The Great Resignation is a good story — but not what most people want

The writer is the author of ‘How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking’

It has become an unquestioned truism of the pandemic era to believe that more people than ever before are having a career wobble. They’re calling it The Great Resignation. Why not throw everything up in the air and start again? What do you have to lose? Seek pastures new. Make a bold move. Be the new post-Covid you.

It is a powerful assumption. In the past week I have had several conversations with friends in large companies who are already instinctively planning 2022 around the idea that they are likely to lose key players in their workforce. But is this canny? Or a touch Covid-fevered? After all, The Great Resignation is easy to imagine but impossible to evidence. The data proving its long-term existence will take years to emerge. So I wonder if we should take it at face value?

For a start, it obscures other equally valid competing truths. Many people are actually more grateful for their work than ever before. (I’m not sure “The Gratitude Revolution” will take off quite like “The Great Resignation” but I’m putting it out there just in case.) If you have financial stability at the moment then it is in stark contrast to the countless thousands who have been knocked sideways economically over the past 18 months. As is so often the case at times of crisis, work has been a lifeline for many of us during the pandemic. You could just as easily build a case that people are now more emotionally connected to their professional set-up than ever before.

Many people are relieved that the corporate world has finally woken up to the fact that working from home is not just for weirdos and slackers. There is genuine hope for more balance, more agency, more consideration of mental health, less presenteeism. And all that is without even considering the teeny tiny matter of the hard data about the unkindness of the current economic climate.

A third of the UK’s small businesses are highly indebted, more than double since before the pandemic, according to the Bank of England, which last month warned of a likely rise in company collapses by the end of December. While earlier in the year, a survey of small and medium-sized businesses in the US found that a quarter were reducing their workforce, with just over half not planning to rehire within the next six months.

I’m just not convinced that millions of middle-class workers are waking up thinking, “Finally the right time to open my pilates studio!” Or: “I can level up by getting a promotion with our biggest rivals!” They are more likely to be thinking, “How can I hang on to what I’ve got? How can I find stability?” The fact is, if you want to weigh up anecdotal evidence, you can probably find equal numbers of both draconian bosses who want everyone back in the office five days a week and fledgling entrepreneurs who want to start an eco-foraging business. Neither of these outliers is going to drive change at scale.

Of course, there will still be those who decide that it’s now or never for a big change, whether it’s a leap sideways, up or out. But this is risk-taking behaviour. Which I mean in a complimentary way. Risk births entrepreneurship, creativity, progress. But knowing what I know about this personality type (because I am it), I find it hard to believe that the pandemic will birth significantly more of this kind of behaviour than would have occurred in pre-pandemic times.

It’s surely more likely to birth a very different kind of “Great Resignation”. Because there’s another definition of that word. Being resigned to your fate. Sticking it out. Embracing stoicism. We all know stories of couples who had contacted divorce lawyers by the end of the first week of lockdown because they couldn’t stomach more than 72 hours in the same domestic space. But I’m no longer hearing stories of people having sudden epiphanies in their personal relationships. The worst moments of the pandemic have already stemmed the rush for the lifeboats. Those of us who are wedded to our fates, both professional and personal, will be clinging all the more closely to the mast, nobly resigned to reality and the devil we know.

Pilita Clark is away

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