What is “The Great Resignation?”

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

If you have found yourself re-evaluating your priorities as a result of the pandemic, you’re not alone. In fact, data shows that professionals across geographies, industries, and sectors are thinking about leaving their jobs in record numbers:

  • A Work Trends survey conducted by Microsoft found that 41% of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice.
  • A UK and Ireland based survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year.
  • According to research from McKinsey, nearly 50% of US-based employees said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials were three times more likely than others to say that they were reevaluating work.

This phenomenon has been dubbed “The Great Resignation,” a term originally coined by Texas A&M University professor Anthony Klotz in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in May 2021. In this first installment of our #GreatResignation4Change series, we’re going to explore the recent factors that came together to drive this spike in employee turnover, and how it fits into the broader context of the shift towards purposeful work that has been in motion for years. 

Why are people leaving their jobs now?

There are a number of reasons that this historic level of turnover is happening at this particular moment. Let’s look at a few of the recent factors driving resignation numbers up:

People are increasingly searching for purpose at work

A groundbreaking piece of research from Net Impact, “What Workers Want”, highlighted that increasingly the workforce is looking for more purpose at work, and will even take pay cuts to work at a company that aligns with their own values. We have seen this every day at MovingWorlds for the past decade – people want their careers to contribute to the greater good, and are educated, empowered, and emboldened to pursue that in greater numbers. The pandemic just put this into sharper focus.

Jack Kelly, CEO of one of the oldest and largest global talent search firms, summed this up nicely in Forbes: “There’s been a mood shift and change in the zeitgeist. We’ve learned firsthand how fragile life is. Many people have reexamined their lives. They realize they have a limited time here in this world. This has caused a bit of an existential moment. People have started thinking about what they’ve been doing and whether they want to continue on in the same job or career for the next five to 25 years. The results of this introspection clearly show that they want to make a move.” 

Employees expectations are changing, and they want more flexibility

It was a major undertaking for employers and employees alike to pivot and adapt to virtual work at the onset of the pandemic. And employers who want to reverse that trend and return to “business as usual” are running up against a lot of resistance. After enduring over a year of lockdown coupled with tremendous stress, employees are not the same people they were when they started working from home in early 2020. As Professor Klotz explained in his Bloomberg interview, “the many pandemic-related epiphanies—about family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means—that can make people turn their back on the 9-to-5 office grind.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella echoes this point, explaining in a World Economic Forum interview that, “Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work.”

These turnover numbers are sending a clear message to employers: prioritize and honor your employee’s needs, or they will find another company that will.

The pandemic gave people the time and space to re-evaluate their priorities

On top of adjusting to the abrupt pivot to virtual work, many of us were also facing tremendous personal stress over the last year. Whether that involved becoming the sole breadwinner after a spouse lost their job, managing the emotions that come with having a family member hospitalized due to COVID, not being able to visit elderly relatives, or even missing the birth of you new niece or nephew in another city – none of us escaped the pandemic completely unscathed by loss in some form.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Professor Klotz explained that, “During the pandemic, lots of people experienced mild or major forms of trauma, and lots of uncertainty about their life. Lots of people were having revelations about how they wanted to spend their time moving forward.” When life as you know it comes to an abrupt halt, operating on auto-pilot is no longer an option – the pandemic was a major wake up call, and that’s something you can’t undo. According to research from McKinsey, in the US alone nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.

As the economy recovers, the number of job opportunities is increasing exponentially

At the onset of the pandemic, the job market was dire: millions of people lost their jobs, and those lucky enough to remain employed “hunkered down” in their roles for survival. Professor Anthony Klotz explained in his Bloomberg interview that, “When there’s uncertainty, people tend to stay put, so there are pent-up resignations that didn’t happen over the past year. This should lead to a mass exodus of workers leaving their companies for greener pastures with better opportunities.” 

And there are a lot of greener pastures to choose from. The most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that job openings in April soared to a record 9.3 million, as the economy rapidly recovered from its pandemic depths. In light of this, people are becoming more optimistic about the future – and when people feel secure, they take chances and make changes they wouldn’t have otherwise.

The bigger picture: A global movement towards purposeful work

Looking at the factors above, it would be easy to conclude that this is a one-off event solely attributable to the pandemic. But the reality is that this “great resignation” has been years in the making, and the pandemic was the spark that lit the metaphorical fuse.

Leaders have been out of touch with employee’s needs since well before the pandemic

Back in 2018, before the pandemic even started, Gallup found that only 34% of employees were engaged at work – meaning that 66% of employees were disengaged and dissatisfied in their careers. Why? Because the shareholder primacy model of capitalism, in which employees are expendable and financial profit dominates all, isn’t working anymore. People want to feel like their work means something – and while this “meaning deficit” was accelerated by the pandemic, its roots stretch back far before. 

In the book Drive, author Daniel Pink explains that regardless of their employment arrangement, employees consistently emphasize three drivers of satisfaction:

  • Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
  • Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: The urge to get better and better at something that matters

Purpose matters because it’s a key component of meaning. According to the American Psychological Association, “finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment, and to decrease absenteeism and stress.”

The bottom line is that in order to truly make an impact and find fulfillment in their careers, employees need to be working in a way that aligns with their purpose, and they need to work in a place that gives them the opportunity and autonomy to exercise their strengths. Companies who prioritize these factors will benefit from the great resignation – and companies who don’t will find themselves struggling to retain talent.

Purpose-driven work is here to stay

This craving for purpose isn’t new, and it’s not going anywhere. In fact, over the last decade there has been a growing movement for purposeful work that contributes to the greater good. Back in 2015, Northwestern University published a research paper about this very topic that goes on to explain, “Today, the lines between social issues and business are blurred. There is mounting pressure for companies to go beyond a basic standard of “doing well by doing good” to operating with an explicit purpose: to make positive contributions to society. At the same time, individuals are increasingly looking for meaning in their lives and, given the amount of time spent at work, it makes sense to look to the workplace as a source of meaning. Purpose in business is a growing trend that might actually shift our way of thinking about employee engagement.” 

A few years later, in 2018, Forbes published an article about this “purpose revolution,” stating that “More than ever, people are making purpose-based decisions as employees, consumers, and investors. They want their work and money not only to provide for their own material needs, but simultaneously to help create a better world.” 

These are only two examples of the thousands of other articles, thought pieces, and research studies dedicated to the growing movement towards purposeful work. That’s why at MovingWorlds, we don’t believe that this “great resignation” is a one-time or one-off event: this is the new normal. Employees are rightfully demanding to be treated as stakeholders, not just as inputs, and facilitating the shift towards a more just and equitable form of capitalism has been integral to MovingWorlds mission since its founding 10 years ago. 

In future installments of our #GreatResignation4Change series, we’ll share tips and resources to help job seekers make the most out of this opportunity, as well as tips and resources for companies working to retain employees by meeting their needs for flexibility, meaning, and purpose. Subscribe for updates to get them delivered straight to your inbox!