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Welcome to the new never-normal

September 7, 2021, 5:19 PM UTC

This isn’t the fall season we hoped for last spring, is it?

A few readers have flagged a piece I wrote after the world first shut down in March 2020 on liminal space and leadership. It seems worth revisiting now: 

“Liminality describes the space between two states of being. In anthropology, it is the middle stage of a rite of passage—you’re no longer exactly who you were, but you’re not yet what you’re going to become. Societies explicitly mark the big ones—birth, puberty, marriage, death—with ceremonies.

But being stuck in the middle is confusing stuff.

It was folklorist and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) who first observed the power in rites of passage, a chance for humans to wrap their arms around moments of transition and great uncertainty—and in some cases, process the loss of what was and embrace the promise that has not yet been realized.”

And herein lies the tension, now amplified by rising numbers of coronavirus infections in unvaccinated children, uncertain return-to-office dates, and the steady stream of event cancellations. What if the promised new state of being never comes?

“This is starting to feel like a permanent limbo, with no good options ahead,” one reader says. “I don’t think I have the stamina for this.”

That’s a word. It strikes me that humans were not designed to live permanently in a liminal state, which may explain the existential part of the Great Resignation employers are now facing. Some 12 million workers quit their jobs in AprilMay, and June 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor reports.

According to a recent survey of over 30,000 workers conducted by Microsoft, some 40% of the global workforce is thinking of leaving their employers. (If you just look at the Gen-Z slice, it’s nearly 55%.) A Gallup survey confirms these numbers, and further twists the knife. “It’s not an industry, role or pay issue. It’s a workplace issue—because the highest quit rate is among not engaged and actively disengaged workers,” they write. “Unfortunately, most employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged.”

And many times, as my colleague Sophie Mellor reports, they’re downright suffering.

From a practical point of view, a competitive job market means talent can shop for more favorable terms and conditions in their jobs. But from a liminal point of view, can employers offer human beings meaning, purpose, and the next best version of themselves?

This is what leaders are facing now. What comes next? A full acknowledgment of the uncertainty of this moment seems like a good start. Only then can we co-create what comes next. I’ll give Arnold van Gennup the last word.

“These are the constants of social life, to which have been added particular and temporary events such as pregnancy, illnesses, dangers, journeys, etc.,” he wrote in The Rites of Passagepublished posthumously in English in 1960. “Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new thresholds to cross.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On Point

We have lost a king Michael K. Williams, known for his iconic roles in The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Lovecraft Country, among many others, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 54. The outpouring of grief and tributes was immediate. “The depth of my love for this brother, can only be matched by the depth of my pain learning of his loss,” his Wire co-star, Wendell Pierce, wrote on Twitter. “A immensely talented man with the ability to give voice to the human condition portraying the lives of those whose humanity is seldom elevated until he sings their truth.”In this unusual piece for The Atlantic, he engages in a conversation about typecasting with various versions of himself. Rest in power, Mr. Williams. The rest of us? Maybe we should spend some time on understanding why Black men die earlier than their white counterparts.
The Atlantic

Will the still-unfolding Great Resignation impact your DEI efforts? This piece from HBR doesn’t bury the lede. Employers, even those with committed diversity programs in place, are wavering. “In this hiring climate, we are going to struggle to find qualified candidates for our roles, much less meet our diversity hiring goals,” one talent manager says. “Most of our leaders are hiring the first qualified person they can find, without any consideration of diversity.” I see. So, what to do? Slow down, really understand what underrepresented means, re-think the “perfect candidate profile,” recommends Arthur Woods, the co-founder of diversity hiring tech company Mathison and the coauthor of Hiring for Diversity. Looking forward to seeing what happens a year from now.
HBR

The job boom is leaving single mothers behind For all this talk about open jobs and the war for talent, helping young, single mothers back into the workforce—more than half of whom are Black or Latina—would be an interesting way to start. According to a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, this population has seen the steepest decline in employment since the pandemic. “The slow and difficult recovery patterns for young parents may be attributed to the job sectors that young parents concentrate in and increased responsibilities for taking care of children during lockdown periods,” says the report. Bizwomen offers some important context below.
Bizwomen

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

A quinceañera delayed is still sweet That’s the only takeaway from this poignant piece from NPR. The pandemic prevented 15-year-old Latina girls around the world from participating in the traditional ceremony that celebrates their transition into womanhood. They are now being released from their liminal prisons, and the quinceañera business is booming. Many of the “girls” are now 17. It’s a welcome relief from the gloom. "It's really crazy," says Brooklyn-based event planner Marcos Ortiz. "We're doing five or six events per day on the weekend." Te mereces el mejor quinceañera, Citlaly Olvera. Enjoy.
NPR

Praying to St. Dymphna I love this piece from writer Anne Thériault, which tells the story of a teenaged saint who accidentally created a humane and effective mental health system. It’s one Thériault herself would have relished, she says. “I fantasized about a system where care is ongoing and mental health isn’t treated as a binary of ‘fine’ and ‘crisis;’ where patients are considered complex individuals rather than a list of dysfunctions; where clinicians understand the difference between staying alive and actually living.” She has found it in Geel, a tiny Belgian city who has centuries-long tradition of taking in “boarders,” people with mental illnesses who come to get treatment while living happier lives integrated into the community. But Geel’s tradition of welcoming the mentally ill into their homes has a horrific origin story in the form of a seventh century Irish princess named Dymphna, a devout Christian who fled her homeland after her father went mad. What happens next is nothing short of a miracle.
Broadview

When father will never know best In a poignant essay, writer Lilian Min explores the new divide felt by so many first generation Americans. How do you manage when the person who raised you, and raised you well, offends your notions of social equity, race, gender roles, and justice? Raised in a middle class family, within an “East Asian diaspora bubble in Central New Jersey,” she feels herself growing away from her family and wonders how to navigate the often difficult patriarchy of a family that oppresses as much as it protects.
The Establishment on Medium

Moodboard

RaceAhead-Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams—may his homegoing be easy.
Rodrigo Varela—Getty Images

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