October 4, 2021

What is the Great Resignation really about? (And what does it mean for you?)

Have you thought about leaving your job lately? With all the Great Resignation talk, I suspect most people have at least wondered whether they, too, should be standing up, saying “no more,” and striking out in search of something better.

The confluence of personal stress, professional burnout and existential questions sparked by the crisis of a lifetime were bound to lead some of us to reprioritize and reorient our lives around those priorities.

But the statistics have been astounding.

In April through June, 11.5 million people quit their jobs, according to federal data, and another 4 million people did so in July.

Meanwhile, Gallup reported this summer that 48% of working Americans were actively searching for a new position or keeping an eye out for opportunities. In another study, Monster.com found that 95% of people surveyed were at least considering leaving their job.

Almost everyone is thinking about this. What is going on here?

The great disruptor

This phenomenon known as the Great Resignation was coined by Texas A&M management professor Anthony Klotz, who predicted we would see a wave of resignations after a year in which most people who had stable jobs stayed put. Pile on alarming levels of burnout, the rise of remote work, a painful reckoning around systemic racism and the soul-searching so many of us have done? It’s no wonder so many people are looking for something different. Or maybe they want something more.

A seismic shift in our professional landscape

For most people, a career is so much more than a series of jobs or a climb up a ladder. It is tightly woven with identity, and it serves as a means to some very important ends – giving back, gaining satisfaction, creating and teaching, even material pursuits like building a dream home.

Although every career is unique, most of us exist somewhere in a framework I call the Career Transition Cycle. This isn’t something many people give much thought to while they are in the steady-state, happily employed portion of that cycle. But then something happens … and it becomes clear that it’s time for a change.

There are many reasons people might move out of the “happily employed” state in ordinary times. They can be as clear-cut as a personal crisis or as nebulous as a nagging sense of unease.

What is unusual about this time is that an awful lot of “somethings” happened to all of us. And they happened all at once.

The Great Resignation may actually be something else

Most of the people who are resigning now don’t plan to hit Netflix and chill. Many of them are midcareer and will move to other positions.

What we are seeing is not so much a Great Resignation, but a Great Reshuffling. I think it’s happening on two important levels.

At the workforce level, people are rejecting work that was unsatisfying, low paying, inflexible or otherwise out of alignment with their priorities. Employers that fail to adapt to these trends will have a hard time attracting and retaining talented professionals. The workforce is reshuffling in a way that will reward people-first employers that trust, respect and meet the needs of their people, potentially reshaping the very nature of the workplace. We saw hints that employees would grow increasingly empowered early in the pandemic. Now, there’s no turning back.

And at the personal level, people are recognizing that their own priorities matter. And maybe their priorities are different than they used to be. As these lists are reshuffled, it’s no surprise that so many are making different choices.

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Freedom to build your own professional life

There is so much to unpack in these ideas that I simply can’t unravel it all in one post. There will be much more to come, but I will say now: I am heartened by what I see. It will take time, but I think we will make the work world better.

Fundamentally, the past 18 months forced a difficult – and important – reckoning about what matters most to all of us. When your career choices don’t align with what is important to you, work is harder, less satisfying and more likely to nudge you toward a place where you stand up, say “no more” and stage your own Great Resignation.

Fortunately, with an intentional mindset and tools like my career analysis, life course, Four E’s of your Career Evolution and What Matters Most to You Workbook, you can stage, plan and launch your next great act. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste indeed.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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