On the Great Resignation: Interrogating the Neoliberal Narrative

One of my acquaintances, a university employee, told me that she was shocked when she heard in a high-level staff meeting a senior administrator say, “we are quite aware of the trending ‘quiet quitting’ culture, and we warn our staff that doing so will result in quiet firing.” She was shocked partly “because I didn’t even know at the time how widely this debate has been circulating in the mainstream media. I don’t follow the news. But even more shocking to me is that a place like a university would use such a threatening tone to address an issue that may have much more serious underlying causes.” My acquaintance’s concerns are legitimate. In that same conversation, I asked: “did it occur to that senior university administrator that there would be no quiet quitting if people didn’t feel that they are being quietly marginalized and bullied in the first place?” “Well, people would not have resorted to this approach if they felt fulfilled, are paid decent living wages, and allowed to create and contribute rather than just serve as cogs in a bigger machine,” she added. We both found that countering “quiet quitting” with “quiet firing” is immature and vindictive, because it totally ignores the causes that got people to this point.

Our conversation took place around the time the narrative of “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting” began trending in the mainstream media, so I decided to interrogate the mainstream narrative, while at the same time talk to as many people on the ground as I can, and research as many resources as possible to capture what the working and struggling people at the receiving end of this serious issue have to say about it. Not surprisingly, I found a frightening discord in the ways the mainstream media is framing the issues by focusing almost exclusively on the neoliberal, elitist, and privileged viewpoints, while deliberately ignoring the workers’ side of the story. This is when I decided that, as an independent anthropologist with a great interest in labor issues, I needed to dig deeper and share what I find publicly. My hope is not only to raise critical questions that we must wrestle with in the U.S., but also to expose the extent to which the ruling class totally disregards people’s voices. After all, it is these hundreds of millions of working people who struggle to make a living, and when all their struggle doesn’t result in living fulfilling, dignified, and meaningful lives, we are ignoring serious issues that could have detrimental effects on the entire society.

When the mainstream media and the ruling class decide to pick on a critical issue, it is usually for two reasons: first, the issue is serious enough and is affecting their interests, and therefore the narrative must be controlled to ensure that the results are in their favor. Second, in doing the former, the ruling class gets to strictly filter and manage the narrative on what needs to be said about any given topic; which “experts” are given the stage to speak; and whose voices are excluded from debates, or even defamed and slandered, if necessary. Contrary to what many well-intentioned people believe, the fact that we have multiple social media platforms today has little effect on spreading genuinely diverse narratives and perspectives. Social media is not only increasingly in the hands of a few billionaires strongly connected to the ruling class (e.g., Meta acquiring some of the most popular and active platforms), but also the fact that social media platforms operate based on carefully designed and manipulated algorithms to promote the viewpoints of the ruling class in what Cathy O’Neil has called “weapons of math destruction”, and what Safiya Umoja Noble insightfully calls “algorithms of oppression”, which apply not only to racial matters, but extend to every other matter that is potentially at odds with the desires of the ruling class. I begin with this to make one of the key points in this article: the debates currently circulating in mainstream media about the great resignation and why people aren’t working are not representative of peoples’ side of the story. For over a year now, I have been carefully following discussions and claims on the great resignation and quiet quitting such as: there are so many jobs out there, but people don’t want work; the younger generations are lazy and addicted to their screens; the quiet quitting phenomenon; and so on.

Unsurprisingly, given how algorithms are designed to function, most of the search results, including YouTube videos, that turned up when I initially began researching the topic were selected to present neoliberal, right-wing viewpoints packaged as expert, neutral, and reliable facts and sources. Ironically, some of such experts went as far as claiming that the topics of the great resignation, quiet quitting, and people not working are so important that there is a dire need for them to be examined by anthropologists and other social scientists. Mind you, this call comes from the same circles that for decades have worked tirelessly to kill liberal arts education at schools, slash budgets for anything remotely related to anthropology or other social sciences. This is done both within the U.S. and globally in places where the cancer of neoliberalism is spreading through donors and philanthropists who hold sacred every word written by Ayn Rand. Neoliberalism has, to a great extent, succeeded in replacing in-depth, critical, and independent social science with research funded by corporations to serve corporate interests. We are seeing a sharp decline of independent writers and researchers and a sharp rise of UX (user experience) jobs that are often narrow in scope, and solely focused on understanding users not to create a more informed and critical society, but simply to increase numbers, get users to consume more, and to increase profits for the few at the top. This is precisely why more independent writers and scholars must research and enter this discussion to raise questions about the bigger picture. Such issues are too detrimental to be left in the hands of donors and those on their payrolls.

