We are living through a period dubbed The Great Resignation. It would be delightful to buy into a fantasy of hordes of employees downing tools to stick it to the man, favouring instead a simpler existence of allotment growing and whittling. Or maybe it’s workshy millennials, having grown rich from the start-ups that popped up to meet the new demands of homebound consumers, keen to spend more time with their plant babies.
The phrase has been credited to US business and management professor Anthony Klotz, who predicted a great exodus of workers in 2021. Four million Americans quit their jobs in April, as, in parallel but ever late to the party, a similar phenomenon started to pick up pace in the UK.
Yet, here in Britain, alongside headlines of ‘The Big Quit,’ data recently released by the Office for National Statistics shows that unemployment, too, is falling. And employment levels are lower than before the crisis began.
The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) reckons there’s around 1.2 million people missing from the UK labour market compared to what there would have been if the pandemic hadn’t come along and turned everything upside down. This ‘participation gap’ is made up of 500,000 people who have left work, and are not looking, and a further 700,000 if you account for the growth predicted under normal circumstances. That is just shy of the entire workforce of the NHS (currently around 1.3 million).
Which begs the question, where is this missing workforce? For a start, around a third of them are not even in the UK. The restrictions on migration imposed by Brexit have meant that fewer non-Brits are available to show up for work on British soil. The other two thirds, says Tony Wilson, director of IES, are predominantly older workers. Since the start of the pandemic, 150,000 more women aged 50 to 64 than expected have left the workforce.
There are also 2.5 million people currently not working due to ill health, the highest figure since 2005, and this has risen sharply since June 2021. That’s 200,000 more than at the start of the pandemic in February 2020.
Whether it’s ill health or the sight of retirement on the horizon, more and more people are dropping out of work without the intention of returning. It’s hard to tell how many of these people felt that retiring early was their only option – faced with more youthful competition or having to retrain – or whether it was in pursuit of a more sedate pace of life, but a seismic change in our attitudes to work has occurred.
“How does where I live and work affect me as a person?” is the central question researched by behavioural psychologist Dr Nilu Ahmed at the University of Bristol, who believes that the pandemic has prompted widespread reflection on the meaning of work.
“We’ve seen in the pandemic that people have been working more than when they were going into the office, because you don’t have that natural break of stopping work,” Ahmed explains. As working from home has brought with it a permeation of email notifications into every aspect of life, “we’ve seen an acceleration of the burnout that people were already experiencing before the pandemic”.
A study of 1,000 US-based employees who quit their jobs in 2021 found that the main reason employees quit was burnout. The i has reported that over 27,000 NHS staff voluntarily resigned from July to September last year, the most since data collection began in 2011, with NHS staff increasingly warning of burnout pushing them to the brink. Put simply, burnout was coming, but the pandemic turned up the temperature to unbearable levels.
The proportion of people who worked from home doubled during the pandemic’s first year, and while homeworkers remained a minority of the overall workforce, the fallout from the increase has rippled outwards. People who shifted to home working, as well as spending more time at home during the lockdowns, have built new lives, new routines around this lifestyle. Whether that’s picking their children up from school, going for a run and shower on their lunch break, or enjoying the serenity of a cat on your lap while writing emails, many don’t want to give up this new home life.
But large corporations have decided enough is enough, it’s time to put those ergonomic office chairs and water coolers to use. Google is having to work hard to get people back to the office. “We want to reinvigorate the work environment,” Google’s UK boss Ronan Harris said which, reading between the lines, suggests that the workforce environment isn’t feeling too vigorous. The company is spending £730 million to make their UK offices more inviting. Goldman Sachs tried once already to bring all staff back to the office in June, but this was delayed by further restrictions, with the group’s chief exec calling home working an “aberration”.
So what is the outcome of this fundamental shift on the rest of society? What about those who must continue to work? For one, our options have widened. And this doesn’t apply only to desk workers.
Count up all of the ads on jobs boards across the country and you’ll find a staggering 1.2 million, twice as many as there were this time last year, according to IES. The pendulum of power has swung back towards the employee, who has finally been handed the cards. There has been a realisation – like when sailors invented the strike during a wage dispute in 1768 by tearing down the ships’ sails – that labour is valuable, and the threat of withdrawing it terrifying. While ‘striking’ the top sails of ships in London’s docks, those sailors saw that the industry was worthless without their labour, and there may be other ships with better working conditions available.
With fewer people participating in it, the labour market has tightened, meaning that there’s a closer fit between the number of workers and jobs for them to do. With 1.3 employees per vacancy, there is no longer a reserve of willing job seekers ready to replace an out-of-favour employee.
And workers are taking advantage of this. Employees have been handing in their resignation letters in record numbers in favour of something better. Almost a million people (979,000) left an older job to start a new one between July and September last year.
So for many, they have become emboldened, renegotiating a better salary or working conditions. Last year saw growing industrial militancy, with a string of victories for striking workers, from Glasgow’s bin collectors who forced global leaders to walk streets filled with rubbish at COP26 to food delivery drivers whose combined efforts created the longest gig economy strike in UK history.
Now is the time to ask for a salary increase, demand proper consideration of a flexible working request that would allow visiting a relative at tea time or reduce workloads to more reasonable levels. Because there are over a million vacancies out there with, most likely, at least a few more agreeable bosses.
All this reshuffling is largely a good thing for society and industry as a whole, Ahmed believes. Seemingly gone is the idea of ‘a job for life’, replaced with ‘a job for now’. “There is an understanding across occupational psychology that you don’t get that innovation and that creativity if you don’t have new ideas coming in,” she says. This is why they encourage a fluid workforce, moving people between teams and around roles. It keeps things fresh.
Though The Great Resignation may feel like a distant phenomenon to those of us still participating in the grind, the reflections, renegotiations, and reshuffling that has taken place in parallel can be felt by everyone. The dynamics of power have shifted and there are sails to be slashed.