The “Great Resignation” Is a Misnomer
Having been deeply disrupted by the pandemic and forced to make abrupt and major changes under significant pressure, many people have reevaluated their priorities and are now making changes of their own choosing: Where to work and for whom, where to live, whether to return to the office or continue working remotely, how to accommodate the needs of children and elderly parents, etc. All of these and other questions are being examined, and workers are finding new answers. As a result, people all over the world are saying no to their current work situations. Most are not simply quitting; they are following a dream refined in pandemic adversity. They are aspiring to grow in the ways most important to them. They are aspiring to proactively make the life they want. This inflection point in history presents an unprecedented opportunity for organizations. Leaders who can rapidly pivot to meet employees where they are — searching for meaning, yearning to grow, and wanting to work for personal fulfillment as much as for compensation — can tap into the largest pool of talent on the move in several generations. Organizations can aspire also, to attract valuable new talent, rather than resigning themselves to loss.
There’s a movement afoot. In the last two years, millions of Americans have left their jobs. It’s the outgrowth of the tremendous disruption of the pandemic, an event unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. The mass movement began two years ago under that duress and has gained momentum even as the pandemic itself eases. It’s been called the Great Resignation, but I push back against that descriptor. I am inclined instead to name it the Great Aspiration.
Having been so deeply disrupted by the pandemic and forced to make abrupt and significant changes under pressure, many people reevaluated their priorities and are now making changes of their own choosing: Where to work and for whom, where to live, whether to return to the office or continue working remotely, how to accommodate the needs of children and elderly parents, etc. All of these and other questions are being examined, and we’re finding new answers. Workers are aspiring to proactively make the life they want.
There are some exceptions, of course.
Many individuals, especially women, have been forced from the workplace to care for and educate their children during pandemic shutdowns and have not yet been able to return. Some of them, by choice or necessity, will not return. I predict that this will lead to a blossoming of “cottage industries” in the years to come — new businesses started and grown from home by resourceful and innovative workers who don’t have or don’t seek a path back into the traditional workforce. Most of them will follow new aspirations. Sadly, some will not return at all, having been permanently disrupted.
But the Great Resignation appellation is, I believe, mistaken. Most workers are not simply quitting. They are following a dream refined in pandemic adversity. They are aspiring to grow in the ways most important to them.
While this phenomenon is not something most of us have experienced at quite this scale, it is not an unprecedented event. People have faced unexpected sea change disruption before and have adapted. Consider the massive social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution. In the last half century, technology has displaced industry as the driver of change in the workplace, in population movement from smaller communities into urban hubs, and in daily life.
The type of change that we’re experiencing on a global level is not new. Consider the story that one of my team members tells about her great grandfather, who was indentured to a blacksmith for seven years from age 13 to 20. He learned traditional skills like shoeing horses and building wagons. As a young married father, he moved his family from the east to the west coast, establishing his own blacksmithing business in Santa Monica, California. Early in the 20th century, in middle age, he was disrupted by the advent of the automobile. Very quickly, the demand for wagons, and shoes for the horses that pulled them, came crashing down. He evolved his skills and reinvented himself as a general contractor which, in the California boom, proved to be far more lucrative than blacksmithing could ever be. The present situation offers a similar opportunity to reimagine our career and life objectives to maximize our growth.
One of my most memorable podcast guests in this vein is Feyzi Fatehi, CEO of Corent Technologies. I share a little of his story in my new book, Smart Growth. Born in Iran, Fatehi left his home as a young adolescent to attend boarding school in Cambridge, England, adjacent to the great university. The next year he was learning and growing at the Hun School, near Princeton University in the United States. While a teenager, he managed the disruption of leaving his home country and living and studying in a different country, not once but twice. Alone!
Fatehi attended college at the University of Texas, Austin, and finished his degree as the first solar engineer graduating from a program he helped create, combining architecture, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. He told me, “As soon as I graduated, there was a change of policy in the federal government and all the tax subsidies went away. My dream of being a solar engineer died that day. I graduated and was instantly disrupted because my market died. So, what do you do, as an immigrant, just trying to pursue happiness, education, enlightenment, and make a living?”
Fatehi is a growth-centric person, and one of the most dedicated disruptors I have met. He didn’t resign when his dream died; he aspired. He returned to school, spending three years learning the basics of another new field — software architecture, earning a master’s degree. He flipped burgers and did custodial work to pay his way. Despite a serious economic downturn when he graduated for the second time, he was offered a job at Hewlett Packard (HP) — during a hiring freeze.
At HP, he worked on a variety of cutting-edge projects with varied talented teams. Every time the work became less challenging, he would collaborate with his managers to get new opportunities. He completed an MBA, attending school part-time so he could continue with the full-time work he loved. But eventually, after 14 years, he felt he’d run out of opportunities to learn. He said, “I always told myself that when you feel too comfortable you have to move…and the learning had declined.”
He chose to leave HP to join a visionary startup working on software as a service. He took a 50% decrease in compensation and left stock options on the table. He was warned that he was committing financial suicide. But the money was less important to him than the growth opportunity. The new company was the first in its sector to achieve a billion dollars in valuation, but they were, Fatehi says, about five to seven years too early. They couldn’t continue to scale.
According to Fatehi’s account, a 2005 article about the cloud changed the game. Corent, the company that he now serves as CEO, arose from the new interest stimulated by that article. Fetahi feels good about the transitions he’s made throughout his career: “It feels great to have the courage to have a bold idea and get behind it and make it pervasive in an industry. There’s never a boring moment, never a boring day. Tough days. Challenging days. Sleepless nights. Phenomenally exciting, inspiring days.” And he’s definitely evaded financial disaster.
Knowing that we want change, however, is not the same as knowing what change we really want. To avoid “buyer’s remorse” as we pursue our aspirations, I recommend time spent exploring these facets:
- Do you believe your new objective is achievable? Or are there intermediate steps you need to take to believe that you can succeed?
- Is it easy to test? Is there a simple, short-term way to test your aspiration to see if it’s really the good fit you’re hoping for?
- Is the new aspiration familiar enough to be achievable while still being novel enough to offer an invigorating challenge?
- Is it compatible with your identity — how you show up in the world, and how the key people in your life (parents, partners, children, close friends) anticipate that you will show up? If not, it may still be worth pursuing, but expect pushback.
- Is the reward going to be worth the cost? Leaving currently acceptable employment to pursue a dream entails costs of various kinds, not just financial ones. Spend time calculating whether the reward you anticipate is valuable enough to pay the price.
- Does it align with your values? Is it in harmony with your why for your life?
The Great Aspiration presents an unprecedented opportunity for organizations, as well as for workers. Yes, there will be some uncomfortable churn. We’ve experienced some on our own team and may have more. But leaders who can rapidly pivot to meet employees where they are — searching for meaning, yearning to grow, and wanting to work for personal fulfillment as much as for compensation — can tap into the largest pool of talent on the move in several generations. Organizations can aspire also, to attract valuable new talent, rather than resigning themselves to loss.