In this article I carefully analyze the narratives and debates surrounding the great resignation and the notion that “Americans don’t want to work.” I examine how these debates are framed by neoliberals in the U.S., whose perspectives are easily accessible and available in most mainstream media covering this topic. As usual, the ruling class approaches the debate with many silences, blind spots, deliberate omissions, and total disregard to people’s voices. I was able to capture some of their key concerns, which I cover in the first part of the article. In the second part, I conclude with capturing people’s side of the story. I captured this part over the last year by informally talking to many people from different walks of life about these topics and looking for patterns that emerged from their stories. I also sifted through hundreds and thousands of public comments posted under online videos on YouTube or news articles about these topics where people shared their experiences. In putting these two parts together, I seek to show the frightening disconnect and total disregard of the ruling class in the U.S. with how people feel and experience the horrendous and draconian workplaces and work conditions that are driving millions of people out of the workforce, not because they can afford to do so, but despite the serious risks that come with walking away. I acknowledge that this topic is massive, and therefore this work is certainly just a small contribution to a wider scope of work that needs to be done by other conscientious writers and scholars. Much more research and writing are needed in the future. I hope this work will open some doors.

The Neoliberal Perspective in Points

It is concerning that many people are neither working nor searching for work.

In retrospect, I am glad that the algorithms directed me first to sources capturing the neoliberal perspective when I first began investigating this topic, because such sources provided me with invaluable insights into how the ruling class in the U.S. views this topic, and how frightened they are about the resignations and the quiet quitting trend. Their take on this matter and, consequently, the way the mainstream media has been framing the topic, can best be captured in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith who wrote “The complaints of the privileged are too often confused with the voice of the masses.”

As I sifted through many articles and videos capturing the concerns of the American ruling class, some important patterns emerged. One of the main concerns is that a significant number of prime-age Americans, especially males, are neither working nor looking for work. Prime age refers to those in the 25-54 age group. According to NILF’s labor report, for every unemployed prime-age American man looking for a job, there are over four neither working nor looking for work. To make this issue more baffling for the ruling class, in 2022 there were nearly twice as many openings as unemployed people; that is two jobs for every unemployed worker. The neoliberal experts ignore the fact that most of the available jobs don’t pay a living wage, add to that the increasing cost of living, which for such jobs can’t even guarantee having a roof over one’s head. Readers can easily find countless YouTube videos and blog posts of people sharing heartbreaking stories of working 40+ hours per week and still living in their vehicles or out of storage lockers. If we read carefully between the lines, it becomes clear that the ruling class is not even remotely interested in remedying such issues as fair pay, wealth gap, and living wages. Rather, their main concern is that we have millions of American workers who are neither working nor connected to any institution to be accounted for. And we have millions of cheap labor vacancies that aren’t being filled. Some raised the question that if these people are neither connected to institutions nor incarcerated, where are they? This question clearly reflects the anxiety of not being able to account for bodies to be properly governed and disciplined rather than the wellbeing of these bodies. And not being able to account for these bodies feels threatening to the ruling class, because what if, God forbid, some are plotting a revolution or perhaps planning to demolish the status quo?

Blaming it on the government’s pandemic unemployment checks

The other explanation for why many workers are neither working nor returning to work, which I find incredibly shortsighted and perplexing, is blaming it on the government’s pandemic enhanced unemployment benefits, the few hundred dollars or so per week that stopped in September 2021. The key flaw in this claim is that it ignores the fact that these payments not only lasted for a relatively short period of time, but also the government checks were given precisely around the time the so-called inflation started, which makes the amounts paid hardly sufficient for already poor working families with little to no savings to live on for too long. Considering the devastating and disproportionate consequences of the pandemic on working people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, this is hardly a safety net that could explain the complexity of the issue. Some “experts” have gone as far as claiming that certain people were able to amass an estimate of $25K, an amount that most working people never dreamed of having, which allowed some to retire early and others to buy time and stay out of the workforce. Here, one wonders if any naïve American living in this country could subscribe to such an absurd reasoning. Nevertheless, neoliberals seem quite angry – and even bitter – that some poor working Americans were able to get $600 per week for 20 months or so. In fact, the bitterness in some mainstream writings and talks is so apparent that it made me think whether what we are currently experiencing is a legitimate inflation or is it price gouging aimed at taking with the left hand what the government gave with the right hand in the form pandemic unemployment benefits. Or perhaps inflation is the government’s way to force taxpayers to pay for billions sent in support of yet another illegitimate war. Or a combination of both. The astronomical profits posted by U.S. oil companies, which were described as “their highest ever profits since people started using petroleum,” display no signs of an economic crisis and every sign of price gouging and inhumane exploitation at the expense of hardworking people. Of course, the privileged experts do predict that many people will go back on the job market once they run out of savings, so they are content that this loophole in the system is under control. In speaking to many working-class people in the last year or so, many people told me that the payments they received, while better than nothing at all, were hardly sufficient to cover their daily expenses. One father of four who was laid off from his job in the hospitality sector said, “all these unemployment payments are nothing when you have no health insurance, and you suddenly get sick, and you get hit with a huge medical bill.” Many workers either lost their jobs, or their small businesses were fully closed. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at the height of the pandemic “120,000 businesses temporarily closed, and more than 30 million U.S. workers were unemployed.” Considering how many employers dumped their most vulnerable workers without severance pay or any benefits, one wonders whether the government stepping in to provide these unemployment payments is, in a sense, yet another version of Wall Street bailing for employers who didn’t take any accountability to protect their employees during such a crisis. In a conversation I had with a man who had a small food truck business that was so successful before the pandemic that “we regularly catered to businesses and big events.” He shared that “despite losing my entire staff, which was already small, I initially couldn’t just let my business drown and resort to the weekly pandemic unemployment checks. I loved my little mobile restaurant so much and I couldn’t let it go, even though there was a period when I would have received more money from the government checks than I was making in my food truck delivery sales. Eventually, after much resistance, I had to let it go. I simply couldn’t carry on without any income to support my family.” Another chef I randomly met a few months ago at a local restaurant in North Carolina said “many people don’t realize that the highest share of COVID deaths goes to people in the foodservice and hospitality industry. People in our industry were even at a higher risk than healthcare workers because of lack of resources and decent health coverage for most of us. Most employees I know in this sector are either not offered any health plans, or when they have the option, the plans are so expensive and awful that most people opt out of buying them through employers.” I was extremely disturbed to hear this, but not surprised. Sure enough, there is evidence to prove this chef’s point. For example, in a report on COVID-19 mortality by usual occupation and industry, published in October 2022 by authors from NCHS Division of Vital Statistics, the authors of the report conclude: “Workers in protective service occupations (60.3 per 100,000 workers, 95% confidence interval: 53.5–67.2) and accommodation and food services industries (55.0, 51.1–58.9) experienced the highest death rates.” Despite some limitations in the report, acknowledged by the authors, it still shows beyond dispute that workers are disproportionately at higher risk of dying from COVID, and it sheds light on the absurdity of neoliberal experts claiming that working people who received unemployment checks from the government were spoiled by these checks, hence their refusal to return to the workforce.

