by Bill Ryan
An unmistakably big story in the 2021 career space has been about what is being dubbed “The Great Resignation” or “Turnover Tsunami”. Of course, I am referring to the throngs of workers in both the relatively high paying knowledge economy, but also in the lower income sectors, like hospitality and retail, who are leaving or not returning to their pre-pandemic fields of employment. A whopping 40% of the global workforce has left or are planning to leave their jobs this year. The U.S. Labor Department has never seen such an acute spike in resignations in the twenty plus years it have been tracking such statistics.
The popular media has for months now been pumping out pieces referring to the phenomenon and the suspected reasons behind it, such as higher savings rates thanks to government financial assistance, fear of catching the virus at work, insufficient child care options for working parents, and a growing realization that a lot of hiring is now going on. However, the monumental reason for this employment churn appears to be a dignity factor. The Covid pandemic is allowing for a massive reassessment, and by extension, a realignment of what truly matters in one’s work and life.
Shelter-in-place directives, social distancing, and closed office buildings, restaurants, and stores shook people’s mindsets in a number of ways. Many front-line “essential” workers who were heralded as heroes early in the pandemic are now either burnt out or tired of the abuse they get, like healthcare workers. Many well compensated workers ensconced in jobs pertaining to information flows and the means of production are bailing from positions because of the stress levels and long hours. Those on the low socioeconomic end feel abused, disrespected, and exploited and aren’t going to take it anymore. The number of workers and the type of worker taking the employment shift plunge are both expanding.
This spectacle is causing economic hardships for a range of stakeholders from business owners to customers. The flux in employment is helping to fuel in part the larger pandemic related worldwide economic convulsion. Shouldn’t we all be really concerned about this dramatic and disruptive turn of events? Yes, we should be, but not of fear for the interests of the wealth holders becoming suddenly inconvenienced, but in support of workers who are all in different sounding ways and from different points of view collectively saying they want and expect fair compensation, respect, and a voice in how their careers are going to develop. This brief period in history may be seen as a possible inflection point in the 21st century morphing of work and career into something different from the way it has been in the past.
I come back to the three intrinsic motivators for professional workers eloquently described by Daniel Pink about ten years ago. Pink wrote and spoke about the need and quest for autonomy, mastery, and purpose as to what gets successful and satisfied workers out of bed in the morning. We are more motivated and driven to perform well at our jobs when we feel we have relatively free rein to innovate and produce, when we feel we are developing a skill or talent, and when we feel that what we are doing at work matters in a value sense.
It seems to me that what many of these job searchers are looking for comes very close to what Pink is describing. Combine dignified levels of compensation with workplace cultures that honor worker autonomy, mastery, and purpose and a job becomes more satisfying and sustainable. I get that some just want a decent job and not a career, but what makes an employee want to stay and thrive is fundamentally not very different between a highly educated contributor and an hourly employee. Dignity and respect can go a long way.