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Theologizing the Great Resignation: Dignity, Downward Mobility and Death

The United States is experiencing an employment churn popularly termed the “Great Resignation.” Each month of 2021 has found record numbers of U.S. workers leaving jobs, peaking, in the latest data, with fully three percent of the workforce quitting a job in September.[1] Those leaving jobs may be having very different experiences: business professor Martha Masnevski explains “One [experience] is people who are professionals, who are making a choice between ‘good’ and ‘better’. The other category is people who are making a choice between something that is really terrible, unhealthy and toxic, and survival.””[2] Well-paid, educated workers can change jobs to pursue personal growth or prioritize having a parent at home with kids as Covid-19 continues to destabilize school and child care. Lower-paid, more dangerous jobs are seeing workers leave to protect themselves from Covid exposure or to find better pay doing the same work elsewhere.

Writer Kathryn Hymes notes that the title “Great Resignation” carries a note of doom, evoking the Great Depression.[3] Business owners trying to hire low-wage workers certainly see this groundswell of quits as a bad thing, and state governors support this view by cutting off supplements to unemployment insurance, trying to drive people back to work.[4] But Catholic theology provides at least three ways of reading the Great Resignation as a very good thing.

Worker Dignity

Many have speculated, even hoped, that the Great Resignation signals a shift in U.S. culture’s idolization of work. Writer Derek Thompson finds that less-religious moderns have replaced religious faith with “workism,” “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”[5] The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church similarly warns that worker dignity is not only threatened by stigmatized or dangerous jobs: alienation—work distancing us from our human nature—is also a risk for privileged workers. Alienation can be found in “over-working, … work-as-career that often takes on more importance than other human and necessary aspects, … excessive demands of work that makes family life unstable and sometimes impossible.”[6] If workers resign to find jobs that do not demand total commitment of one’s identity and to pursue a balance between work and the rest of life, their choices are in line with Catholic theology’s view of human dignity as innate, not earned through work or other achievements.

Often discussed in tandem with the Great Resignation is a wave of high-profile strikes of unionized workers in the US. While these workers are not resigning, neither are they resigned to stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions or two-tier union contracts that award more rights to some workers than others. Particularly in health care and other “essential” industries, workers understand striking as a way to make their current workplace better, rather than pursuing the individualistic improvement of resigning and going elsewhere.[7] When workers act together to improve conditions at their workplaces, they live out the Catholic understanding of unions as “instruments of solidarity and justice.”[8] In the same way, workers who quit over dangerous conditions or low wages are voting with their feet, exercising their duty of participation in society to urge working conditions that comport with basic human dignity.

Downward Mobility

Educator and organizer Dean Brackley, SJ famously used “downward mobility” to describe St. Ignatius’ desire for his followers to become close to the poor, thereby working for economic justice and—equally importantly—saving their own souls from the human tendency to chase the false idols of riches, honors and pride. Brackley explained that downward mobility may look different depending on the person’s status in life but is ultimately “a constant vigilance in the face of the social and interior drift toward pride and hierarchy.”[9] Probably few workers who quit jobs in 2021 are explicitly pursuing Ignatius’ counsel to embrace poverty, insults, and humility. But there certainly is downward mobility at work when a family who previously survived on two incomes moderates its living standard to survive on one, whether to provide child care, to get a parent out of a toxic work situation, or for other reasons. The papal framers of Catholic social thought originally envisioned families surviving on the wages of one male breadwinner, with the mother caring for the children at home. We don’t have to embrace Leo XIII’s gender roles or child care policies to observe that the ability to survive without every adult family member in the full-time waged workforce is a very good thing for workers and their children.

As Brackley observes, downward mobility is deeply countercultural. US culture offers few exemplars of people who give up positions of status, honor and wealth from a place of freedom, because they believe it is the right thing for them to do.[10] Such exemplars help us resist “workism” through their embodied reminders that life holds greater goods than work, productivity and positions of power.

One of my role models in the struggle to resist “workism” is the late theologian Beth Haile, whom I know only through her writings and stories from mutual friends. As a mother, partner, author and professor on the tenure track, Haile seemed to have achieved the illusory status of “having it all” when she wrote on the Catholic Moral Theology blog about her decision, after a year of intense prayer and discernment, to leave her job to focus on raising her children. “It became clear to me that I could not be the sort of mom I felt called to be and the sort of teacher I wanted to be,” Haile wrote. “I couldn’t do both well, but what I had to do well was parent. … What made the decision difficult is that all the things I was doing–teaching, mentoring students, scholarship, serving my institution, and everything associated with parenting–all of these were good things.”[11] While acknowledging that different social structures could have lessened the pressure on her and other working moms, Haile wrote, “I don’t know the solution for the larger problem. I only know the solution for me.”[12]

Reading Haile’s words at the time, as a graduate student consumed by my own career anxiety, I struggled to get my mind around this. She gave up a tenure-track job! This act of rejecting a hard-won honor is a paradigmatic act of Brackley’s “downward mobility,” as were others that followed for Haile and her family: living simply on one income and rejecting the consumerist trappings of middle-class life.[13]

Workers like Haile, who leave professional jobs and privileged situations, challenge the U.S. cultural belief that paid work demonstrates virtue and that professional status equates to personal worth. Certainly, not everyone who resigns to provide child care (in the era of Covid-19, that’s many, many workers, predominantly women) is doing so from a place of material and spiritual freedom, like Beth Haile. Public, free child care would give more parents the freedom to continue or find meaningful paid work. But nor is it the case that every privileged worker who quits is trapped by forces beyond her control. Downward mobility—exchanging income and status for more time with what matters—can be a choice made in true freedom.