Gaming the disability system

The next thing the neoliberal narrative blames the problems on is the dysfunctionality of the disability programs that is such that many Americans “game the system” and end up on some form of disability or another, which results in many dropping out of the workforce. I have no doubt that in every system and country, there are people who try to game the system or misrepresent facts for personal gain. Yet there are two major ways to handle that: first, have mechanisms and procedures in place to make sure that the system is as fair and as efficient as possible, knowing that some people will always find loopholes to exploit. Second, it is more important to look holistically at the root of why anyone would want to avoid work so badly that they’d game the system to qualify for disability and leave the workforce altogether. When work is fulfilling, dignifying, respects our skills and nourishes our talents and souls, it becomes a pleasure not a burden; something we would look for not run away from. So, for a starter, these are some of the questions and pointers any serious researcher, policymaker, or even employer would want to ask and address, if such is the case. Instead, in a rather punitive and vicious tone, many mainstream experts are calling for these programs to be reevaluated and even restructured. In my analysis, this call to “reevaluate” is part and parcel of the neoliberal crusade to kill  any and all public and state-funded services so that all people remain hostages under their mercy; so that oppressive and cruel employers and corporations become the sole and ultimate power that decides who can make a living and who is let to starve; who is worthy of employment and benefits, and who should be disposed of when no longer serving their needs. Equally important, the ultimate and most dangerous big goal is for corporations to have a full control over freedom of speech as they determine what is allowed to be talked or written about and what is not. If they don’t like what anyone says or writes, they have the ultimate power to silence any resistance and impoverish people through not hiring, firing, or totally silencing voices deemed inconvenient or misaligned with their agenda. In other words, their intention from “reevaluating” disability or any other welfare programs where people can potentially find loopholes is really to create a society that is fully under the grip of corporations and billionaires.

Now, let’s get to numbers and patterns that easily debunk the bogus claim about people gaming the disability system.  With some research, I found that the process of qualifying for disability is in fact rigorous, which makes it hard to game the system, unless one gets help from within the system. First, let’s consider the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report“Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics,” for the year 2021, which was released on February 24, 2022. Most significant for the purposes of this section and the overall article, and considering the time of the report’s publication, the document challenges and exposes the false claim of people using disability to run away from work. It states that in “2021, 19.1 percent of persons with a disability were employed, up from 17.9 percent in 2020,” which means that the number of people with disability who are working has increased not decreased since the beginning of the pandemic. Moreover, “half of all persons with a disability were age 65 and over,” which clearly reflects the expected connection between disability and aging. The report states that in 2021 “29 percent of workers with a disability were employed part time, compared with 16 percent for those with no disability,” which, to me, reflects people’s desire and will to seek fulfilment from work, albeit part time, and despite disability. It is also stated that employed persons with a disability “were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability.” This could be interpreted in two ways:  first, it may reflect how employers in this country still don’t do enough to accommodate people with disabilities in the workforce, making many of them incapable of thriving in typical corporate work environments. Second, it simultaneously reflects the creativity and resourcefulness of those who manage to establish their own businesses despite living with disabilities, and despite the high risk and huge burden of running one’s own business. Unsurprisingly, the lower ratio of unemployment among persons with a disability is, according to the report, in part due to “the older profile of person with a disability; older workers are less likely to be employed, regardless of disability status.” And, finally, while the unemployment rate in 2021 remains higher than those in 2019, it is significant that the rate has decreased by 2.5 percentage points in 2021, which reflects determination on the side of persons with disability given that in 2021, the risks of the pandemic and its overall traumatizing effects were – and remain – extremely high, especially for people with disabilities. This rise in percentage is a clear sign that most of us humans, sincerely like to find meaningful and dignified work, regardless of circumstances.

