They call it the Big Quit, the Great Escape from work, and it’s a phenomenon that’s been both concerning and intriguing me, and I want to observe it and understand it well.
The U.S. Department of Labor stated that since last April, 20 million workers have voluntarily left their jobs. The sectors most affected are retail and hospitality.
Big quit: some information
The Big Quit, also known as the Great Resignation, is the trend underway since early 2021, primarily (but increasingly expanding in other parts of the world) in the U.S., of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs.
The term Great Resignation was most likely coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, who predicted this mass exodus coming in May 2021.
The resignations have been marked as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. government’s refusal to provide necessary protections for workers. Another contributing factor is the stagnation of wages, despite rising costs of living. Some economists have described this phenomenon as a large and unofficially declared, general strike. Concomitant and more formal, the Striketober, a wave of real strikes with its culmination in October 2021. Nothing like this had happened in the United States since the 1980s.
All of this is happening despite a union crisis. In the U.S., union membership is at an all-time low: less than 7 percent of private sector workers are members, half the rate of the early 1980s. The ongoing conflict is not only with employers, but also with union leadership, considered too moderate and compromised with the system.
What’s happening in the rest of the world?
A similar phenomenon has developed in China, it’s called “Tangping” (lying down). The “factory of the world” is witnessing its own version of “Great Resignation,” with a generation of young proletarians disillusioned with job prospects and discouraged by low wages.
This is a real disaffection to work due to physical and mental exhaustion. As Corriere della Sera noted in an article on October 18 on post-Covid resignations, including Italy in the ongoing phenomenon: “people are quitting, in short, to look for something better without being satisfied with the salary at the end of the month. Leisure time and well-being seem to beat mere economic reasons”.
And in Italy?
The phenomenon is currently small.
Lacking a purely liberal economy labor market like the U.S., wages grow little and we have not yet recovered pre-pandemic employment levels. In fact, between 2020 and 2021 there was a freeze on layoffs. In spite of this, there are also life changes in Italy and they are linked to the organization of work that has changed during the pandemic and to relationships with colleagues and superiors. The reasons are many, the toxic environment (anti ESG – Environmental, Social & Governance criteria) that is no longer tolerable, the excessive working hours. Or the total abandonment of remote work, meaning less free time and a return to commuting life.
Several recruiters and HR managers point out that candidates are asking already at the interview stage whether there are guarantees of smart working days or not, what the ESG intentions are, what the DE&I (Diversity Equity & Inclusion) policies are, demonstrating how much the needs of workers have changed and are now being talked about without fear.
Data from the National Labor Inspection tells us that in 2020 there were resignations in line with the previous year. Let’s not forget, however, that the freeze on layoffs required resignations to be made in union-protected environments (an aspect that still does not put small businesses at ease). In addition, the strong presence of the CIG, redundancy fund, for all productive sectors has effectively frozen the labor market. We will see what happens from now on with all the protections gradually returning to normal.
The mixture of government aid, a lightning-fast increase and recovery of certain job sectors, a resurgence of inflation, and here we are in the chaos of entire job market. The people involved, strengthened by the tension of the moment, are demanding, in order not to fail, a new job positioning. The speed of these actions is sustained by a market in full readjustment and strong in the fluidity of weekly compensation.
The quality of working conditions for increasingly large parts of the population is at the limit of marginalization.
Workers experienced very serious psychological tensions: fear of not having the reserves to make it through, fear of illness and suffering from the great surrounding pain. Fear of not being able to make it for themselves and their young ones.
For all this and who knows how much more, I find it reductive to speak of the Great Escape or the Great Resignation. I find it more appropriate to this moment to call what is happening the Great Goodbye.
From Big Here to Big Goodbye
Yes, Great Goodbye, that type of greeting that we manage to honor only when we consciously understand with all of ourselves that the time has come to call it a day, say goodbye, turn our backs and go on to a new destination.
Of course, by calling it a great escape, organizations can afford to look at this phenomenon as an external factor from which to defend themselves, looking for blame somewhere else.
