The Great Resignation has failed: Today, nobody dares to quit their job

Remember when we were told that people were quitting their sedentary office jobs to live a new life planting vegetables in the countryside? Well, it appears to have been a false alarm: workers are returning en masse to their pre-pandemic workplaces

The contemplative life is over. Even Drake wants to get paid at the end of the month.
The contemplative life is over. Even Drake wants to get paid at the end of the month.
Miquel Echarri

The final stretch of 2023 is claiming an unexpected victim: the Great Resignation. This groundswell — supposedly irreversible and unstoppable — was going to corrode the foundations of corporate capitalism. It was an earthquake that had its first epicenter in the United States a couple of years ago, before producing aftershocks around the world.

Today, in the opinion of Investopedia — the international bible of financial investors — the Great Resignation is already part of the past. This thesis — widely-disseminated in academia — is supported by various media outlets, including Forbes, Fortune, Bloomberg and The Economist.

Even the man credited with fathering the concept — Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of Management at University College London — is willing to acknowledge that there’s “not a trace” of the cataclysm of unforeseeable effects that he predicted during the pandemic. Since last spring, everything indicates that the labor market has been behaving “as if the pandemic had never occurred.”

Klotz coined the expression “Great Resignation” in May 2021. But today, he assumes that this mass exodus of professionals from their workplaces — who were willing to give up their jobs to pursue fuller and more satisfying lives — hasn’t survived the consolidation of the new post-pandemic normal.

Business as usual

In October of this year — according to Chris Morris, an editor at Fortune — the percentage of Americans who quit their jobs was at levels “very similar to those of 2019.” This was around 0.1% of all workers... a figure which experts consider to be “insignificant” and perfectly normal. It appears evident that the Great Resignation — made up of employees who felt neglected or mistreated in the contemporary labor market — has ended.

Just a year-and-a-half ago, in June 2022, Beyoncé released what social media described as her Bolshevik song — Break My Soul, the anthem of the Great Resignation. Picking it apart, Lucy Bayly — an editor for CNN Business — notes that the singer urges her fans not to resign themselves to the disheartening mediocrity of jobs without prospects. If your routine ruins your nerves, overwhelms and exhausts you, keeps you awake at night and separates you from your loved ones, don’t hesitate: quit.

Today, the message sounds even more opportunistic and childish than when it was conceived. Apparently, Beyoncé read a series of articles in the progressive press and embraced the thesis of the so-called “Great Restructuring” — the system alteration that companies were supposedly going to be forced to implement, to alleviate the effects of the Great Resignation. Many business leaders assumed that, if employees were going to be flocking to HR departments to quit, they were going to have to stem the bleeding by offering salary increases, flexible hours, workload reductions, better treatment and more “human” environments. During the pandemic, Mark Lobosco — the vice president of Talent Solutions at LinkedIn — proposed “a profound reinvention of business culture.”

The years of mass desertion

None of this has happened. CNN’s Samantha Delouya says that, in the end, business went on as usual. Entrepreneurs weathered the storm by accelerating their automation and digitalization programs, thus reducing, to a certain extent, their dependence on fickle and unpredictable human beings. Today, Delouya notes, business leaders “barely have to worry about the gradual desertion of their employees. What [had emerged] as one of the main medium-term effects of the pandemic is being left behind.”

In 2021, 47.7 million people quit their jobs in the United States, citing in many cases chronic work stress (burnout), “demotivation, life dissatisfaction, work-life [balance] problems, or changes in priorities,” as Delouya explains. This was the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began collecting data in 2001.

In 2022, a new all-time high was reached: 50.5 million resignations. Today, we know that the desertion impulse was peaking in the summer of that year, between July and September. This coincided — if only by chance — with the release of Break My Soul. In that period, around six million resignations were being registered monthly in the United States. But the trend began to change starting in October. Rather than the “soft landing” that some analysts predicted, there was an abrupt reversion to normality.

The happiness of clocking in.
The happiness of clocking in.Camerique Archive (Getty Images)

Quitting a job isn’t that easy. Many of those who did so between the end of 2020 and mid-2022 felt driven by a strong social and generational current, which had been exacerbated by the pandemic. They believed that they were acting in coherence with their life moment and with the “new” values acquired or consolidated during the lockdowns. They aspired to lead a “different” life, whether that entailed a better job or a new starting point. And they were convinced that they were embarking on that journey at the ideal time, with their saddlebags (or bank accounts) well loaded.

In Spain — which doesn’t have the same strength of the American labor market — EL PAÍS spoke with Marc A., a 43-year-old illustrator and designer. In 2022, Marc resigned from a steady job in a Barcelona design studio to register as a freelancer and move to a town of a few hundred inhabitants in the Pyrenees. “It was a leap into the void,” he admits, “because establishing myself as self-employed over the age of 40 meant that, most likely, I would never have a salary again.”

He still went ahead and did it, he explains, because the pandemic convinced him how unsatisfying his life was, “in a city that I liked less and less, with which I had lost any emotional connection.” Marc was leading a routine that he perceived as “absurd.” The idea of settling in a “calmer and healthier” environment and becoming his own boss began to be seductive as soon as several people around him began to quit. “I opted for a different way of living,” he recalls, “despite the consequences. Perhaps the most [difficult part] of what I see as my personal rescue plan is that, at this rate, I’ll retire as a freelancer. So, it’s very likely that I’ll be left with a ridiculously low pension, unless I find a way to supplement it.”