Haile’s account of quitting tells how she used Ignatian discernment, prayer and spiritual direction as she sought to understand God’s intent for her many gifts. This stood out to me as I reread it, recalling that one method the Spiritual Exercises recommend for decision-making is imagining oneself at the point of death.

As many members of this community know, five years after her decision to give up her job, Beth Haile died of a brain tumor at age 35. Read her essay on her diagnosis. She doesn’t mention the choice, years earlier, that had already given her more precious days spent with her children instead of at work, but her words reveal every bit of the freedom and trust in God that led her to it.

At this writing, the U.S. has lost nearly three-quarters of a million people to Covid-19.[14] Three in four US people know someone killed or hospitalized by the virus.[15] However against our will, we are learning the ancient Christian insight of memento mori: confronting our mortality helps us reflect on how we live our lives. I believe that for many, this stark encounter with the truth reveals how “workism” makes us less free. Perhaps for others, it brings a new determination to stand up for coworkers through union action, or defend one’s own dignity by leaving abusive, dangerous or poorly paid jobs. Memento mori might even inspire us to build structures that could free us for more dignified paid or unpaid work: universal health care and basic income, supports for parents, the elderly and the sick. If I am right that the “Great Resignation” reveals priorities realigned in the face of death, Catholics have every reason to hope US workers never resign ourselves to the way things were.

Works Cited

Bogage, Jacob. “Strikes Are Sweeping the Labor Market as Workers Wield New Leverage.” Washington Post, October 17, 2021.

Brackley, Dean. “DOWNWARD MOBILITY: SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF ST. IGNATIUS’S TWO STANDARDS.” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 20, no. 1 (1988).

Cara, Ed. “72% of Americans Know Someone Killed or Hospitalized by Covid-19, Pew Poll Finds.” Gizmodo, September 15, 2021.

CDC. “COVID Data Tracker.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 28, 2020.

Donegan, Moira. “Part of the ‘Great Resignation’ Is Actually Just Mothers Forced to Leave Their Jobs.” The Guardian, November 19, 2021, sec. Opinion.

Ewall-Wice, Sarah. “Half of States Are Ending Increased Unemployment Benefits as Governors Say Businesses Need Workers.” CBS News, June 2, 2021.

Haile, Beth. “Reflections on a Terminal Diagnosis.” Catholic Moral Theology (blog), November 13, 2018.

———. “The (Moral) Trouble Living a Middle Class Life.” Catholic Moral Theology (blog), April 21, 2017.

———. “Why I Am Leaving My Other Full-Time Job.” Catholic Moral Theology (blog), February 28, 2014.

Hymes, Kathryn. “‘The Great Resignation’ Misses the Point.” Wired, November 1, 2021.

Liu, Jennifer. “A Record 4.4 Million People Quit in September as Great Resignation Shows No Signs of Stopping.” CNBC, November 12, 2021.

Lufkin, Bryan. “What We’re Getting Wrong about the ‘Great Resignation.’”, October 28, 2021.

Matz, Brian, and Chris Fuller. “Remembering Beth Haile.” Catholic Moral Theology (blog), November 8, 2019.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” April 2, 2004.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The Atlantic, June 13, 2012.

Taylor Coolman, Holly. “Unmuting Working Moms: Hearing the Complexities of Work/Life Balance.” Catholic Moral Theology (blog), March 2, 2014.

Thompson, Derek. “The Great Resignation Is Accelerating.” The Atlantic, October 15, 2021.

———. “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.” The Atlantic, February 24, 2019.

Ward, Kate. “America’s Child Care Crisis and Catholic Social Teaching.” America Magazine, October 2021.


[1] Thompson, “The Great Resignation Is Accelerating”; Liu, “A Record 4.4 Million People Quit in September as Great Resignation Shows No Signs of Stopping.”

[2] Lufkin, “What We’re Getting Wrong about the ‘Great Resignation.’”

[3] Hymes, “‘The Great Resignation’ Misses the Point.”

[4] Ewall-Wice, “Half of States Are Ending Increased Unemployment Benefits as Governors Say Businesses Need Workers.”

[5] Thompson, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.”

[6] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Compendium,” para. 280.

[7] Bogage, “Strikes Are Sweeping the Labor Market as Workers Wield New Leverage.”

[8] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Compendium,” 306.

[9] Brackley, “DOWNWARD MOBILITY,” 33.

[10] Not to be confused with “spending more time with one’s family” as a euphemism for being fired, as Anne-Marie Slaughter laments in her exploration of “workism” among professional US parents. Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

[11] Haile, “Why I Am Leaving My Other Full-Time Job.”

[12] Haile.

[13] Taylor Coolman, “Unmuting Working Moms” See Haile’s comment to this post about raising a family on one income; Haile, “The (Moral) Trouble Living a Middle Class Life.”

[14] CDC, “COVID Data Tracker” Consulted 11/24/21.

[15] Cara, “72% of Americans Know Someone Killed or Hospitalized by Covid-19, Pew Poll Finds.”