The neoliberal narrative takes this farther by claiming that some people who game the system are enabled to do so through the mental health loophole. They claim that while physical ailments can be easily proved with evidence, such is not the case for disabilities caused by mental health illnesses. This is yet another problematic claim that needs to be unpacked carefully from two different angles. First, when it comes to mental health, there is no doubt that the U.S. is a country in which people are overly diagnosed, overly pathologized, and overly drugged. There is plenty of important research in all these areas, one notable example to share here is Joel Paris’ book, Overdiagnosis in Psychiatry: How Modern Psychiatry Lost Its Way While Creating a Diagnosis for Almost All of Life’s Misfortunes. Some of the key points and questions Paris reveals in the book are how “diagnoses have been expanded in scope to justify currently popular methods of pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy.” Paris raises concern about how the Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS) “makes many of life’s misfortunes diagnosable, and implicitly offers psychiatry as a cure for unhappiness” (p.xxi). This results in hasty, inaccurate, and overdiagnoses, hence the “diagnosis epidemics” we see in psychiatry, a term first used by the American psychiatrist, Allen Frances. Like other areas of medicine, over diagnosing is part and parcel of a medical enterprise deeply connected to pharma money and interests, and more concerned about liability than precision in diagnoses and prescriptions. Interestingly, Paris pays special attention to the overdiagnoses of such diseases as major depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, which all qualify for disability benefits. Paris reminds readers that overdiagnosis can have serious consequences not only on such matters as civil litigation and criminal trials, but also on creating a society in which the boundaries between normal life misfortunes and serious illnesses are made hazy and ambiguous at best.

Yet, even if we assume for the sake of the argument that mental health, being so difficult to measure, and thus used as a route by some to game the disability system and live at the taxpayers’ expense, the right approach wouldn’t be the punitive route of attacking the existing disability system. Rather, we need to look carefully at two serious and separate issues, each covering a vast territory with a whole set of questions and challenges. The first is to tackle the question of why we have such a frightening rise in mental health illnesses in our country? Are there legitimate causes, or do we have a whole mental health industrial complex benefiting from over diagnosing, over prescribing, and over pathologizing? Have we created such a stifling, unfair, and unfulfilling society, including employment and social conditions, that have caused so much depression and other mental health illnesses to an increasing number of people? Or is it a combination of all these issues? None of these questions can be resolved by attacking the disability system itself.

According to the CDC, “During 2015–2018, 13.2% of Americans aged 18 and over reported taking antidepressant medication in the past 30 days. Antidepressant use was higher among women than men in every age group. Use increased with age, in both men and women. Almost one-quarter of women aged 60 and over (24.3%) took antidepressants.” Whatever the causes, and this is an important topic beyond the scope of this article, I believe any insightful reader can see that any solutions in the right direction for these challenges require tackling all these complex layers, each in its own terms, rather than proposing oversimplifying and punitive solutions to further choke the disability system in place.

Second, when it comes to qualifying for disability, after reading some formal documents on disability applications on the Social Security Agency (SSA) site, I found that the evaluation steps the SSA has in place are anything but lax. Indeed, they are so rigorous that I can’t see how anyone could game the system without receiving support from within the system in the form of, say, corrupt healthcare providers knowingly and intentionally diagnosing, prescribing, and producing medical records for patients so that they qualify for disability. And even if such is the case, that would be an entirely different problem to tackle. To provide some examples, let me share a few points from one document published by SSA. Mind you, realities stated in official government documents are always much worse on the ground than they say, but if we want to stick with the SSA document and take it at face value, the first point stated in the document is that “the chances that you’ll develop a disability are probably greater than you realize. Studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a one-in-four chance of developing a disability before reaching full retirement age.” The word “worker” is important here because it clearly suggests that working people; those who do the hard labor, which tend to be those who are underpaid and overworked, are at an extremely higher risk of becoming disabled. These are also the same people who are not returning to the workforce under the current unfair conditions. So, an attack on the disability system that supports workers is, by extension, yet another attack on the working class.

Second, the document clearly states a strict definition of who is considered disabled: “We pay disability benefits to people who can’t work because they have a medical condition that’s expected to last at least one year or result in death. Federal law requires this very strict definition of disability.” Processing applications takes 3-6 months on average (much longer since COVID), and the evaluation process and the required documents are such that it is extremely hard to game the system unless, as I noted earlier, one get help from within the system itself. For example, as part of the evaluation process, applicants are required to submit names, addresses, and phone numbers of all doctors, caseworkers, hospitals, and clinics that took care of the applicant. Also required are names and dosages of all medicines, all medical records, all lab and test results, and much more. Furthermore, the document clearly states that “your doctors don’t decide if you meet our definition of disability,” and that if an agency staff deems that any record is insufficient, they have the right to request further testing and evaluations. It is stated that if “your medical sources can’t provide needed information, the state agency may ask you to go for a special examination…We will pay for the exam and for some of the related travel costs.” Again, this shows that the procedures in place are anything but loose, and the definition they have is clear beyond dispute: “your medical condition must significantly limit your ability to do basic work activities— such as lifting, standing, walking, sitting, and remembering — for at least 12 months.” It is further stated that if one’s medical condition isn’t severe, they simply won’t qualify. The latter is determined in the first two steps of the evaluation process. The third step evaluates whether one’s medical condition meets or equals those on SSA’s listing. The SSA listing of impairments “describes medical conditions that we consider severe enough to prevent a person from doing any gainful activity.” Also evaluated in the following steps is whether one can do the work they used to do before, and whether they can do any other type of work. It is stated that “staff look to see if there’s other work you can do despite your medical condition(s) … If you can do other work, you don’t have a qualifying disability.” I cite all these requirements to show readers that the multi-step process is rigorous and difficult to game, and to show that the claim blaming this on the “gaming the system” is not only problematic, but it fails to raise the right questions that we should ask, even if there is any legitimacy to the claim.

