The Great Resignation Is Really The Great Opportunity

December 13, 2021 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

It’s been eight months and articles about America’s “Great Resignation” just keep coming. In April, four million Americans quit their jobs and then in May, 3.6 million people followed suit. The summer brought another 12.2 million resignations and then, not to be outdone, September set a new record with 4.4 million Americans quitting their jobs. Estimates suggest by year’s end, more than 25 percent of the American workforce will have quit their jobs in 2021 alone.

Triggered largely by the COVID crisis, the U.S. has experienced unprecedented labor challenges over the past year that now leave the country with more than 10 million unfilled jobs. Many of them include positions that were extra challenging during the pandemic. While every sector of business was affected, the number of doctors, nurses, waiters, teachers, hotel staff, truck drivers, retail employees and women who have left the workforce is staggering. Then again, when you consider the stress, overwork, and lack of civility from the general public many of those people had to deal with it’s not hard to understand why they would leave.

As easy as it would be to blame The Great Resignation on COVID, there is a bigger picture here. This isn’t an anomaly, or an isolated event, or simply fallout from the pandemic. It’s a sustained movement and a profound shift in how American employees are thinking about work, their future, and the kinds of companies they are willing to dedicate their careers to.

It may be the greatest challenge corporate America has ever faced. But it’s also an extraordinary opportunity for those willing to see it for what it is.

How Did We Get Here?

Criticizing the American work week is nothing new, but it wasn’t always this bad. It used to be a whole lot worse. In the 1830s, the manufacturing work week averaged just under 70 hours. By the turn of the century, that number had fallen to 60 hours and continued to trend down slowly until the U.S. entered the Great Depression. It was then, in an effort to spread a finite amount of work among more people, that the 40-hour, five-day work week as we know it came to be. Here’s how they described it in a recent article from The Atlantic:

“The appetite for shorter schedules was so great that, in 1933, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have temporarily capped the workweek at 30 hours. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration found it too extreme, however, and instead tried to provide economic relief to workers in the form of the New Deal—rather than limit work, they sought to create more of it. Five years after the 30-hour week fell apart, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandated higher pay beyond 40 hours in certain industries, effectively formalizing the five-day work week.”

Today, the 40-hour work week has ballooned again to more than 47 for the average worker. But the Great Resignation isn’t about how many hours people are working. During the COVID lockdown, employees actually worked longer hours at home than they did at the office. I think it’s dangerous and myopic to try and reduce the conversation to that single metric.

So Why Are People Leaving?

It would be tidy if we could point to one or two unique factors driving the Great Resignation. The truth is there are dozens. Drill down and you’ll see they are really the same factors that have always driven people to seek a change in employment. The only difference is, thanks to the prism of COVID, the country’s workforce has gotten the chance to see and consider these factors more clearly and, more importantly, all at once.

Take the daily commute for instance. For most workers pre-COVID, commuting to work was, at best, some enjoyable alone time driving to or from work. At worst it was a long, stressful, uncompensated time that was just a necessary evil.

But then the pandemic hit and, during 2020 and 2021, most employees got the chance to see what life without a commute was like and they loved it. But that was just the beginning.

During COVID, hundreds of millions of Americans got the opportunity to experience how it felt to work either partially, or completely from home for 18 months. People largely managed themselves. They scheduled their work around daycare drop off, running by the pharmacy and half a dozen Zoom meetings and still got everything done.

Employees worked just as hard, but they were happier. To no one’s surprise, it turns out people like getting to spend more time with their families, hugging their dogs, taking a walk at lunch, and getting to do their work without meetings and supervisors micromanaging their day. The only downside for employers? People got used to being at home and now they don’t want to go back to business as usual.

A Profound Shift In Perspective.

For at least one worker in four, the opportunity to work from home with all the freedoms that provided completely reset their algebra for what they want and expect from a work experience. Despite the fact wages haven’t come close to keeping up with inflation, it’s not all about money. And it’s not about the hours. As I mentioned, employees actually worked longer during the pandemic. For millions of Americans, the question is no longer where can I get a job? It’s where can I find a company that’s congruent with who I am and the difference I want to make? Or more importantly, does this company have a culture where I want to spend some or all of my career?

The Great Resignation is about people experiencing the benefits of the mythical work/life balance in real time, seeing that it is indeed possible, and choosing that option rather than going back to an unfulfilling job in pursuit of someday achieving something better. People want to feel purpose and meaning in the work they do NOW. They want flexibility and challenge and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Therein lies the opportunity for companies willing to grab it.

The Great Opportunity.

If you’ve read any of our blogs, listened to our podcasts, or read our book, you know how strongly we believe in building an extraordinary company culture and the competitive edge culture can give you. What does it tell you that of those who have quit during the Great Resignation one third have quit to start their own businesses? Your employees have big, meaningful ideas. But are you listening? They want to make a difference. But are you giving them the opportunity?

Company leaders often argue they can’t afford to build a better culture. Look around. How can you afford not to? The failure to build an extraordinary culture isn’t due to a lack of resources. Only to a lack of imagination.

Great cultures aren’t built on gourmet lunches and foosball tables. They’re about making your people feel safe and connected.

They’re about transparency and clear, inclusive communication. Great cultures are about giving your employees ways to feel connected and creative opportunities to put their talents and passions to work in service of your company, your clients, and your customers.

The solution to the Great Resignation isn’t a four-day work week, as great as that would be. It isn’t pay transparency, or endless flexibility, or simply assuming there’s nothing you can do to change how people feel. Hoping your people won’t leave isn’t a winning strategy.

Giving them meaningful reasons to stay is.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO of LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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