Can honoring our values rewire our brains and reinvent the future?
Last week I shared my desire to delve more deeply into the great shift that is occurring in society and in our individual lives at work and at home-- two previously separate spheres.
For some of us, despite the hardships, the change has felt profoundly positive: more family time, more autonomy, more time to build our nests. For others, the costs to economic, physical and mental well-being have been significant and are ongoing.
This upheaval has been variously called the Great Disruption, the Great Resignation and the Great Reckoning. I like the latter term because to me it communicates the high stakes involved. For the present upheaval is about much more than quitting one’s job (as cataclysmic as that can feel) or goods stuck in port. It’s about a potential shift in how power is distributed.
I find it encouraging that many of those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic are finally saying ‘no more’. As labor economist Arindrajit Dube has pointed out, many workers, especially those on the front-line, have “historically underestimated how bad their jobs are.” Their disruption epiphanies are less about what they would like to do in an ideal world or what most connects to their authentic selves than about what they will no longer accept.
As Dube notes, “When something like a deadly pandemic forces [people] out of their rut, they realize what they’ve been putting up with.”
Indeed, a survey by Inc. magazine found that the most frequent catalyst behind today’s slew of resignations has been “the decision to no longer accept the unacceptable.”
Until recently, much of the Great Reckoning attention has been focused on the upper end of the employment spectrum: burned out medical workers, and tech professionals depleted by the relentless pace and questionable ethics of big data players. But workplace departures have been taking place across the board and in droves: when 2.9 % of the workforce quits in one month, as happened in August, you’re not talking about a blip or a niche phenomenon.
Enrique Lopezlira, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center, recently pointed out that “many of the adverse employment trends are the result of occupational segregation: the overrepresentation of women and Black and Latino workers in industries impacted the most by the pandemic.”
The Great Reckoning has been a long time coming, in fact. As Adam Grant, author and professor at the Wharton School, has described it, these departures are not “a mad dash away from the office but the culmination of a long march toward freedom.”
Are we finally, thanks to the pandemic, in a position to start to move beyond our daunting legacy of workplace discrimination? Are there hopeful signs for the frontline workers whose health and economic security has taken the biggest hit?
Ulrike Malmendier, a German economist at UC Berkeley's Haas Business School, has looked into this question by examining how post- World War I and 2 societies in her home country reacted and rebuilt after the economic and psychic shock wrought by each of those wars. Malmendier has in fact mapped out how personal and generational experience influence our economic behavior.
As Malmendier recently told NPR, “Economic calamities like hyperinflation, stock market crashes and unemployment spikes tend to affect people's attitudes and choices for a long time, but people are particularly reactive to what happened recently.” She cites neuroscience research which demonstrates that “our experiences almost literally rewire our brains”–– what neuroscientists call "use-dependent brain development.”
Malmendier predicts that “the legacy of forced teleworking, home schooling and other dramatic social and economic changes will continue to shape our choices long after the viral danger recedes.”
Another researcher who has looked at the brain’s reaction to pandemic shock is Alexandra Crosswell, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Francisco. She highlights a particularly strong sign for hope: post-traumatic growth. This is the notion, also called “benefit finding” that major stress events can have positive as well as negative results.
Crosswell notes that uncertainty has defined our existence over the past year and a half, “because our brains are always trying to predict what comes next, and right now we can’t.” “So there’s all this energy being put into trying to predict and plan for the future, but it’s mostly wasted energy. That wasted energy translates into being more tired and more unsure. And then eventually more burnt out.”
The silver lining? Crosswell says, “You have that opportunity to reflect on your life and redirect it in the direction that is more in alignment with your values or your changed values. That reflection time helps people redefine what they want to do with their lives.”
The upshot could be that as more people assert and align their values with their work it will lead to a more humane and diverse work culture, despite all the havoc that that is still being wrought. The fact that women and people of color have been the most impacted at work by the pandemic may end up giving them a historic opportunity to instill their values in the workplace going forward. And if that happens-- if these values become ascendent-- we will all benefit, and will truly rise together.