Numbers don't lie. Some 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August, which amounts to an astounding 3 percent of the U.S. labor force. Clearly, something new and noteworthy is going on with American workers in the wake of the pandemic.
Most commentators have taken to calling this phenomenon "the Great Resignation," but not everyone agrees that this catchy descriptor correctly captures what's going on with employees. In fact, several top CEOs insist that, while it's true that a great many people are resigning at the moment, a better way to understand labor's current reassessment of their priorities and goals is to call this moment "the Great Reshuffle."
Yes, this is about workers rebelling against crappy jobs...
One way to think about the current wave of resignations is as a straightforward story about fed-up workers who have long seen their earnings stagnate using the leverage of the pandemic (and its attendant government support) to demand better from their bosses. According to this theory, raise wages and offer better working conditions and people will be willing to work for your company again.
There's clearly some truth to this story. Real wages for most workers have barely budged in decades, while technology-driven scheduling and skyrocketing health care, child care and education costs have made life wildly more precarious for the majority of the workforce. Our rattletrap system was primed to blow when the pandemic added yet another stress.
But while it's entirely predictable that those with terrible jobs would be happy to ditch them when given half a chance, many observers insist that's not the whole story. It's not just underpaid front-line workers who are quitting. According to these commentators, workers up and down the income scale are rethinking their work for deeply personal reasons.
LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky explained to Time recently how his company is seeing these shifts play out on its platform: "By virtue of building the world's largest professional network and this world's economic graph at LinkedIn, we started noticing an interesting trend probably six months ago. We tracked the percentage of all the members on LinkedIn that changed their jobs in their LinkedIn profile. Looking at that data at the end of September, that number is currently up 54 percent year over year."
What's behind what Roslansky terms an "unprecedented talent reshuffle happening globally"? Roslansky doesn't cite work-from-home rules or contentious salary negotiations. Instead, he says employees "are rethinking not just how they work, but why they work and what they most want to do with their careers and lives."
...but it's about much more too.
Retail workers who have been battling rude customers for nearly two years may be quitting to demand more humane and remunerative working conditions. But even privileged and (relatively) pampered professionals on LinkedIn are also feeling restless.
Psychology explains why this might be happening now. Simply looking to your own pandemic experience probably shows that this crazy period has caused people to rethink their values and priorities. But science also has a name for this phenomenon. It's called the Michelangelo effect, in honor of the way a sculptor chips away at a block of stone to reveal the form waiting to emerge underneath. The pandemic did the same thing to us, chipping away the distraction and bluster of pre-Covid professional life and forcing us to confront deeper truths about what we want out of our lives. Turns out for a lot of people it wasn't quarterly sales reports, packed commuter trains, and getting home after your kids have gone to bed.
Roslansky isn't the only CEO recognizing these deeper questions are partly powering the current wave of resignations. Microsoft owns LinkedIn, so perhaps it's no shock that its CEO, Satya Nadella, agrees with Roslansky -- he recently told Harvard Business Review that he too prefers the term "Great Reshuffle."
"Not only are people talking about when, where, and how they work, but also why they work. They really want to recontract, in some sense, the real meaning of work and sort of asking themselves the question of which company do they want to work for and what job function or profession they want to pursue," he remarked. Workers aren't just resigning to leverage newfound power (though some are definitely doing that). They are trying to reshuffle themselves into positions that better align with who they want to be.
What if you worked for your employees, not the other way around?
What does that mean for how bosses respond to the current turmoil in the labor market? As Nadella goes on to explain -- and as many other experts also note -- leaders need to think beyond tweaking their work-from-home policies or offering sweeteners. Workers want to feel not just fairly treated, but that their values line up with their job.
Nadella offers a thought experiment to help leaders assess whether their company offers this deeper level of meaning to workers: "I always say, if everybody at Microsoft who works at Microsoft reframed it and said, 'I don't work for Microsoft. Microsoft works for me,' just for a moment, just as a thought experiment, does that equation compose? Am I able to fulfill my career aspirations, my approach to having impact in the world? Somehow if Microsoft is acting as a platform for that, then it's very different. I feel connected with the mission."
It might be a lot to ask every boss to offer their workers a platform to make the world a better place, at least in some small way, but if you want to compete in the world of "the Great Reshuffle," that's what these CEOs suggest you need to strive towards.