectively and individually experienced economically, socially, and professionally. 

We can learn a lot from the Nordic countries. Nordic exceptionalism isn’t just confined to citizen’s happiness. It includes democracy and political rights, job security and fulfillment, lack of corruption, trust between citizens, felt safety, social cohesion, gender equality, equal distribution of incomes, Human Development Index, or many other global comparisons.

Women, in particular, are impacted by healthcare and education especially because they are the predominant providers of informal care for family, who in turn are in need of those services. Women are also the key carers for those family members with disabilities, mental health issues and chronic medical conditions. Women across the world spend up to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men. 

So, countries that safeguard the health, education, and wellbeing of their citizens, in fact safeguard women. And these countries are happier, less violent, and more abundant. America is not one of those countries. In fact, America ranks 27th among nations investing in health care and education, just above Czech Republic (ranked 28th).

What would happen to America if it did one simple yet seismic shift, and put women first as a policy priority ensuring true equality? In some ways it’s astonishing that I’m even needing to ask this question of a contemporary country as powerful as America. According to a recent 2021 World Bank report, only ten countries in the world which offer full legal protections to women:  Belgium, France, Denmark, Latvia, Luxembourg, Sweden, Canada, Iceland, Portugal and Ireland. Ninety-four countries out of the world’s 194 ranked at 80% or above, up from 87 in 2020. Saudi Arabia, which came in last in 2019, has improved its score following new laws implemented in the country and now ranks 91st at 80%. The United States ranked at 91.3%, below countries like Peru and Albania.

Here’s what would happen if the US took a concerted effort to join those top ten countries in protecting the legal rights of women, and as well followed the Nordic model of funding healthcare and education: outcomes for children would improve, outcomes for elderly would improve, and outcomes for other marginalized populations would improve. Our economy would flourish. Our households would be more peaceful. And stunningly, outcomes for men would dramatically improve. Gender inequality is not a gender issue, it is a global issue that affects every one of us. 

So if someone in your orbit is enjoying a sea-change in their life granted by The Great Resignation, whether it be higher pay, a better position elsewhere, or a sabbatical retreat, you may want to share with them that this sea change was and continues to be shouldered by women, particularly poor Black mothers and poor mothers of color. In some sense, this is no different than the ways they have always shouldered this country throughout its history.

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