Unfortunately, in addition to being too comfortable, this reading will not produce anything good: people will continue to leave those organizations who instead are looking out and not doing self-criticism inside. Yes, because self-criticism is what it’s all about! And not the kind we confess to ourselves silently on the couch at home while reading the latest essay on how companies should work and subconsciously dismiss with a “it will have to happen, but there’s still time.”
Working outside of control
The Covid19 has not only caused us a lot of pain, but it has also put the social organism in motion, not to say in turmoil, as has not happened for a long time. Full remote working has characterized many moments of these last two years, we have worked from home on the computer, we have reconnected with people and situations that we had lost or never deepened.
And so, from one day to another, we experienced that it is possible to split the work from the company, the split in the concept of work between our identity and the corporate identity. We no longer crossed the threshold of the company every day, no longer attended meetings all together in boardrooms.
We no longer experienced the present control of the boss, we no longer clocked in. We experienced that we can work outside of control, we experienced that we can take care of how we organize ourselves in terms of modes and schedules. We’ve realized that the boundaries and limits are much smaller than we imagined. And most importantly, we’ve experienced that it works!
Feelings that led us toward new reasoning, the powerful kind! Those reasonings that start with a big “how can I…?”. Those slow questions that we know emerge from the inside and help us make profound changes. Thankfully!
Feel the sense and feel part of it
Leaving one’s own organization without even the certainty of a new job makes us understand that it won’t be by increasing salaries that this phenomenon will recede, it will only lengthen the organizational agony for “a few more minutes”.
It’s not even a matter of HR policies, and calling them People & Culture won’t change anything either. The world of People has never had so much technology and policy development available, in fact maybe there is too much of it.
People, all of them, need to be heard, they need to feel the sense of what they do, and they need to feel part of the company.
Not because the cafeteria becomes nicer or because the welfare project is richer or even because the boss is nicer. Yes, these are all interesting additions which are nice to have. But we want to be able to participate, we want to feel that we are an evolving part of the company’s purpose, we want to feel the freedom to make real contributions, to participate in meaningful meetings where the boss is a leader who supports the participatory process, not a boss who ultimately decides and everything else is just theater.
Need of visionary leaders with great intention
For this reason, I believe that the Great Goodbye is a serious matter that can only be resolved by visionary Leaders, supported by Leaders of great intention.
Economically, it would cost so little to activate policies that make sense for stakeholders and not just only for shareholders! It would certainly cost less than repainiting the canteens, increasing the welfare project, liberal economic donations that last only the minute they appear on the payroll. Of course it is necessary to decide that one gets off, with all that that entails, from the gestatorial chair. (The gestatorial chair was the movable throne on which the Pope was carried on so that he could be more easily seen by the faithful during public ceremonies.)
Actions to counter the Big Quit
But for those who do it, it will be such a vital and satisfying experience that they will wonder: but why didn’t we do this before?
In my work as a consultant and facilitator of organizational transformation, I have often observed the descent from the gestatorial chair and just as often heard phrases such as: Antonio I wonder how we could do it differently before!
In fact, getting down from a gestatorial chair requires a few very simple actions, although it is, symbolically, an epochal act in itself and able to bring great transformation all around.
These simple actions are:
- To have a genuine willingness otherwise you won’t get up or worse stumble
- Feeling that you can lean on others as you go down the steps
- To communicate that an era has ended
- Knowing that those 12 who used to carry the chair can now make more useful and creative contributions
- Learning to stand at the same height as others and to perform one’ s new leadership with sincerity and spontaneity
- Inspiring a world without gestatorial chairs
- Pursue policies of widespread sustainability
Now it’s your turn
The company in its essence is a kaleidoscope of unrepeatable impulses while at the same time having roots that become deeper every year. The company is also a work of art of biographies and from this emerges an organizational canvas that is pure richness, it is widespread systemic intelligence. People must be able to live in freer organizations, where they can express their wills and can make decisions together.
Now it’s your turn! Come on down courageously from those few steps of that old chair, a legacy of a past that no longer makes sense!
First, figure out how you can really build future pace with your people.