Magda López, 29, joined the Great Resignation to “get off the grind” that she feels she got on prematurely. “I’d been doing crappy jobs since I was 19 and I hadn’t had time to complete my education or to stop to think about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.” Today, she studies audiovisual production and alternates it with sporadic (“and quite poorly paid”) freelance work.

Magda is part of the meager 14.9% of Spaniards under 30 who don’t live with their parents. She had previously settled into her partner’s apartment — he was a few years older than her and had a somewhat better economic situation. However, her commitment to a “sincere and profound” lifestyle change led her to leave that relationship behind as well. Today, she shares a flat with two childhood friends… a provisional and rather “precarious” solution, but one that she finds bearable. She describes herself as “disciplined and very frugal,” rather than used to “having a hell of a time.”

Magda is familiar with Beyoncé's song. She thinks that it’s “disgustingly frivolous that a billionaire — who is totally out of touch with reality — gives her followers condescending advice about how they should live their lives.” Beyoncé, after all, is “the epitome of a person who will never have to consider giving anything up.”

Finally, Laia P. — a 37-year-old translator and interpreter — also turned her back on a nine-to-five and a “more-than-decent salary” in those first months of 2022. The single mother of twins, she explains that the “lockdowns were traumatic for me. But they also gave me a new perspective on how I wanted to live my life. I’m no longer willing to submit to a routine that keeps me away from my children almost all day and forces me to lock myself in an office and live very intensely with people who don’t contribute anything to me on a human level.”

The company where she worked tried to adapt to her. “I recognize that they were flexible and reasonable with me. They offered me a reduction in hours and the possibility of alternating in-person work and telecommuting. But my tolerance for work as an employee in a large company had plummeted. In the end, they ended up telling me: ‘Nothing is enough for you, we think the problem is that you have less desire to work.’ And I guess they were right. So, we agreed to part ways. I’ve now returned to translating at home and attending conferences from time to time [to provide interpretation services], as I did in the first years of my professional life.”

The balance of this new lifestyle — motivated by “a profound change of priorities” — seems very positive to Laia. “I’m disappointed, in any case, that the Great Resignation was nothing more than a false alarm, especially in Spain, a country with a very high unemployment rate and, consequently, with conservative-minded workers, willing to live under almost any conditions to keep a job.” Laia hoped that “the impact of the pandemic and the life lesson it meant for many” would have been more profound. However, in the end, she laments that “reality has prevailed and the vast majority have ended up choosing to live more or less in the same way as before… perhaps with even fewer illusions and hopes.”

Madeline Klass — an expert in industry trends at the corporate newsletter Hireology — feels that the end of the era of the Great Resignation “occurred, most likely, by the end of 2022 and became more than evident in May of this year.” However, The New York Times didn’t announce the end of the phenomenon until July 2023. “And as we know,” Klass notes ironically, “these things don’t end until The New York Times confirms it.”

A strike at the Spratt’s dog biscuit factory in east London, over a dispute against a new sign-in system, in October 1945.
A strike at the Spratt’s dog biscuit factory in east London, over a dispute against a new sign-in system, in October 1945.Mirrorpix (Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Klass tells EL PAÍS that the definitive closure of what she considered to have been an “anomalous” situation is still good news. In her opinion, the mass exodus — and the resulting labor and talent shortages that companies were beginning to suffer from — led to the “remarkable empowerment of workers, who were in a position to demand salary increases, flexibility and incentives.” With the restoration of the “natural” order of labor relations, employers regained the initiative. But Klass believes that they will only retain this advantage in the long-term if “they continue to offer the professionals conditions that make it worthwhile for employees to stay.”

In an article for The Week, Brigid Kennedy attributes the shift to “a growing pessimism among workers regarding the evolution of the labor market in the medium-term.” The United States — and the planet as a whole — is entering a period of uncertainty and volatility. “Quitting a job is much less attractive now than it was a year-and-a-half ago.”

Jumping into the pool is much more worrying when you realize that there could be very little water in it. In the game of musical chairs in the labor market, explains ADP Consulting analyst Nela Richardson, “the best positions seem occupied right now.” Hence, there are fewer and fewer practical incentives to stand up when the music plays.

In an article for Bloomberg, Jo Constantz assumes that the time of great labor migrations has passed. She writes that, once again, the professional sedentary lifestyle seems to be the best option for the vast majority of adults and that the time has come to review and “learn” from what has happened over the last three years.

For Constantz, it’s also clear that the era of unconditional devotion to work is behind us. Even today, one in two workers would consider quitting their job if their companies forced them to spend more time in the office. This is a figure that cannot be ignored.

Despite how concerned most millennials and Gen Zs are about the evolution of their careers, they’re not as willing as those over the age of 40 to submit to suffocating work routines that are incompatible with leading a “normal” life. Constantz believes that the companies that best understand this mental paradigm shift will be the ones that have the easiest time attracting and retaining talent. Consequently, they will be the firms that are most competitive.

The temptation to quit may have gone out of style, but the job market is now dominated by a generation that is willing to work to live… but perhaps no longer pleased about living to work. If this is the case, the Great Resignation will have gone down in history as having left behind a deep impact, which workers and companies will have to negotiate for years to come. Perhaps this isn’t the “Great Restructuring” that experts such as Mark Lobosco were talking about a few months ago… but it may end up resulting in something similar.

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