The Gap between education and skills

The next argument, which by now has become a classic neoliberal argument and most of us are sick hearing about it, is the attack on educational institutions. It is what the so-called experts call the gap between education and employment preparation. The idea that schools are not equipping students with the right skills, leaving many graduates unemployed for not having the highly sought after skills by employers to make them competitive. There is no doubt that almost every education system worldwide has many flaws that could and should be addressed.  Urgent examples of things that need serious changes include but are not limited to: decolonizing the imperial curricula in most countries around the world by providing ample space to include contributions from non-western thinkers and scholars from all walks of life; revisiting and even changing any teaching methods that deal with students as passive receivers rather than active participants in learning and knowledge production; making serious structural changes in education systems, including in western countries, so that good quality education in any field is accessible as a basic human right not a privilege only available to and affordable by the rich; investing more in educators rather than increasing administrators dedicated to  turning educators into poor and powerless adjuncts on temporary contracts; and many other changes not within the scope of this work. Yet, let’s make no mistake, the calls of corporate and industry leaders for bridging the gap between the skills students acquire during their studies and employer needs in the workplace are anything but well-intentioned, or even remotely related to the examples I shared on serious structural changes needed in most education systems. Their intention is to ensure that schools and universities turn into mediocre factories producing people educated and programmed just enough to fully, uncritically, and unconditionally serve the corporate interests in every field. Even the emphasis on lifelong learning, I argue, is not well intentioned. What they really mean by lifelong learning in the neoliberal world in which universities have turned into for-profit corporations, is for people to keep going back to upskill and reskill to fulfil the constantly changing market needs governed by the whims of corporate leaders for more profits. Furthermore, since the corporate, for-profit schools and universities will need to remain afloat, one must pay for every course or new skill they acquire to remain competitive in the neoliberal job market throughout their professional lives. The latter aspect of lifelong learning as propagated by neoliberals shall ensure that neoliberal education will continue to sustain itself through people paying to reskill/upskill, or through grants and donations from corporations designed to further corporatize every inch of our lives.

Equally important, there is a huge shift to rewiring people from working class families to pursue education that is cheap, but profitable for corporations and corporatized educational institutions, and that is just enough for them to be trained as malleable workers at the service of the ruling class and their needs. We are in a country in which the few rich and privileged get quality education, while everyone else gets cheap training and acquire mediocre skills in the form of certificates of completion. The children of the rich go to Yale and Harvard and other big names, while those from poor working-class families get certificates in this or that skill that they can add to their resumes to be desired by employers. Consequently, we must be careful and critical of what they mean when they keep bashing education systems in the U.S. or in other countries where the same neoliberal ideologies and toxic agenda is being spread worldwide in shock-and-awe blows against education. In fact, if examined carefully, the ongoing corporatization of higher education in the U.S. and worldwide is right out of the shock doctrine playbook as words like “resilience” are consistently used in every educational program, project, INGO intervention, and so on.

If we pay close attention to some of the most used words propagated by the neoliberal corporate elites these days, we will often hear that employers value “creativity”, “problem solving”, “innovation”, and so on. The words are used so often that, over time, they have come to mean what corporate leaders want them to mean. One of the biggest challenges with words in the language we use is the assumption that they should mean the same thing to each one of us, or the more dangerous assumption that we all have reached consensus on what they should mean. And because ruling classes know that every word can be deep and mean many things to each of us, they are sure to hammer words repeatedly against the anvil of our consciousness and imagination, until these words begin to mean what they want them to mean when they fall on people’s ears or encounter their eyes. This is precisely how and why language is extremely slippery and could become a prison or a pair of wings to fly with, depending on how we use and nourish it, as I have written in more detail elsewhere. Therefore, it is critical to zoom in on some of the words that often come up in neoliberal and corporate narratives and try to unpack what they mean, do they mean the same thing to the people vs the corporate leaders, what are the assumptions and the intentions behind using certain words to mean certain things, and so on.

