The effects of the Great Resignation will be felt in the labor market for years to come. Understanding when and how effects will appear can help you better navigate a volatile labor market.
The Great Resignation began in the spring of 2021 as the first major winter of covid passed in the northern hemisphere and vaccines were rolling out to those of working age. Nearly a year after the Great Resignation began it seems to be going strong, leading to the question: When will the Great Resignation End?
While the impact and pressure of covid may have been the straw (ok, bale) that broke the camel’s back, there are motivations that began prior to, and will endure long after
Unlike recessions, which have a formal definition, the Great Resignation is a new idea and there’s no clear definition of it that helps us objectively define its start or end. Of course, recessions are informally called by people who experience the impact of a declining business cycle even outside of the formal recognition of one. Likewise, we can talk, informally, about a start and end to the Great Resignation.
I suspect the peak of resignations has passed and in that sense we’re in a tail. How long that tail will last, I can’t say. We just don’t have enough data to accurately predict it. But that’s not even the right question to ask; the tail isn’t as meaningful as the other implications. Just as covid will come back seasonally, so too will we see some echoes of the Great Resignation in years to come.
The Great Resignation isn’t just about covid. While the impact and pressure of covid may have been the straw (ok, bale) that broke the camel’s back, there are motivations that began prior to, and will endure long after, covid has become endemic, much like the flu. We're seeing the biggest rewrite of the capital labor contract in a century. It is no longer simply about an exchange of pay for work; instead, employees are looking not only for pay but also some combination of engagement, professional development, company support, flexibility, workplace culture, and alignment to the company mission. Covid exacerbated some of these factors (like lack of effective childcare options, or dislike of a long commute), but how companies are responding to them isn’t over.
Even as we move along the tail of the initial Great Resignation, in the coming years we'll see some resignation echoes. It’s starting right now as people are asked to return to the office. Some employees have decided they prefer remote work, or at least more days at home than their company offers. It was all hypothetical before but in the coming months the decision is real.
in the coming years we'll see some resignation echoes
If covid season has a big spike in the next winter or two (for example, there’s a new, severe widespread strain that current vaccinations don’t protect against) it may again cause people to rethink their in-office situation. People comfortable to be in the office today may reconsider and look for remote work, or at least work at companies that give them the flexibility to stay home during viral spikes.
Further down the road, employees and companies may realize their remote work policy (be it five days a week or fewer) isn't helpful in creating the proper development and promotion pipeline. It’s been noted that letting people set their own level of days in office could lead to DEI issues. For example, women tend to be primary caregivers at home, so women may opt towards fewer days in the office than men, feeling pulled by their de facto greater obligations at home. More time in the office may unconsciously lead to a bias towards those people and once again men start to get more promotions than women. This something neither employees nor companies want to see since we’re not yet at parity to begin with. A subsequent shift in work policy at a company, or lack thereof, may cause another wave of resignations down the road.
Even if not a DEI issue, those working from thousands of miles away may lose out on promotions and other opportunities to those within driving distance of the office who tend to be in the office more. As companies tweak their engagement and work from home policies, we'll have an undercurrent as employees vote with their feet on different policy adjustments. Unlike major league sports with their trading deadlines, this will be a continuous process.
And this is to say nothing of macroeconomic events. A large recession could throw things into reverse as people struggle to find jobs. Alternatively, the widespread adoption of universal pre-K programs could accelerate people going into the office as childcare becomes less of an issue. Or if gas prices remain high due to geopolitical issues, people may opt for work from home jobs. But those are reactions to structural changes. The issues listed in the prior paragraphs are like reverberations on the bell that’s already been rung. Specific policy changes will amplify or lessen the impact.
No one can say when the Great Resignation will end. The real question, however, isn’t when this spike in resignations ends, but the continued secondary effects and responses to them which we’ll be seeing for years to come. For employees and employers alike, it means seeing the wave and riding it, or being inattentive and knocked over by it.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.