The great resignation is not a sign of changing attitudes toward work as much as it is a change in societal demographics
“You just can’t get the good workers!” That is the oft, off-the-cuff remark that has been around since, well, forever. And certainly finding competent, qualified, and engaging staff is a challenge, but somehow this challenge has worsened. Many blame the pandemic. But others suspect there is more at play here. And if one has a better understanding, one can fare better.
Undeniably, the labor market is living through what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation” that reflects a changing attitude to the work/life balance. In 2021 alone over 4 million in just the US job market gave their notice. And the same thing is happening throughout much of the rest of the developed world. Sure people are always quitting, but if the US is any indicator, the resignation rate is at a 20-year high.
Peter Ziehan, a global strategist thinks though that the problem is not driven by a change in attitudes. Instead, he argues that it is a combination of changing demographics and the on-shoring of work (back in the US) that are at play.
On the one hand, if one charts the population by age ad gender, many western countries no longer taper out like a pyramid. Rather they are inverting like the top level of a cone.
Population Distribution in the United States, Source
He also argues that manufacturers are relocating production domestically as overseas labor and shipping have become pricier, and supply chain hiccups are more likely.
In combination, he concludes we are now in a seller’s market: the “seller” though being the worker.
Applying Ziehan’s thesis, to attract and retain staff, employers are no longer able to pick and choose. Instead, like marketing products, employers have to out-compete one another to attract employees.
While customers remain central to an enterprise, having strong staff that can advise, execute, and service the clientele is becoming the predominant challenge. Consider the time it takes to recruit, train, gain experience doing a job, and coaching. Add to that the complexity of stocking a funnel of qualified replacements and it is obvious companies would rather retain good staff.
To retain staff though means that companies have to be proactive: companies need to demonstrate they appreciate their employees and make their business environment stand out. With the trend of virtual recruitment, the overcrowdedness of job positions leads to bad hiring decisions. Companies like Lensa, seek to change the hiring process by focusing on the recruiter’s skills and experience to guide them into the fittest company
However, cherishing workers, especially those at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder is anything but the norm. For centuries, workers’ salaries have been countered to drive higher margins. Companies loathe being beholden to staff and strikes. They have delayed pay rises, discouraged collective bargaining, and replaced workers with scabs.
But such tactics only work when there is an increasing supply of workers, created by an ever-growing population. Today’s changing demographics mean that this key supply is waning. Successful companies from here on are going to be those that do not churn their staff.
Even though historically the supply of workers has been increasing, compensation has improved inexorably also. What was once offered to but a handful of senior staff has become the norm, for example, the 40-hour (36 now in Germany and France) work week. Today, health care, vacation days, maternity leave, etc., are common benefits. And employers generally offer similar perks depending upon a staffer’s corporate station and the standing of the company.
These types of benefits will continue. And new ideas, such as working remotely will undoubtedly also be added to the mix. However, as more companies are forced to mimic competitors, employers will need to find other, more innovative ways to attract and retain staff.
Cross industry ideas, unthinkable a generation ago, are finding their way into other parts of the corporate world. Consider, for example offering signing bonuses for hamburger flippers.
Finding innovative solutions is challenging. But perhaps companies can apply the same tools used in marketing to test new ideas by conducting workshops that gather data from focus groups.
Listening to, and understanding what, employees want is nothing new. To combat burn-out and solicit ideas from the shop floor, some companies already institute programs that pick up on employee anxiety and encourage employee/manager dialogues. But this has been the exception.
The changing equilibrium caused by the shortages, in fact, will pressure the workforce more. We can already see this in many industries, for example teaching where class sizes and hours taught have grown, while the workforce has shrunk.
Management is unprepared for the scale of this challenge. Many will resort to the traditional tactics of threats, bullying, or ignoring issues. Companies will need to be more vigilant, watching for the signs that employees feel they must survive a toxic work environment and that their needs are being understood.
By our nature, we feel we are unique. And we desire appreciation and recognition. However, especially in vast companies, recognizing individuals is a challenge. Companies delegate encouragement down through the tiers of management.
Managers are expected to deliver to deadlines, ensure quality, and motivate their teams. But most of the training they receive focuses on deliverables, some learn about interpersonal skills. All stress a hard boundary between work and private life.
But to truly understand others, we need to look at one another holistically. And that means understanding staff by what interests them outside of 9-to-5.
Sure, this feels intrusive. But consider how we feel when somebody earnestly asks us What did you do last night and actively listens because s/he is truly interested? We want to share that we are not worried that in doing so we will somehow suffer later. All of us have outside interests.
Though the interests of staffers are unlikely to mesh with every manager, being curious about others is not difficult. It only requires asking questions, pondering the responses, and sincerity. Becoming better-acquainted fosters empathy and inter-relationships. We do not have to all like the same movies, but we are all curious about what others get out of a story. And sometimes discussing such triggers us to re-evaluate our own beliefs.
An important factor to consider is the business image and reputation the company has achieved through their ex-employee’s word of mouth. If a company has experienced recent layouts a job seeker may be reluctant to form part of the enterprise. Thus, making ex-employees brand embasadors is a free marketing tactic.
The Demographic shift cannot be ignored. We are entering a seller’s market where the workers will have the upper hand.
- Low unemployment numbers are likely to be the norm.
- Companies will compete with one another to secure staffing.
- The market will reward those who are quicker to recognize and address the change..
- That smaller pool of staff will expect :
- More than the benefits of their predecessors.
- Companies to be more engaged: listening to their needs, understanding and valuing them individually.
- Management needs new training like the old models will not cope with a diminishing workforce and if not addressed, will foster toxicity and staff defection.
It is clear we live in interesting times and to succeed companies need to be sincerely interested in their staff.