To give you a couple important examples of such words, I start with interrogating the way the word “creativity” circulates and gets used in corporate settings. What does it mean to be “creative” in any corporation? If we agree that one of the key ingredients of creativity is “to create”, then we can safely say that most of the American people feel alienated from the work they do and from their employers, because they can’t create in the deep sense of what creativity means. Even those who do, most of them feel alienated from the product they create, because they feel it is being utilized for profit only. One quick example that comes to mind is utilizing technological advancement for surveillance and manufacturing weapons. Over the years, I have talked to many people in different professions from pilots to engineers, from coders to programmers, from doctors to other healthcare professionals, who repeatedly confirmed that they often feel that the human and creative value of what they accomplish only seems to matter to the extent it can be monetized and used to expand businesses and increase profits for the few at the top. As such, people feel alienated even with their most creative products and moments. And, if they decide to be critical of the status quo and challenge it (being critical is another key ingredient in creativity), then they face disciplinary action or dismissal from their work. Creativity, then, as propagated by corporate interests really means being creative in maximizing profits and numbers for the few at the top, and to do so, one needs to be creative to lure as many customers as possible to buy products. So, two of the key ingredients of creativity (to create and to be critical) are often replaced with maximizing profits and marketing. Now, imagine if educational institutions continue to even remotely teach creativity in contrast to the way it is desired by corporate interests, wouldn’t that make them obsolete and in need of restructuring? Doesn’t that explain why corporate leaders are constantly complaining about the gap between education and employable skills?

As noted earlier, I am far from claiming that the education systems in the U.S. and worldwide are flawless or not in need of serious changes. My claim is that the changes neoliberals are imposing on education and every other walk of life are far from what we humans need to thrive and have meaningful lives or dignified employment that bridges our souls and passions with the work we do. Therefore, it is more urgent than ever to fight corporate interests in education and push for another kind of education that nourishes the soul, the mind, and the body, and consequently, the entire society. We need an education that is neither indoctrinating nor subjugating. Otherwise, let’s not be surprised that this disconnection and this lack of meaning will result in countless mental health illnesses as well as people reaching breaking points at which they will simply walk away and fully shut down. Here, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s powerful words in her book, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, where she writes, “Within each one of us there is some piece of humanness that knows we are not being served by the machine which orchestrates crisis after crisis and is grinding all our futures into dust.”

Another dangerous neoliberal word circulating everywhere that is worth zooming in on is the word “resilience”. On the surface, I think many people won’t object to the idea that it is good and beneficial for us to be resilient to withstand the difficulties and challenges of life. As a person who lived through the atrocities of wars and sanctions in Iraq, I’ve learnt that life is not about being happy or sad, not about laughing or crying, leaving or staying. Life is about endurance. Since most feelings, moods, and states of being are fleeting, endurance, for me, is the common denominator that helps me go through the darkest and most beautiful moments of life knowing that they are fleeing. In that sense, I believe it is good for us to master the art of resilience and endurance. Yet, how should we think about the meaning of “resilience” when used by ruling classes that push for wars and occupations, and that contribute to producing millions of deaths and refugees to profit from plundering the planet? What does it mean when these same warmongers fund humanitarian organizations asking them to go to war-torn countries to teach people the value of “resilience”? What happens to the meaning of “resilience” when they create frighteningly precarious economic structures, uncertain employment, and lay off people without accountability? All this while also asking us to be “resilient”. Another example from the heart of the U.S., while for decades the neoliberal policies and influence have pushed to decrease or eliminate any welfare services and support for citizens, they have been equally working hard to turn as many employees as possible in the corporate private sector into temporary contractors with no health or retirement benefits. While doing that, they are constantly preaching “entrepreneurship”, “being your own boss”, and “resilience”, words that, if examined in this context, mean that you are on your own. If you lose, go bankrupt, get sick and can’t work anymore, you have no one to blame but yourself. Even going by most optimistic assessments, “18.4% of private sector businesses in the U.S. fail within the first year. After five years, 49.7% have faltered, while after 10 years, 65.5% of businesses have failed.” If we look the progression of failure, most of these entrepreneurial endeavors and startups fail eventually, and those duped into thinking it’s best to live in a country where one has no universal healthcare or any other benefit to receive when needed, one can easily understand why the ruling class in the U.S. is heavily invested in promoting “resilience” in the U.S. and abroad as they destroy countries and try to restructure them in the neoliberal image and ideology.

As such, we must not let the word “resilience” circulate or get planted in the heads of our youth uncritically. Instead, we should raise questions about what it really means. Does it mean the same thing for a poor young man or woman from Ghana, Ecuador, Afghanistan vs a privileged member from the upper management of a U.S. corporation? Resilience towards what? What is the root of the challenges for which we are expected to be resilient? Does our resilience solve the cause or the root of the problem or does it maintain the status quo while we wait for the next disaster? Are individuals always to blame if their resilience doesn’t yield any results, or should we equally examine the social contract and the entire structure in which individuals live that might be designed in such a way that one’s resilience may not prevail no matter how much perseverance and sacrifice one demonstrates? There is no doubt that resilience, according to its neoliberal corporate meaning, is used in a way that places the sole responsibility of failure on the shoulders of individuals rather than equally holding accountable the structure in which these individuals exist, and the precarious circumstances that require work and commitment way beyond individual capabilities and resources. I find it more effective not to simply aspire to be resilient, but to distinguish between situations in which individual resilience can do, and those for which the depth, awareness, and work of an entire community or society is needed for any real and sustainable change to occur. But none of this can happen if we don’t first agree upon what each of us mean when we say “resilience,” and if we have different definitions of what it means, then we should ask: how shall we merge and reconcile our definitions of the word so that we complement not undermine what we do individually and collectively as people. Resilience should not become a synonym for surrender. It is great to be resilient when facing a flood or an earthquake, but that is not the same when having to endure wars and economic crises caused by the ruling class and warmongers.

