The Great Renunciation

·16-min read

According to a survey of 6,000 people by the recruitment firm Randstad UK, almost a quarter of workers are actively planning to change employers in the next few months as part of a “great resignation”.

The move is thought to be a result of the high number of vacancies available at the minute combined with burnout caused by the pandemic. But will the great resignation or the great renunciation really come to pass? Journalist and author Will Self attempts to find out in his latest piece for Men's Health UK.

Manil hasn’t quite had enough – but almost. ‘If my daughter can go to university this year,’ he tells me, his smiley features mobile behind the Plexiglas sheet that reaches six feet up from the countertop, ‘then yes, I’m seriously thinking about going back to Sri Lanka and doing something else. The only thing that worries me is that I’ll, y’know, fall apart if I don’t have something to do every day.

‘Look,’ he continues, ‘my cousin and I have had the business here for 30 years, and all that time I’ve worked 60 hours a week, every week.’ He shakes his head again at the thought of all that time – at least, that’s how it seems to me – time that might possibly be redeemed by such a radical move, if not regained. When I ask Manil how old he actually is, we’re both slightly shocked by the reply: 55. ‘What are you taking, man,’ I exclaim, laughing, ‘monkey glands?’ ‘Oh, I don’t like to say it,’ replies Manil, shifting awkwardly on his tired feet, before saying it anyway. ‘I think maybe Asian men do age a little better than some north Europeans.’

I openly wonder if it’s the pandemic that’s hustled this shopkeeper – a well-loved local character in our inner-London neighbourhood – toward retirement. ‘Definitely,’ Manil says. ‘I’ve had enough of the abuse. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of our customers are fantastic, but there’s a small minority who most definitely are not, and the stress of policing them with masks and social distancing these past months, well…’ he trails off. We’re standing talking over my groceries, and now a couple of other customers have ranged themselves on two of the roundels stuck two metres apart on the scuffed linoleum floor.

It’s time for me to pay and leave – and not just with my shopping, but with this other novelty as well: a British Asian shopkeeper who isn’t going to run his shop till he drops. Yet, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, ‘There are better things to be than the merely productive man.’ If there are cultural differences between different contemporary Britons when it comes to work’s value, then arguably Asian immigrants represent the school of thought that sees it as more instrumental: a career choice is about security and provision for your family – not hippy-dippy ‘fulfilment’ or ‘personal growth’. Yet what struck me about my conversation with Manil was that, while he still puts his responsibility to his daughter first, he’s now thinking about what he wants to do for himself.

Photo credit: KLAUS KREMMERZ
Photo credit: KLAUS KREMMERZ

Stuck In A Rut

Of course, no one who takes an interest in immunology and virology (and I suspect Men’s Health readers were in this category even before the pandemic) seriously believes we’re out of the woods yet. But the mood-music in recent months from government and media has all been about getting back to normal. So-called freedom. Trouble is, it’s not just Manil I’ve been speaking to but people from all walks of life and communities who’ve expressed a reluctance to resume the lifestyle they were enjoying before March of last year. Quite possibly this is because they weren’t really enjoying it that much in the first place – and it’s this that’s been exposed by the pandemic and its associated measures. After all, it isn’t just fringe-thinkers and anti-vaxxers who have pointed out that the UK’s high Covid death toll is partly explained by high obesity rates and other serious underlying medical conditions that are a function of lifestyle as much as environment. As an essential retailer, Manil may have done okay financially out of the crisis – but plenty of others have also realised that their personal situation has considerably worsened. Furlough schemes have come to an end; many will have discovered that their job isn’t there for them any more and need to retrain anyway; others will have realised that the old normal, which involved a lengthy commute and an office-bound lifestyle, really was a tedious, soul-destroying and body-mangling go-round.

The late David Graeber, a political activist as well as an anthropologist, published a book just before the pandemic called Bullshit Jobs. The title speaks for itself: Graeber’s contention was that under our current neoliberal economic system, many white collar or otherwise clerical jobs that could be eliminated by technology are nonetheless maintained. The people doing these jobs often realise they’re theoretically pointless and practically useless – know as well that those who perform the genuinely vital and essential tasks are often less well-rewarded – yet they collude with the status quo because despite the sense of spiritual poverty they experience, their material enrichment is more important. In a way, Graeber’s thesis – despite its agitprop feel – is only a restatement of any number of critiques, ones that take aim at a culture that privileges money – and the things it can buy, including Fitbits – over time.

We all know the unpleasant spinning-in-the-hamster-wheel sensation that comes when we’re working all hours with the sole objective of not having to work all hours – it traps us in a moment that’s defined entirely by stress-repressing-anxiety, a feeling that mutates all too easily into full-blown depression. And we’re no longer the sort of dualists who believe that psychological problems have no bodily correlate – on the contrary, we all understand that working too hard while feeling that work to be valueless can take us all the way from indigestion to an infarct. I’d dispute Graeber’s theory at several levels. I have my doubts that there’s any work in a money economy that can be deemed devoid of bullshit – while as every study in this field confirms, we are always happier when working than not (and this, believe it or not, includes holidays). Nevertheless, the pandemic has exposed if not the ridiculousness of much of our work, at least its largely contingent value. Take what we must, perforce, call ‘the hospitality industry’ (a phrase calculated to suck the pleasure right out of downing a pint). At the time of writing, the ebbing Great British summer is menaced not only by the virus and its variants, but still more pressingly by the lack of available staff to serve up those pints.

