This article looks at the phenomenon of the Great Resignation and what it means now and for the future.
It has struck workplaces around the world and caught many by surprise. The corporate media is calling it the Great Resignation. Unlike many trends in the workplace, this one is being driven by the working classes.
In the United States the annual rate of resignations has never exceeded 2.4% of the labour market. These resignations have tended to occur during periods of relatively low unemployment.
Not this time.
Unemployment has been at a record high in the United States and in Europe. This is thanks to businesses shutting down due to Covid lockdowns and border closures. Labour shortages have become serious, especially when face to face contact is essential. According to the September 16th, 2021, Harvard Business Review article “Who is driving the Great Resignation?” by Ian Cross, resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees. “Employees between 30 and 45 years old have had the greatest increase in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021. While turnover is typically highest among younger employees, our study found that over the last year, resignations actually decreased for workers in the 20 to 25 age range (likely due to a combination of their greater financial uncertainty and reduced demand for entry-level workers). Interestingly, resignation rates also fell for those in the 60 to 70 age group, while employees in the 25 to 30 and 45+ age groups experienced slightly higher resignation rates than in 2020 (but not as significant an increase as that of the 30-45 group).”
There are a few factors that help explain why the increase has been largely driven by these mid-level employees. First, it’s possible that the shift to remote work has led employers to feel that hiring people with little experience would be riskier than usual. This is because it won’t be possible to indoctrinate and control them as easily. This would create greater demand for mid-career employees. It’s also possible that many of these mid-level employees have delayed getting out due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. This could mean that the boost we’ve seen is the result of more than a year’s worth of pent-up resignations. Many may have reached a breaking point after months of high workloads, hiring freezes, and other pressures, causing them to rethink their work and life goals. Putting it simply, workers have had enough. The high Covid-19 mortality rate in the United States, has given millions a chance to pause and ask themselves if the lousy pay, almost slavery-like working conditions and the degree of control employers have over their lives, is worth it.
The above is reinforced by a recent article by Jessica Stillman on the Inc.Com website. She notes that about 11.5 million American workers quit their jobs between April and June 2021. It’s not just because of a greater desire to work from home. It’s also burnout and “lack of a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are also strongly related to feeling stretched too far.” Stillman goes on to point out that workers not only want higher pay and more time off work but “they’re questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind. Why do we put so much of ourselves into our careers? And are we getting a fair deal from our employers in return for all this stress and heartache?”
In the 10/18/21, Washington Post article “The ‘Great Resignation’ goes global” it was stated that “Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out…” This is not just an American problem. In the same article Andrew Watt, Head of the European economics Unit at the German Trade Unions’ Hans Böckler Foundation, is quoted as stating “Wages will have to increase … to get people back into tough, low paid jobs. That’s no bad thing.” The same piece went on to point out that Asian and Latin American countries were experiencing their own version of the Great Resignation. Many who had left low paying jobs in factories are now refusing to go back. In their villages they can at least guarantee they’ll have a roof over their heads and food on their tables. Those who have returned to the factories have faced pay cuts in jobs already notorious before the Covid-19 pandemic for being very poorly paid and due to widespread abuses. They’re forced to borrow money and get heavily into debt to pay their bills.
The Great Resignation isn’t just happening overseas. It’s now closer to home, the question is…why?
Aotearoa has not faced the high mortality rates seen elsewhere. Apart from short lockdowns and the requirement to wear masks and scan (or sign in) this country has largely operated as if Covid-19 doesn’t exist. At least, that is how it might appear on the surface. In the 20/10/21, Stuff article “Great Resignation coming to NZ: More people ponder quitting their job” similar trends are clearly starting to emerge here. According to the AUT’s Wellbeing at Work 2021 survey 46.4% of those 1042 people surveyed stated they had “high turnover intentions”, which in normal language means they want to change jobs. It went on to state: “The survey found labourer and factory workers were the most likely to consider leaving at 64 per cent, then health and support services at 55 per cent, sales and customer service/retail next at 52 per cent followed by tourism, trades and information technology.” Statistics released recently by the Labour Department showed that 12,200 people quit their jobs in the June 2021 quarter because of job dissatisfaction. Its worth considering that this only covers people who are on record as such. There is surely a much larger group who feel that way but just never end up anywhere in the official stats.
The Great Resignation is only a recent phenomenon here so it would be good to find out more, but the sheer number of paywalls used by the media makes it hard to get a clear idea of what is driving the trend locally. However, there are a few hints as to what could be behind it.