In examining the dominant corporate neoliberal narrative, I hope I was able to show that, contrary to the claims propagated in mainstream media, people are not turning their backs to work and employers because they are lazy, ill-trained, or because the education system is failing to equip them with skills that make them employable. Instead, the focus should be on the lack of fulfilment, feeling alienated and uncreative about what we do, the damaging consequences of uncertainty and insecurity that have left millions of Americans struggling with mental health illnesses which, for many, have or will get to a point that makes them totally unable to function or work anymore. This point paves the way for the concluding section in which I try to capture people’s pulse on the same issues.

Concluding with people’s voices

Combined with examining the neoliberal narrative on why an increasing number of Americans are neither working nor seeking work, I had many informal conversations with people from different walks of life in the last year or so. I also sifted through hundreds and thousands of comments people posted on various platforms with materials covering this topic such as YouTube videos, news articles, and some blogposts. Many people who spoke with me were excited and enthusiastic about the idea of writing this work, which encouraged me to keep going. This combination of informal interviews and digital ethnography made it clear to me that if the challenges of most working American people could be captured in a few words, it would be these: unfulfillment, uncertainty, shifting values and priorities, and lack of dignified work that pays a living wage. In fact, some of these points have even been documented in a commendable effort by Stephanie Ferguson, the Director of Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, though it is much more quantitative than qualitative in focus. For example, a survey for unemployed workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic on what is keeping them from returning to work showed: “Twenty-seven percent indicated that the need to be home and care for children or other family members has made the return to work difficult or impossible. More than a quarter (28%) indicated that they have been ill and their health has taken priority over looking for work.” The survey also showed that “some are still concerned about COVID-19 at work, indicate that pay is too low, or are more focused on acquiring new skills and education before re-entering the job market.”

Many people from different industries I chatted with told me that the whole notion that there are jobs, but people are unwilling to work totally ignores that fact that most available jobs don’t pay living wages. To add salt to injury, the outrageous and continuously increasing living costs for basic needs and housing are only making it more difficult for people to find work that can pay for such basic human needs. Others, perhaps unsurprisingly to most of us except the privileged overlords, said that the break they had during the pandemic was a rare occasion that allowed them a breathing space to reconsider their entire lives and what they do for living. One person I spoke with, who switched from working at a grocery store into studying psychology, said, “life should ultimately be about living not being caught in a rat race to make a living without getting anywhere. I have been working at the same grocery store for years and still getting nowhere, except my mental health state has gotten much worse since the pandemic. I still can’t afford my own space and have to live with three other roommates.” Here, we must remember that a significant percentage of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, currently at a historic high (63%) according to the mainstream media at the time of writing (I suspect the real number might be higher), never got a break to sit down and think about their lives and priorities until the pandemic. What this means is that a high percentage of the population don’t even have the luxury to think about what kind of life they want, what kind of values matter to them most, what kind of employment/employers align with their values, what kind of changes do they wish to make to their personal and professional lives, and how much time and resources will they need to get there. The pandemic gave many a break to do just that, which is a basic human right that shouldn’t be granted only during such devastating crises. Moreover, the pandemic acted as a loud wakeup call as it reminded people of how much time and connection they missed having with their families and loved ones all these years. It awakened those who lost loved ones to COVID-19. Both factors really made people reconsider the meaning of a life that is almost entirely focused on making a living but hardly living.

When it comes to lack of fulfilment and feeling alienated from the work people do, something that is not new under capitalism and have been extensively written about since Karl Marx all the way to the last published text critical of capitalism, most people I talked with shared that it is almost impossible to find fulfilling work that doesn’t make them feel like a fraud salesman whose job is solely to increase numbers and convince buyers to buy more of a product that may or may not be good for them. I found this challenge especially present when chatting with younger people who are resisting this role. Most university students I spoke with told me that their biggest challenge is to turn their passions and interests that nourish their souls into employable skills. Others also expressed concern about how many hours one has to work just to pay the bills. This, to me, is a proof that the constant neoliberal bashing of educational systems for not equipping students with employable skills is both ill intentioned and soul crushing in that it is creating a world in which what nourishes the soul rarely makes people employable, and what makes them employable often crushes the soul. A nourished mind and soul are the core of what makes us human, and we really can’t continue to ignore our minds and souls with impunity. We need to be careful and mindful of young people’s voices, that I find to be filled with helplessness and hopelessness. We can’t afford handing them a world even worse than the one we have inherited. When it comes to what the ruling class wants and is doing in this regard, we must ask: are they creating a healthy world for youth, or are they producing young generations that are well adjusted to a profoundly sick world? This is a big question that I plan to explore in a separate work in the future.

