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Workaholics, quiet quitters, and the Great Resignation: What would Jesus do?


Callum Hill | Unsplash CC0

Tom Hoopes - published on 11/14/22

Turning to Catholic social doctrine, and Jesus' example and teaching, gives great direction on several new workplace phenomena.

What would Jesus do if he were a carpenter in 2022?

The workforce and work habits were already changing in fundamental ways during the 21st century when the pandemic came along, accelerating, redirecting and reshaping who works where and how. Catholic social teaching — with Christ at its center — gives great direction on several new workplace phenomena.

First: Many of us are workaholics. Jesus wouldn’t be.

Most working Americans exhibit one sign of “workaholism” or another, according to a 2019 New York Post report. It cited research suggesting that more than half of us prioritize work over personal lives and worry about work on days off; nearly half check emails in the middle of the night and almost half work through lunch.

This approach to work gets things backwards. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “It is indispensable that people not allow themselves to be enslaved by work or to idolize it, claiming to find in it the ultimate and definitive meaning of life.” 

In fact Jesus’ one direct command in the Sermon of the Mount is against workaholism, St. John Paul II points out in his 1981 encyclical about work.

Though Jesus “has appreciation and respect for human work … we find in his words no special command to work but rather on one occasion a prohibition against too much anxiety about work.”

He’s referring to Matthew 6:25-34, which reminds us, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Second: Jesus and the “Great Resignation”

The nation’s quit rate reached a 20-year high in November 2021, and while many workers changed jobs, many people left the labor force altogether, accelerating a decades-long trend according to Bloomberg. People were forced out by retirement, but also by automation and skyrocketing drug addiction.

But if workaholics lose something by making work their only identity, they also lose by having no occupation.

As St. John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical On Human Work, Jesus himself was known as a carpenter, and in his parables on the Kingdom of God, Jesus often identifies people specifically by their occupation. There is a shepherd, farmer, doctor, sower, householder, steward, fisherman, merchant, laborer, and a baker if you count the woman kneading yeast into dough. 

This kind of identification can’t happen for a worker who leaves the workforce on the one hand or is treated like “a cog in a huge machine moved from above” on the other. Which brings us to another change in the workplace.

Third: Jesus might like “quiet quitting,” but not when it’s work averse. 

Gallup defines “quiet quitters” as “people who do the minimum required and are psychologically detached from their job” and says quiet quitters make up as much as 50% of the U.S. workforce.

One theory says that quiet quitting is the result of a reduced work ethic in young people. The explanation goes something like this: In schools, unprecedented grade inflation in the 21st century taught a generation of kids that hard work was no longer required for greater results.

I asked students at an academic conference if they saw that as a factor and they said it absolutely was. But so was video game and smartphone addiction, they said. Both reward paths to success that don’t require hard work. 

Jesus’ specially chosen apostle St. Paul exhorts Christians to hard work. “With toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you,” he writes.“If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.”

Fourth: Jesus would applaud pro-family “quiet quitting.”

Not all quitters are work averse. During the pandemic, millions left the labor market because schools and day-care centers closed, according to Bloomberg, and many of them were surprised with what they found.

“Moms came home more than dads to take care of kids, and I think we’re going to see that some of those people that dropped out realized: ‘You know what? This new way of life, we can get by like this,’” marketing executive Hannah Grieser told Bloomberg.

Others reduced their work hours to juggle home and family life. That’s probably the best outcome from the changing work dynamics.

St. John Paul II’s famous formulation put it this way: “Work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work,’” he said. Jesus learned that at Joseph’s side, and we do the same: “Work constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life, which is a natural right and something that humanity is called to.”

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