According to the October 19th, 2021, newsroom website article “Why lockdown will accelerate NZ’s ‘big quit’” the lockdown in Auckland and greater uncertainty about the future that it has created has led to greater anxiety and other mental health and well-being issues. “Human Focus Consulting director Frances Bearne says while New Zealand may not have dealt with the long months in lockdown so far … Auckland’s August outbreak is giving workers in the city a taste of it. She says being in lockdown may have brought back feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and the long working hours. “From a mental health perspective workers I coach are saying they’re really, really suffering. We’re back in a time where parents are having to home school while juggling their full-time jobs and work super long hours. Workers are feeling a lot of fatigue, getting more stressed, less productive and it becomes a cycle,” Bearne says.
“People have come off the back of 18 months of uncertainty, especially for Auckland, which is in its longest lockdown. So, people may be looking to make the moves they had delayed earlier when Covid was a new thing,” she says.”
In the retail sector anxiety has been compounded by the abuse and violence that retail and customer service workers are being subjected to. This has become especially pronounced since the wearing of masks has become mandatory in retail and hospitality outlets. The recent attack in which a Sri Lankan migrant with Islamic State sympathies went on a stabbing rampage in an Auckland Countdown supermarket was only one in a long string of attacks in supermarkets. One of the more notorious examples was the stabbing of four people at a Dunedin Countdown supermarket on May 10th this year. During the lockdowns workers in these fields were heralded as heroes and paid bonuses. Yet, when the lockdowns ended their bonuses were revoked. Their employers rewarded their hard work by either restructuring them out of a job (The Warehouse Group came under fire for this) or pocketing the wage subsidies for themselves while making hefty profits. With this sort of crap going on who could blame these workers from wanting to get out of retail and customer service?
As of late October 2021, it’s too early to tell what the full ramifications of the Great Resignation will be in Aotearoa.
Is the Great Resignation a backlash against Capitalism? Is it a growing sign of class consciousness among the working classes? Although an article in The Guardian dated September 20th, 2021, has a headline screaming “Eat the rich! Why millennials and generation Z have turned their backs on capitalism” and a by-line stating “Nearly eight out of 10 of young Britons blame capitalism for the housing crisis and two-thirds want to live under a socialist economic system” there’s no indication that similar sentiments are being expressed here.
At least, not now.
Anarchists and others have long challenged slaving away for years in low paid jobs so that business leaders, shareholders and other freeloaders can travel to exotic locations, send their children to private schools, and live a life we can’t have. Now workers are not just asking themselves why they are doing that, but they are deciding they’ve had enough and are walking off the job.
With the emergence of the Internet and smart phones workers are now expected to be available all the time. This has become worse with people being forced to work from home because of lockdowns. With no separation between work and home stress, anxiety and burnout are becoming major problems. Work-life balance means nothing if your home is your workplace as well.
Anarchists have often used the term “wage slavery” and it seems more appropriate than ever, but we have traditionally done a lousy job of explaining what it means. Now we don’t need to. Workers are discovering what it means to be exploited for their physical labour, their knowledge, and their data around the clock by employers and high-tech conglomerates. They now understand the term all too well, or the feeling of it at least. That’s a step in our direction but it still doesn’t mean folks out there are ready to go further yet.
Anarchists are few, but we can still play our part alongside fellow workers in resisting the bosses push to have us working for them in conditions they have set. At the very least we can try to convince others to stop going cap in hand like Oliver Twist and ask “Please, Sir, may I have some more?” We have the numbers to tell bosses to go to hell and throw them out, along with the shareholders and investors, and take over workplaces and run them ourselves. It’s not as if most businesses today need employers. Much of the time they haven’t got a clue what is going on in the office, on the factory floor or at the construction site. This is probably even more true, now we are in the decentralised work-at-home environment. How we might create an alternative to bosses is something we will have to discuss amongst ourselves. We don’t have all the answers, but starting these conversations is important.
Even in the free society of the future, sometimes someone will need to be put in charge of stuff but will undertake that role because of her skills, experience and knowledge and support of co-workers. Today too often, those in charge are in that position because of cronyism, nepotism, or the size of their wallets. Workers in a democratic economy would have the right to remove those in charge if they don’t perform. You wouldn’t see a small group of permanent dictators in positions of authority.
What of the politicians? We don’t need them. Even the remotest societies without written laws or politicians have been able to function perfectly well and not just on a small scale. The rules they have exist because of the collective experiences of the people and their understanding of the world around them. In Maori culture for example, there are practical reasons why some things are tapu (forbidden). It’s not because someone drew up a law and said that something was tapu. It’s because a certain place is sacred to them – or dangerous. It would be great if the working classes decided by consensus what rules governed our lives instead of having them imposed from above. We could decide for ourselves that workplaces as constructed today become tapu. They certainly are unhealthy, depressing, and dangerous.
To conclude, let’s be honest, the Great Resignation alone won’t cause the collapse or overthrow of the current set up. However, it has led workers to openly question what the fuck it’s all about. That’s a start. Hopefully it will lead in the longer term to an end to this economic system, by making capitalism itself tapu.