What the French philosopher Albert Camus would have made of the Great Resignation

Keep pushing.
Keep pushing.
Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
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By what felt like the 47th day of March 2020 or the 82nd day of July 2021, some of us may have begun to question decisions we’d made in our lives, asking things like: Why am I married to this person? Why do I live here? And, in a professional context, why am I doing what I’m doing?

Perhaps as a result of these questions, and the utter absurdity of the context that prompted them, people who were once resigned to work for organizations that did not align with their sense of purpose and meaning decided they would not resign themselves to an unfulfilled life—and started resigning en masse to find work that better reflects their introspective pandemic experience.

But not everyone giving notice these days is striving for purpose and meaning.

Is the Great Resignation really a matter of philosophy?

Economists are split on the motivating forces behind the Great Resignation. Some, like UC Berkeley economist Ulrike Malmendier, see a clear link to existential factors. In November 2021, about 3% of the entire US workforce—4.5 million people over four weeks—quit their job, which he attributes in large part to American workers “soul-searching” during the pandemic.

ADP chief economist Nela Richardson, on the other hand, is of the opinion that a sizable percentage of those who left jobs are further along in their career and simply in a strong financial position to retire early. This sentiment is echoed by Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota, based on recent data that showed a 90% increase over the past couple of years in people quitting their jobs with no intention of returning to work.

Then, of course, there are a host of motivating factors for working-class Americans, who typically have neither the privilege to leave a job due to existential concerns nor the financial resources to retire early, if at all.  Worrying about affording food or child care begets a different mindset, one prompting these workers to rightfully seek higher wages. For these workers, Derek Thompson in the Atlantic likened the Great Resignation to a “free-agency period.”

This is all to say that we can’t yet unequivocally label the Great Resignation as the result of this or that. Perhaps it is a philosophical crisis, or perhaps it is far more mundane than that. Perhaps people are exhausted by covid fatigue, or they’re enjoying being home with their children. Perhaps they’ve accumulated savings by spending less on things like vacations or entertainment during the pandemic, or maybe they don’t have enough cash and are therefore seeking better pay … The phenomenon is probably the result of some combination of factors.

Regardless of the reasons, the Great Resignation does provide an opportunity for us all to reflect on questions of purpose and meaning. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for widespread societal and personal reassessments of what really matters, giving us an opportunity to re-evaluate and possibly even redirect our attention.

This idea of where to focus our attention when ruminating about purpose and meaning was of considerable importance to the work of French philosopher Albert Camus. In fact, one might argue it’s the central premise of his book The Myth of Sisyphus.

Camus and “The Myth of Sisyphus”

In the eyes of Camus, there may not be an answer to the question of what it means to lead a fulfilled life. This is what he defines as absurd. We will forever wonder “what it all means,” but we’re unlikely to ever find out. That is, in his mind, we’ll forever ask a question that probably has no knowable answer.

Sisyphus is the Greek mythological figure who, for his attempt to cheat death, is punished for all eternity, tasked with repetitively pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill. He must put forth a futile effort, up and down, up and down, up and down, until the end of time.

Camus parallels human existence with the experience of Sisyphus because our nature to ask deep questions that probably have no answer means we likewise cannot escape our fate: We’re always going to push that boulder up the hill only to have it fall back down. We may change jobs to find greater purpose and meaning, but there’s a decent chance the boulder is going to roll back on us.

Camus envisions Sisyphus as happy, though, because at some point on his walk back down the hill to fetch the boulder, Sisyphus becomes consciously aware of the absurdity of his fate, yet he continues to push. It’s directing one’s attention to their continuous striving, the ongoing pursuit of being a meaning-maker in their own life, that Camus considers to be the key to our happiness.

The Great Resignation (and the pandemic more broadly) has brought about that same moment of awareness

Here we are, walking back down the hill to fetch the boulder again, but for what exactly? On what are we supposed to focus? Camus wondered this himself along with his fellow French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. They were friends during the occupation of Paris. After World War II ended, with their continent razed to the ground, it was up to them, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, “to provide the postwar era with its ideology.”

Camus’ sense of the absurd refers to us tirelessly striving to find our highest good. That’s what Sisyphus did in the upward climb, focusing his attention not on the rock rolling back downhill, but on the fact that he was still trying to move it upwards.

The stone we are pushing uphill through the absurdity of these pandemic times will inevitably roll back down. But the Great Resignation should be viewed mainly as a moment of hopeful ascent. Don’t worry that the boulder could reverse course on you. Just strive.

Ryan Stelzer and David Brendel are co-authors of Think Talk Create: Building Workplaces Fit for Humans (Hachette: PublicAffairs, 2021). They are also co-founders of Strategy of Mind, an executive coaching and management consultancy.