It’s a phrase heard more in the U.S. this year than ever before. Amid what has been the continuation of the decade that brought us a new word (coronavirus) that we all wish we have never heard, something curious showed up in the springtime this year, and it wasn’t rare, exotic orchids deep in the Olympic rainforest.
April set a record for the most resignations in U.S. history. But workers were just getting started, as new records were made in the months following. Although some predict that the “Great Resignation” will soon be coming to an end, the reality is that the last 6+ months have seen a remarkable trend unlike what we have known before. In August alone, 7% of employees left jobs in the food services and accommodations industry. Various theories abound for this phenomenon, including impending declines in certain areas of business, such as tourism, or COVID-related fears, or even increased negative experiences with consumers, such as rudeness in airlines and restaurant booths. Yet whatever accounts for the mass resignation, it is clear that workers are leaving their colleagues and industries in a precarious place.
As with any particular trend, to have a more complete understanding, we have to look back before the time the numbers became staggering. For the past couple of decades, it has become clear that workers are increasingly demanding more than just a decent paycheck and a steady job. Polls have indicated that workers want to feel valued and respected in their job, and for their work to have a noticeable impact beyond even their immediate sector. While the idea of prior generations working four decades for the same company, only to retire with pension in hand, has been exaggerated, the reality is that younger employees increasingly demand more from their career than “just a job.”
Recently, Anthony Klotz, an associated professor at Texas A & M who was credited with the term “The Great Resignation,” posited that four main factors are associated with this phenomenon. Among these reasons were burnout (especially in industries where the pandemic brought about the most stress) and an aversion to returning to the office after a year of being at home due to COVID; he also indicated that the pandemic initially delayed a backlog of workers ready to resign prior to this tenuous period. But most interestingly, was “the shift in identity or the pandemic epiphanies people have had and decided to make major shifts in their life during the pandemic.”
Which brings us back to those worker polls that we have been hearing about for some time. For many workers, it appears that this unique time in history has brought about an increased existential crisis. Simply put, why would I put up with feeling invisible and disregarded at work, while being micromanaged in the process, when I can seek out other opportunities either on my own or at an organization that promises much better? Whether or not the promises of “greener pastures” are in fact realized, it is not uncommon for the human psyche to pursue promising options during dire times.
Coupled with the idea of feeling valued is also the idea of finding meaning in what one does. Dr. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and originator of logotherapy, found that human beings regularly struggle with “noogenic neuroses” but don’t always recognize this is the case. Unlike a strictly psychological condition, such as an unhealthy fear of dogs, a noogenic neurosis is grounded in the sense that what one is doing lacks meaning. In many ways, the person experiences an existential crisis. So while they may express frustration over reduced wages, longer hours, or even a lack of perceived respect, Frankl would argue that some of these workers simply don’t find meaning and purpose in what they are doing. If this is the case, then only two mechanisms for greater happiness are available: a significant change in perspective (i.e., finding meaning in what may have been previously perceived as mundane) or a change in the work altogether.
The reality is that even back to the first human beings, dissatisfaction with work is not a new phenomenon. But as jobs and careers have continued to diversify, governmental assistance and credit options have exploded over the past century, and media/technology have provided for an unprecedented “open forum” over worker conditions, today’s employees live in a cauldron of opinions and introspection when it comes to their jobs. Even in the best of working situations, employees can’t help but think that there just might be something better out there. Bryan Kelly, who arguably had the most coveted sports job in the nation, recently resigned from Notre Dame for a lavishly lucrative deal with Louisiana State University, despite becoming ND’s all-time winningest football coach this past season while being paid a handsome sum to do so.
Whatever ultimately happens with the Great Resignation, one thing appears clear. For better or worse, there has never been a more psychologically-engaged workforce than exists today. Some argue that this mass resignation and overall worker demands will improve the laborer landscape for decades to come. Others have posited that a fluctuating workforce and unreasonable expectations will spell doom for the economy. Wherever the reality lies, the workers of today are making a statement. Just over 100 years ago, the Clayton Antitrust Act (of 1914) granted workers the right to strike and boycott their employers. A century later, employees are taking to the streets in a whole new way. Yet whether it’s a poster board on the street corner or a simple note of immediate resignation, workers continue to make their voices heard. The question is whether this will all lead to something more, and not just more money.