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Sensemaker: The Great Resignation

Sensemaker: The Great Resignation

Tuesday 19 October 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile into the sea, after US and South Korean officials met in Washington to discuss their concerns over the dictatorship’s nuclear capability.
  • French pharmaceutical company Valneva said its Covid vaccine outperformed AstraZeneca’s jab in late-stage trials.
  • An amateur diver found a metre-long sword believed to have belonged to a crusader almost a millennium ago in a cove near Haifa, Israel.

The Great Resignation

It began in the US: millions of workers resigned from their jobs over the course of the pandemic. In April, the number of resignations in a single month rose to its highest level on record. In July, the record was broken again. In August, it was broken yet again. The reasons are understandable.

The mental and physical health toll of the pandemic, along with various forms of government financial support from relief payments to rent moratoriums, have given people pause to re-evaluate their lives and jobs. In this respect, resignations are a sign of optimism: people feel they can do better. Resignations were, in fact, first concentrated in gruelling and underpaid sectors – hospitality and leisure – but have since spread across the American economy. 

They have also spread across the Atlantic:

  • In the UK, the latest official data show that 791,000 people – equivalent to 2.6 per cent of the workforce – moved from one job to another between April and June. The last time it was higher than this was in March 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis.
  • Around half of the moves are explained by temporary jobs coming to an end and personal or health reasons. Only 5 per cent were the result of dismissals and redundancies. Some 39 per cent were the result of resignations. 
  • While at the beginning of the pandemic people felt insecure and so tended to hang onto their jobs if they could, they are now looking to explore their options. The volume of Google searches for “leave job” are 50 per cent higher than they were at the start of the pandemic.

The power balance between workers and firms is shifting: wages are growing at their fastest rate in two decades. This is a good thing for them, but less good for companies. The number of job vacancies is now at a record high of 1.1 million, an increase of 318,000 from the start of the pandemic. The CBI, the UK’s largest business lobby, said that most of its members are worried about labour shortages and called on the government to address them.

But it is a good thing for entrepreneurship. After collapsing during the pandemic, the number of self-employed workers is now ticking up as are the number of new businesses. These trends coincide, unsurprisingly, with a migration from cities to suburban and rural areas. Even people who haven’t left their employment are demanding work-from-home arrangements.

The office, even before the pandemic, was one of our last physical communities. Church attendance had collapsed, other forms of association membership had declined, but the office remained. Whether loved or hated, it provided a space where social capital – what Harvard’s Robert Putnam defined as “features of social organizations, such as networks, norms and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit” – could develop.

More people will resign, and more will move out of cities. Our office relationships will disperse. Derek Thompson wrote in the Atlantic that these forces are creating “a centrifugal moment in American economic history”. The same applies to the UK whose government’s central plank is “levelling up” different regions. As with Boris Johnson’s claim that wage inflation was his plan all along to improve workers’ living conditions, these centrifugal forces may do more of his work for him.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Hola Mola
Carmen Mola is a Spanish university professor who mostly writes novels about a female police inspector who loves karaoke, grappa and casual sex. Or so her readers believed, until Mola turned out to be three middle-aged men who had made their name as TV screenwriters. On Friday night, Mola won the prestigious and lucrative Planeta prize only for jaws to drop after Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero went to collect the trophy in front of a starry audience that included King Felipe VI. Books written under Mola’s name have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and been translated into 11 languages. Beatriz Gimeno, former head of Spain’s Women’s Institute, called the men “scammers”, after the Institute included one of Mola’s books on a reading list of female authors. After the award ceremony, Mercero told El País: “I don’t know if a female pseudonym would sell more than a male one… We didn’t hide behind a woman, we hid behind a name.” Margaret Atwood called the saga “a great publicity stunt” – we’d be inclined to agree. 


New things technology, science, engineering

European metaverse
Facebook is planning to hire 10,000 staff to work on its metaverse in Europe. A concept coined in sci-fi novels, the metaverse has been theorised as a virtual space that allows people to work, create and interact with others using augmented and VR tech. Facebook’s announcement was coming after Mark Zuckerberg told Verge in July that in the next five years people would primarily think about Facebook “as a metaverse company” rather than “a mobile internet company”. In a blog post, Facebook executive Nick Clegg described the jobs investment as “a vote of confidence in the strength of the European tech industry” (Elon Musk also completed his Tesla gigafactory in Berlin this month). With Facebook fighting antitrust lawsuits and struggling to defend itself against moral bankruptcy, the metaverse isn’t an easy sell. Zuckerberg has said it will be an “embodied internet” that no single company will run. But who believes him? 


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Don’t trust the numbers
Yesterday, we reported that Russia had registered over a thousand Covid deaths in a single day for the first time. But the Washington Post has found the number of deaths may be far higher. Alexey Rashka, an independent demographer fired by the country’s health agency for exposing alleged undercounting, believes excess mortality is closer to 2,000 deaths a day. Russia isn’t alone. A World Bank report released last week found Egypt was the worst country in the Middle East and North Africa for underreporting Covid deaths. The researchers claimed around 230,000 people had died from Covid in the African country. The reported figure is just 17,658.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cocaine hippos
The Colombian government began sterilising a group of hippos that originated from the private zoo of Pablo Escobar. After the drug lord was shot dead in 1993, the so-called cocaine hippos were left free to roam and they eventually colonised the central Colombian Magdalena basin. Calls to have the 80 or so hippos culled to stop ecological chaos in the region were resisted when they became a tourist attraction. After much agonising and debate, the compromise was to have them chemically castrated. About a third have been treated so far. Eventually the population will die out, but the region’s biodiversity – which should be the main consideration when policymakers are weighing up whether or not to intervene – will benefit.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Wales brain drain
The Welsh government launched a plan to persuade young adults to stay in their home country to work and start businesses. The nation’s working-age population – aged 16 to 64 – has been shrinking every year since 2008, and recent figures suggest it could make up just 58 per cent of the country by 2043. The country’s economy minister Vaughan Gething said he wanted to start a “conversation” about demographic change with his plan, which includes building links between universities and businesses – and supporting start-ups. The people of Wales can only hope that the central government’s “levelling up” agenda has more substance to it than England’s.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Phoebe Davis
@phoebe_ivy

With additional reporting by Jacob Wood.

Produced by Phoebe Davis edited by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs Getty Images