Beyond the Buzz: Reflecting on the Great Resignation that Wasn’t
31 May 2023
People have an innate compulsion to categorize, to make sense of chaos and confusion, and to right their place in the world. Labels give us a sense of order and often provide the media with a simple way of describing what is going on – whether in pop culture, politics or even our complicated labour markets.
We first saw the label of the “Great Resignation;” a phrase that describes record numbers of people leaving their jobs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Just last week, ADP coined the phrase the “Big Stay,” (The ‘great resignation’ has become the ‘big stay,’ says economist: How Gen Z, millennials can benefit (msn.com). Recent U.S. labour force data indicates that job turn-over and quit rates have returned to their normal historic levels despite the consistent churning out of media regarding a persistent ‘Great Resignation.’
So, are these labels correct? Or is it an oversimplification of the disruption COVID-19 caused in the workplace and job market? A little over a year ago, many labour market observers were seeing the ‘Great Resignation’ as a once-in-a-generation change in the way workers find a better work-life balance. Indeed, the Great Resignation was viewed by many as one of the major factors behind our ongoing labour shortages. While the ‘Great Resignation’ remains a compelling ongoing narrative, recently some U.S. studies are casting doubt on the nature and depth of it.
Today, TWIG is publishing “Quality of Life, or Quality of Work?” a report exploring this topic. This paper, using Canadian Labour Force Survey data seeks to determine whether the phenomenon of the ‘Great Resignation’ occurred in Ontario. Our work indicates that:
- The pandemic caused serious turbulence in the labour market. The tsunami of layoff’s, followed by waves of mass hirings created noisy workface data obscuring the reasons of labour force exits and entries
- While there were lots of stories and articles about employees dropping out of the workforce to find a better work-life balance, the plural of anecdotes is not evidence.
- The number of people leaving jobs has not really increased except from retirement which was an inevitability given Ontario’s ageing population.
- LFS shows that the provincial employment situation and context remain remarkably like the pre-COVID situation. Pre, during and post pandemic LFS data indicates that Ontarians are leaving jobs for the same reasons and with the same proportionality as in the past
The concept of the Great Resignation placed a label on top of an interesting story and spawned numerous sequels, (Great Regret, Great Relocation, Great Renegotiation, Quiet Quitting and most recently – the Great Stay) but there is minimal evidence that the ‘Great Resignation’ or any of the other emergent labels accurately capture what occurred or is occurring in Ontario’s labour market.
We had a pandemic. Social distancing measures caused massive disruptions in the economy and labour market. There is little empirical evidence that workers were dropping out of the labour market to find a better work-life balance. Instead, the evidence suggests that people left their current employers for higher paying jobs, which has been a long-standing tradition for generations. At the end of the day, it’s important but it just isn’t zeitgeist label worthy.