The State of Discontent: What’s Really Behind the Great Resignation
Only a few times in history have we seen such upheaval in how humans work.
First, there was the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, when the rise of steam power, machine tools, and new manufacturing processes moved jobs from the fields to the factories.
Then in the 1950s, mom-and-pop shops began to fade into the background with the rise of modern office jobs when big companies like IBM began centralizing workplaces, paving the way for the era of knowledge work. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the Internet boom changed work once again, spurring a digital revolution in workplaces that suddenly needed to be connected, globally, 24/7.
And today, we’re in the midst of a fourth work revolution — the era of hybrid work — that has, once again, raised daunting questions about how, where, and when we work. Only this time, it’s happening in two years, not 20.
When offices shuttered across the country in March 2020 and millions of workers submitted to mandatory stay-at-home orders, many employees were forced to work remotely. Overnight, organizations had to pivot to a virtual-first or virtual-only mode of operation. Remote work had barely begun to take hold before the pandemic, with only 6% of workers working primarily from home, compared to more than 30% that found themselves in that situation by May 2020.
In a matter of weeks, our kitchens and bedrooms became our offices. For some, the sudden shift meant more than bringing work into their home; it meant they wore the hats of professionals, schoolteachers, and caregivers all at once. For others, the time they previously spent dining out, attending concerts with friends, or sweating it out at the gym was suddenly freed up. Our lives became unrecognizable, triggering a total reevaluation of the role of work.
With people dying, workers losing their jobs en masse, and parents overextended and exhausted, work suddenly seemed less important: the news every night was a mess, protests and riots broke out, and political polarization made us feel like a nation at war with ourselves. At that point, how much did work really matter?
Fast forward a few months and now we’re seeing the outcomes of that thinking: the Great Resignation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly four million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021 alone. The resignation rate in the U.S. is now at a two-decade high, with more than 11 million jobs open. One recent study found that 95% of workers would consider a job change. Harvard Business Review noted that employees between the ages of 30 and 45 have had the greatest jump in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021. As Time Magazine put it, “the pandemic revealed just how much we hate our jobs.”
This, then, is more than just a Great Resignation. This is a state of discontent.
Talk to anyone with a job and you’ll hear plenty of stories of people quitting: the up-and-coming account manager who didn’t feel valued at her smaller firm and joined a Fortune 500 company for double the pay; the lawyer who reached a breaking point after sleeping four hours a night for a year straight while caring for three children; the investment banker who decided to ditch the grind and open a bakery.
To peel back the layers of these reasons and others, we reviewed more than 20 industry reports and papers about why people are leaving their jobs. What we found again and again is that many reasons for quitting tie back to two primary social motivations: autonomy and status.
One of the main reasons people switch jobs is to regain a sense of control. For months, so many of our choices were taken away from us: we couldn’t go to malls, couldn’t watch a movie in the theater, couldn’t plan weddings and family reunions. It was extremely disorienting, realizing that freedoms we once took for granted had evaporated overnight. Even for people who made these sacrifices willingingly, the loss of freedom and control felt threatening.
That loss of control in our personal lives was compounded by a loss of control at work, too. The pandemic provided an opportunity for managers to shift from surveilling employees to guiding them through tough times, coaching them to better outcomes, and developing people’s careers. While agile leaders realized this shift, some managers’ inability to see people at their desks in an office tightened their grip over team members. It’s no wonder, then, that losing even more control over their lives made so many workers want to re-exert their autonomy in the only way they could: by quitting.
Autonomy is one of the few things that helps people feel better in stressful situations, and the more stressful the situation, the more helpful a feeling of control is. The three ways that we can make big changes in our lives, to feel like we have control, are to change where we live, who our partner is, or where we work. While real estate and relationship break ups have been at record highs as well, changing homes or partners often is a lot more complex, which means people feel less in control, than changing jobs. So here we are.
At the same time as professionals evaluated their options, vaccine availability at the beginning of 2021 ushered in a corporate revival of sorts. Businesses that had laid people off or put growth plans on hold started hiring again. Job openings popped up–creating a perfect opportunity for people to try to reclaim autonomy wherever they could.
The marketing executive can pinpoint the moment she began to feel discontent at work: when an executive at the same level as her rewrote one of her emails. Two decades into her career, she felt she wasn’t getting the respect she expected — a key driver for professionals who are driven by status.
For this woman and many others in the workforce today, work is an important source of status. It’s the reason many people ask, when meeting folks, “What do you do?” It gives us a sense of purpose, and a sense of self-worth.
And yet, as we discussed above, the pandemic threw status–the desire to feel valued, successful, and respected at work–into flux. For some people, a board game with a partner became much more important than answering post-dinner emails. Without in-office water cooler talk and unable to read the body language of their manager across the room, many felt stressed and out of the loop. For others, their status came into question when companies showed their true colors. Some companies rose to the occasion and “took care of their own,” which made them feel closer and more connected. But many workers lived through the pandemic only to see their companies not take care of them, which left them feeling abandoned. After all, if your company doesn’t care about you, why should you care about your company?
Much of the approach to fixing “The Great Resignation” so far has been around money and companies offering lucrative signing bonuses for lower-level jobs, additional skills training or other perks such as student loan payments. Money is powerful, without question. But in this new era of hybrid work, employers need to drill down deeper.
It’s not about letting people resign and then replacing them. That’s the transactional answer to the current moment. The transformative answer is about understanding why so many people are discontent at their jobs, and what elements of those jobs could be consistently improved to make people want to stay at them long-term, even in chaotic moments like the pandemic.
How can we develop sustainable long-term strategies for retention, employee satisfaction, and organizational growth, based on what we know about human desire, motivation, and job design?
That’s where this series on “The State Discontent” will go: we’ll break down some of the data on who’s quitting and why, and we’ll offer strategies and solutions, including a look at what some companies are doing in their factories to put a long-term solution on a chaotic near-term problem. We’ll be running this all through October. We hope to see you back here.