top of page
The  iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage
The iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage

The Great Resignation - Did It Actually Happen?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk of folk leaving their jobs in record numbers. Professor Anthony Klotz from Texas A&M University dubbed this ‘The Great Resignation.’ It sounds dramatic – but did it actually happen?

My explainer video below explores this question in greater depth...

I’m fascinated by what the future of work might look like (something we also considered in the iluli explainer on Universal Basic Income). The pandemic has accelerated certain trends and inspired a lot of great thinking and analysis. So, for this video, we had a lot of brilliant material to draw upon.

What’s really happening beyond the headlines?

Here’s a fuller breakdown of the data we refer to in the video, showing the number of people in employment and how many left their jobs in the U.S. each year for the past decade.

Looked at in this context, ‘The Great Resignation’ is a spike in keeping with a long-term trend and not the unprecedented upheaval suggested by some headlines. While these numbers are for the U.S., where the term originated, research points to a similar thing happening in the UK. The rate of resignations was already slowing down towards the end of last year.

However, far from being a case of ‘nothing to see here’, this bigger picture perspective actually points to a much more significant story about our changing relationship with work.

Ultimately, the Great Resignation is a chance to reconsider our relationship with work: both what needs it should fulfil, and how it can be made to do so.

The passion paradigm

We talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the video. Another concept of interest to academics studying our relationship with work is the passion paradigm. The argument goes that, since the 1960s, we’ve been attaching more and more importance to pursuing work that we can be passionate about. With so much of our lives spent at work, it makes sense that we want to find it fulfilling.

However, some believe that this trend is setting us all up for disappointment. The sociologist Lindsay DePalma believes that it encourages workers to romanticise their work while blinding them to the unequal distributions of power that characterise their working lives. In her book Work Won’t Love You Back, journalist Sarah Jaffe argues that loving your job is a bad idea because it is a recipe for exploitation.

Derek Thompson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, argues that the passion paradigm has fuelled a new religion – ‘workism’ - which is responsible for causing burnout and depression, even among high-wage earners.

No wonder so many of us are leaving our jobs and looking for a reset!

However, if this all sounds like bad news, I believe there are good reasons to be optimistic.

What employers can do differently

We conclude the video arguing that employers have been put on notice and need to do more to ensure their workers are satisfied if they want to stem the tide of resignations. What might some of these things look like?

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H Pink argues that there are three types of motivation. In addition to the basic need for survival and use of external rewards and punishment, there is a third type of motivation – intrinsic. Pink calls this Motivation 3.0 and argues that it is the thing we need to tap into to get the best out of people in the 21st century. This means leaving behind the carrot and stick in favour of more intrinsically nourishing rewards that develop our sense of learning through autonomy, engagement, mastery and self-direction:

“In Motivation 3.0, purpose maximisation is taking its place alongside profit maximisation as an aspiration and a guiding principle. Within organizations, this new ‘purpose motive’ is expressing itself in three ways: in goals that use profit to reach purpose; in words that emphasize more than self-interest; and in policies that allow people to pursue purpose on their own terms. This move to accompany profit maximisation with purpose maximisation has the potential to rejuvenate our businesses and remake our world.”

Could it be that the ‘The Great Resignation’ – however illusory – has helped to accelerate this change? The number of job adverts mentioning flexibility has almost doubled since 2019. Companies are trialling four-day weeks, and are demonstrating their trust in employees by helping them to disconnect and allowing them to work from anywhere. This all aligns with what Pink is getting at – none of us wants to feel like we’re subordinates following rigid directions.

Of course, as we allude to in the video, there is still a big disparity in the types of jobs where employees are likely to enjoy this flexibility. If something good is to come out of ‘The Great Resignation’, let’s hope it leads to lots of long overdue conversations between employers and employees on how we can improve the workplace and, importantly, the place of work in people’s lives.

Recommended further reading

  • Anthony Klotz on Defining the Great Resignation (The Verse): “During the pandemic, a lot of us have spent time doing different things, whether with family or hobbies. And I think a lot of people now realise, 'I'm more than just my job.’”


bottom of page