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The Great Resignation: temporary blip or more enduring labour market trend?

Updated Tuesday, 29th November 2022

One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic was that many workers quit their jobs en masse. Will this have a lasting effect on the labour market?

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We heard a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic about people in the UK being temporarily furloughed or, in many other cases, losing their jobs entirely. However, one of the other effects was the so-called Great Resignation, also known as the Great Work Reshuffle, or the Big Quit. As academics who research issues to do with what we might call ‘decent’ work, this phenomenon interests us both. This article explores the Great Resignation and in particular asks whether it is likely to be anything more than a short-lived by-product of the pandemic, as well as exploring its wider significance in terms of what we look for in our jobs.  


The term was invented by Professor Anthony Lotz of Texas A&M University in the US to refer to ‘a massive and voluntary exodus of employees’ (Kuzior et al., 2021, p. 6). This was reportedly because employees had evaluated their job satisfaction during lockdown periods in particular, discovered they were in fact unhappy and handed in their notices accordingly. In fact there have been claims that this level of turnover was as much driven by people leaving work altogether as it was them moving to different employment. Boys (2022), writing for the CIPD, reports data suggesting that resignations in the UK were 40% higher during the July-September 2021 period compared to October-December 2019, immediately prior to the pandemic. Similarly, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index (2022) surveyed 31,000 workers across the globe and found a staggering 41% were seriously thinking about leaving their jobs. 53% were also much more likely to put their health and well-being ahead of their occupation compared to before the pandemic took hold.  

Photograph of a person responding to a survey screen, asking them "How was your day?"

Kuzior et al. (2022) gave a sobering explanation for this, citing the increased number of what David Graeber (2018) famously described as ‘bullshit’ jobs. Graeber defines these jobs as ‘utterly meaningless, contribut[ing] nothing to the world’ and says they basically ‘should not exist’ (p. 9). And they are not, perhaps surprisingly, mundane, low-skilled, badly paid and/ or precarious. Instead Graeber suggests that ‘bullshit’ jobs include those held by ‘private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants’ (p. 9). His argument is that, were these jobs to suddenly vanish, the world would be no worse off. As such, ‘bullshit’ jobs are not the same as bad jobs: the difference is that they have no substantial function, which means that people who have them are often incredibly miserable as a result. They don’t find any meaning or fulfilment in their work. Put like this, it is something of a no-brainer to deduce that, during lockdown periods of enforced isolation with more time available for self-reflection and stock-taking, many people came to the realisation that they had a ‘bullshit’ job and sought to change that situation as soon as the economy began to open up again after the peak of the pandemic. As Kuzior et al. (2022, p. 7) say, ‘Many companies nowadays lure employees with a promise of self-development, flexibility, and freedom. However, according to the various studies and employee testimonials, the reality is often far from that’.   


Now let’s fast-forward to autumn 2022 in the UK, with a Conservative government in free-fall, the cost of living rising to frankly terrifying new heights and the prospect of power blackouts over winter looming large. The Office for National Statistics (2022) tells us that, between July and September of this year, the number of vacant jobs stood at 1,246,000. Although this represents a drop of 46,000 from the previous quarter, it is still 450,000 higher than between January and March 2020, just before the worst of the pandemic began to take hold. Moreover, there is now a ratio of 0.9 unemployed people to every vacancy, which is ‘a new record low’ (n.p.). However, this is not consistent across sectors, with ‘wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicle and motorcycles, and other service activities’ seeing especially high levels as compared to rising employment in ‘administrative and support activities, and human health and social work’ (n.p.). 

An employee by his desk, holding a half-filled packing box.

As such, what we can perhaps conclude is that the Great Resignation is still in play, but that this isn’t about people leaving the workforce entirely. Instead it is much more to do with labour market churn and job rotation in that UK employees have come to realise they want much more from their jobs than a wage packet. Even with the profound economic downturn we are facing, health and well-being, work-life balance, supportive and responsive senior management and flexible work all seem to be gaining in importance as things we want from our jobs. This is a salutary lesson for employers, managers and HR professionals alike; and, as far as we are concerned, signals a much overdue surge in the demand for ‘decent’ work. 


References

Boys, J. (2022) The great resignation: fact or fiction? Available at: The great resignation- fact or fiction?| CIPD Voice article (Accessed: 17 November 2022).

 

Kuzior, A., Kettler, K. and Rab, L. (2022) ‘Great Resignation - ethical, cultural, relational, and personal dimensions of Generation Y and Z employees’ engagement’, Sustainability, 14, 6764. doi: 10.3390/su14116764.

 

Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs: a theory, London: Allen Lane.

 

Microsoft (2022) Work Trend Index 2022: annual report. Great expectations: making hybrid work work. Available at: Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work (microsoft.com) (Accessed: 17 November 2022).

 

Office for National Statistics (2022) Vacancies and jobs in the UK: October 2022. Available at: Vacancies and jobs in the UK - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk) (accessed 8 November 2022)

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