As I wrote recently, one of the biggest myths about the Great Resignation out there is that it is, basically, just a fight about remote work. People are quitting in droves, this misapprehension goes, because they want to continue working from home while their bosses are trying to herd them back to the 9-to-5 grind. Nope, experts say, the causes of the current hiring crisis run deeper and are entangled with questions about the meaning and role of work.
But, according to Adam Grant, many leaders aren't just wrong about why the Great Resignation started, they're also wrong about when it started.
In the course of a recent Wall Street Journal article focused mostly on what can be done to make working from home less stressful, the Wharton professor and best-selling author drops in a little-recognized truth about the current standoff between bosses and workers: What appears to be a post-pandemic issue actually has roots that extend back at least a decade.
The shift to working from home during Covid certainly gave many knowledge workers a taste of flexibility. But once many of them got a nibble of control over their working lives, many wanted even more. That's because their hunger for greater freedom has deep roots, Grant claims.
"More than a decade ago, psychologists documented a generational shift in the centrality of work in our lives," he reports. "Millennials were more interested in jobs that provided leisure time and vacation time than Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. They were less concerned about net worth than net freedom."
I covered this trend myself here on Inc.com way back in 2013. The column looked at data from Pew that showed more than 90 percent of workers who stepped back from their careers to care for others were happy they'd traded some professional achievement for the ability to invest in their most meaningful relationships.
"To me, it points in the direction of revisiting what we think of as success," historian Pamela Haag commented at the time. "If so many workers are happy that they stepped off the treadmill, then maybe our metric is off too. Maybe we're deploying the wrong indicators of success. Right now, and perhaps even more so in the future, success may be about maximal autonomy and flexibility to do interesting work and get paid a living for it, as opposed to vertical ambition."
Or, as another example, take this quote from one Millennial professional in a 2019 New York Times article documenting how the desires of younger workers were slowly shifting office policies toward offering a more nuanced balance between personal satisfaction and professional advancement.
"That's how Millennials and Gen-Zers are playing the game," this Millennial employee says of her decision to prioritize flexibility over advancement when choosing where to work. "It's not about jumping up titles, but moving into better work environments. They're like silent fighters, rewriting policy under the nose of the Boomers."
The pandemic gave many employees a taste of greater freedom, but it's clear they'd been hungry for that freedom for years. Long before anyone heard of Covid-19 the definition of success had been shifting away from traditional professional status markers and toward meaning and flexibility. The pandemic just gave many workers an opening to act on these shifting values.
Or as Grant put it, summing up his article on LinkedIn, "The Great Resignation isn't a mad dash away from the office. It's the culmination of a long march toward freedom."
Which of course raises the question of what kicked off this "long march." Maybe it was Millennials witnessing how little loyalty and joy their parents got out of scrambling up the ladder. Maybe it has something to do with how nakedly apparent it has become just how much of the economy runs on a cycle of dissatisfaction driving ambition driving consumption, leading right back to dissatisfaction again (with often disastrous results for human happiness and the earth). Whatever the reasons, they're complex and sociological and beyond the scope of this column and my wisdom.
But one thing is clear: The pandemic didn't spark workers' hunger for greater flexibility and meaning. It just poured gasoline on a trend that had been slowly kindling for years. Which also suggests employees' determination to find a better accommodation between their personal values and their professional lives probably won't be dying down anytime soon.