The failure of the NHS app to recognise the vaccine status of those it pings has been partly to blame for this. Brexit is another factor in the staff shortages. But what the imbroglio reveals is the underlying artificiality of the consumption-driven cycle itself: we need the staff to serve the drinks to generate the revenue to keep the restaurants, bars and clubs open to generate the revenue to pay the staff, so that in their leisure time they can buy the drinks to… well, you get the picture. It’s a circle that appears virtuous so long as it isn’t interrupted for too long, because when it’s restarted it seems rather more vicious: chewing up lots of time, spewing out not enough money.

The government’s move to ease all social-distancing restrictions comes with its own ideological underpinning: an end to the jerry-rigged nursery-state we had to endure as a price of getting case numbers and attendant hospitalisations down, accompanied by a (re)introduction of the doughty Briton, protective of his liberties and willing to take personal responsibility for maintaining them. I think the problem for society as a whole is that these people – arguably the real ‘adults in the room’, as opposed to the poseurs and power-crazed – are in many cases also the ones who’ve had a relatively positive experience of lockdown: relishing the time to simply stand and stare, while certainly not missing the clock-watching that goes with even quite exalted employment. This wasn’t willed by them, however – and perhaps it’s only when renunciation is voluntary that it acquires a peculiar psychological force.

Beat A Retreat

Plenty of you reading this understand perfectly well the strength to be gained from giving things up: you give up precious indolence for the rigours of working out and otherwise exercising, while you also renounce the delights of unfettered gluttony and bibulousness for similar reasons. That the objective is itself mostly instrumental arguably undermines its efficacy. I think at this juncture of Malcolm X’s account, in his autobiography, of giving up pork while serving a jail term. He had just been introduced to the teachings of Islam, but it wasn’t the religious prohibition that intitially motivated him: rather, it was exercising his will. The food was appalling in the prison. All the inmates looked forward to the pork – the only meat available and served only infrequently – with gusto bordering on mania. To voluntarily forego the treat was to exhibit a masterful self-control – and Malcolm X’s fellow prisoners recognised this immediately: it was the beginning of his leadership.

Not that everyone wants to lead a militant religious movement, but it might be nice in the wake of 18 months of being told what to do, to feel one was telling one’s self what to do. One way of conceptualising the renunciation necessary to cope with the transition from a lifestyle where everything can be bought to one in which both security and satisfaction depend on more abstract processes, is to critique not just the unhealthy economy but the pathological dependency on technology that is its sequel. Writing for Men’s Health a few months into the pandemic, I suggested that what was making the whole experience quite so collectively deranging was that our sense of technological progress had been vitally undermined: medicine, at least initially, failed us. Moreover, such has been our over-reliance on medical science – our unreasoning faith that it can, at a cost, provide a pill for every ill – that we’ve lost use of those psychic muscles that come into play when we properly exercise autonomy: patience, determination, forbearance, resolution and flexibility. Ultimately, it may be more important in a world where resources are increasingly limited to learn how to cope with suboptimal health, than to seek relentlessly to promote perfect wellbeing.

For some months into the crisis, the talk was indeed all about a renaissance along these lines: a resurrection of values that aren’t entirely monetary. But now the vaccines have arrived and, saving the emergence of yet more lethal and transmissible variants that they can’t be adapted to protect us from, the way is clear for us to calm down and carry on. The most egregious example of wholesale behaviour change – at least among the British middle classes – has been to resolutely shore up the status quo by taking advantage of the holiday on stamp duty to buy and sell property, thereby stimulating a market that’s arguably all about sustaining bullshit jobs while allowing those who have them to live in more bucolic surroundings. Adrienne, formerly a senior and specialist nurse attached to an outreach team based at a central London hospital, is no bull-shitter but a key worker who, like Manil, is in the mood for change. ‘Yes,’ she tells me, ‘of course the pandemic has increased stress and therefore burnout levels – but I’ve experienced burnout in the past. In fact, alive to the problem, I’ve tended to switch jobs every two years or so. But this time it’s different.’ Adrienne is heading home to her native Wales, with the aim of taking some time out to consider her options in a less pressurised environment. ‘I’d never say never,’ she laughs bitterly, ‘but yes, I am seriously considering leaving medicine for good.’