The other pattern that emerged from people’s perspective is the serious issue of age discrimination. Ageism is not new, but its effects on the entire society have and continue to be significant. It is extremely disturbing to live in a society that sees older people as a burden rather than rich experiences to benefit from and build upon. Older people can act as the memory that can help us make sense of what was, what is, and what could and should be. I see that in the U.S. older people are not only made invisible in a culture obsessed with youth and superficial physical appearances, but often their insights, experiences, and perspectives are dismissed as “nostalgic” or as outright “ignorant” using the “generational gap” as a pretext. In this regard, Audre Lorde succinctly captures the consequences of doing so in Sister Outsider, where she writes: “The ‘generation gap’ is an important social tool for any repressive society. If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memory of the community, nor ask the all-important question, ‘Why?’ This gives rise to a historical amnesia that keeps us working to invent the wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread.” In the case of older people and the workforce, many shared stories about how the pandemic gave them a break to breathe and make the decision of early retirement, which for those with little savings is quite bold and risky.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the same source cited earlier, as of October 2021, “the pandemic drove more than 3 million adults into early retirement.” For many, they took this decision knowing that they will be living on little monthly retirement checks, but they still chose this route rather than adding more years to their overworked and underpaid careers. Others expressed their deep dissatisfaction with work politics and the continuous demands for them to do more with less. Many expressed exhaustion from the overall divisive political climate in the country. In many cases, older people ended up doing the work of two or more employees for the same pay. Again, we hear nothing of this side of the story in the narrative propagated in the mainstream media. I read many online stories in which older people were immediately laid off when the pandemic started, and thus deprived of their salaries and benefits. Yet, many wrote that they were contacted by the same employers to return to do even more work as contractors with less pay and no benefits at all. Most people felt hurt and betrayed by this, and many chose not to return no matter what. This example is aligned with the neoliberal modus operandi of making everyone’s work temporary, disposable, and making sure that most of us are turned into contractors without any benefits. Furthermore, we often hear the false narrative that older people are laid off due to their outdated skills, or because they “resist” change, upskilling, or reskilling. While I am sure this could apply to a certain percentage of employees in all age groups, the fact that employers lay off older people and ask them to return and do twice the amount of work as contractors clearly shows that the issue is not about outdated skills, but about continuing to seek cheaper labor at the expense of employees’ dignity and livelihoods.

Another notable perspective shared by people, strongly related to fulfillment and shifting priorities from work to family and loved ones, is one showing that many couples are choosing to have one of them work, while the other either works part time, do odd jobs for cash, or simply become a full-time homemaker. The pandemic as well as the constant rising costs of living have made it clear to many parents that they can’t break even if they both worked full time and paid for all the expenses, especially for childcare. One accomplished and well-educated mom I spoke with said, “I just found it absurd that a successful career would pay me good money, but then I’d have to pay someone else to raise my children who I supposedly I brought to this world because I wanted to have the role of raising them not have someone else do the job.” Another mother in a casual conversation told me: “When I worked, I paid most of my salary for childcare. Now only my husband works, and we don’t feel we’ve lost my salary because it went to childcare anyway, something that I am now doing for my children much better than any childcare facility would do.” In another conversation with a professional working mom, she shared: “So, I really love working and can’t see myself not working at all. The pandemic forced my employer to make us work from home and that was an eye-opening experience for me. I found that working from home gave me the flexibility to be present with my child. Since then, I have taken my child out of childcare and there is no going back. From now on, I am either doing flexible work from home in my profession [accounting], or I am staying at home and not working at all. It is not worth it otherwise.” I am sure this perspective sounds familiar to many of us who personally experienced it or have heard it from our families and friends. To me, among other things, these perspectives show that one of the eye-opening things about the pandemic is that many people are willing to take more risks with less income, less prestige, and even less promotions if they are at the expense of living and wellbeing. According to Kathy Dill, 3.5 million moms left their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, which significantly decreased the percentage of women’s participation in the workforce. The pandemic exposed the value of life and living in an unprecedented way. Therefore, any employer that sincerely wishes to attract and retain talent must take people’s side of the story, shifting priorities, fulfillment, and wellbeing very seriously.

As many people in the stories shared with me expressed, the post-lockdown life was truly a wakeup call. Therefore, we and the employers should never wish for things to be back like before, because what we are witnessing today shows that the system was broken and it was breaking us down in a slow spiritual and intellectual death, the hardest forms of death for anyone whose heart is still beating. I fully understand people’s pain, frustrations, and even depression resulting from workplaces as we have them. This is a critical moment for us, the people, to keep fighting for a more equitable world in which work is a joy and a pleasure not a threat to our mental, spiritual, and intellectual wellbeing. Yet, sadly, as readers see by now, there is a frightening disconnect between how those at the top see and interpret things vs how the hardworking people on the ground experience this oppressive reality. This is frightening in two ways: first, the privileged are disconnected because they live indifferently in their own bubble of wealth and power. Second, which is even more frightening, is the possibility that the ruling class can afford to be disconnected because they know they have a full grip on money and power to manipulate and shape reality as they please. Whatever the case, I will always have hope in the human ability to challenge and reshape reality. Some people asked me why would I write on a topic that may potentially put me at risk if seen unfavorably by any future employer? My answer to that legitimate question is simple: first, our dreams and solidarity are worth every risk. Second, I don’t want to work for any future employer who would want to silence or tame my writing and thinking as they won’t be a good fit for me anyway.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.