So, too, are thousands of other medical and auxiliary NHS staff, while the turnover of teachers is beginning to seem as fast as… well, as fast as the cycle of consumption before the pandemic hit. Marcus, a professor at a prestigious Russell Group university, has found the entire experience of teaching through the pandemic utterly demoralising. ‘I don’t feel the students have been treated at all well – but on the other hand, the impact of the Browne reforms even before the virus had the net effect of making them think like consumers, and frankly, I’m fed up with having to serve up education as if it were a takeaway meal of some kind.’ As a committed scholar, Marcus will always have researching and writing he wishes to do, but his sense of an institutional environment that’s making him and his colleagues feel increasingly servile has impacted on his deep-seated convictions. ‘To be frank,’ he says, ‘while hopefully never neglecting the individual student, I have to say that I no longer feel education – viewed as a collective enterprise – to be my primary goal, or even one I wish for society as a whole.’

Photo credit: KLAUS KREMMERZ
Photo credit: KLAUS KREMMERZ

And yet Marcus only became a full professor five years ago, while he and his second wife – both in their late forties – have between them six teenage and young adult children. You might have imagined that his disaffection and desire to give up on his academic career wouldn’t sit well with her – but Fiona, a successful television producer with her own company, is thinking the same way and actively seeking a buyer for the firm. Of course, there have always been those who become dissatisfied by the work they’re doing and the lifestyle associated with it – people were probably ‘dropping out’ of Ancient Sumer. And since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, there’s been an association made between abandoning the rat race and either regaining, or attaining for the first time, a greater wellbeing, both physical and psychological.

Monastic Living

In a way, the preoccupation with so-called ‘mindfulness’ that grew up in the decade before the pandemic was a sign that there was already a fairly widespread dissatisfaction with the ratio of time-to-money in many Britons’ lives – while the competing pressures of home and work were becoming a particularly pressing concern for men and women in the workforce with families. No doubt many reading this will have found the injunctions of the meditation and yoga instructors pushing this ‘philosophy’ to be glib and facile. It’s all very well concentrating on enjoying the minutiae of our lives – from simple tasks to simple pleasures – if we have some wider objective that we still cleave to. But the origins of mindfulness really lie in Buddhism, and its objective – which I suspect few reading this really sign up to – is in fact mindlessness: the eradication of the pesky ego from our psyches, together with all its awkward and mostly unattainable desires. I remember asking a Theravada Buddhist monk who was running a meditation retreat I attended whether he really believed that this together with a bit of yoga could really change people’s lives without any underlying spiritual revelation. He giggled the way that the happily mindless so often do and answered simply: ‘No.’

Renouncing one’s thinking is undoubtedly an extreme response to stress and anxiety, but there are lesser forms of renunciation. We’re all familiar by now with the ‘born again’ vibe given off by those who’ve found recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction in anonymous fellowships such as AA and NA. Indeed, the great founding father of psychology, William James, opined that ‘the only known cure for dipsomania is religiomania’ – which is surely true not only practically but also historically. It’s this sense of the religious roots of renunciation that I think haunts us when it comes to viewing giving things up as empowering rather than emasculating: either we live the life of the mind or that of the body – attend to our eternal salvation, or our short-term prolongation. Malcolm X may not have been a Muslim when he foreswore the pork, but he soon became one. And I think we remain rightly sceptical of self-denials being pushed on us by those with different agendas, whether enlightened or bigoted. Besides, emerging from lockdown to contemplate giving up urban living and office working, or otherwise drastically changing your entire existence, is renunciation of a different order. This is accepting that the project you’ve been engaged in – quite possibly for years and, quite likely to a degree, unconsciously – is no longer fit for your purposes.

I don’t think you need to be a Jeremiah to have felt throughout the last few decades that an element of wantonness and profligacy has crept into many lives – an expenditure of effort and resources predicated on the one-click consumerism that, for instance, makes it easier to order takeaway meals than shop for ingredients and cook for ourselves. Perhaps the most devastating sign of our collective irrationality is that, throughout the pandemic, rates of obesity have in fact risen – together with the numbers living in food poverty. Is it any wonder that under such circumstances people look to renunciation as a means of reapplying self-control? Westerners are by no means alone in this – the rulers of the People’s Republic of China are getting worried about an emergent practice known as ‘tangping’ or ‘lying flat’. It may be a retread, but the practice was announced to the Chi-world by a factory worker, Luo Huazhong, who gave up his job in Sichuan to cycle to Tibet, where he now hangs out, only casually employed and writing… you guessed it, a blog about tangping. The novelist, Liao Zenghu, is also an enthusiast, writing in the business magazine Caixin, ‘In today’s society, our every move is monitored and every act criticised; is there any more rebellious move than to simply lie flat?’

It’s a philosophy I’ve seen otherwise pithily encapsulated as, ‘Don’t just do something – sit there.’ Or at least, sit there for a while until you’ve summoned up the energy to go for a walk, a run or a swim – and sit there until you’ve decided that these activities need not be timed as part of some sort of productive regimen but can be enjoyed in an open-ended and expansive manner. It certainly won’t be possible for everyone reading this to move to the country, switch careers or otherwise radically change their lifestyle. But neither do you have to become a Muslim (or Jewish for that matter) in order to stop with the sausages already.

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