Over the past few months, as the pandemic has appeared to have run its course and businesses have started to develop greater confidence to return to pre-2020 ways of working, a new phenomenon has swept through the United States and some countries in Europe.
Unexpectedly large numbers of people are embracing the credo of “antiwork”, and walking out of their jobs. A record 4.3 million people resigned in August, up 242,000 from July, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
And just a year after the US saw the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression, the quit rate — number of quits in a month as a percentage of total employment— rose to a series high of 2.9 per cent in the bureau’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary.
The American psychologist Anthony Klotz has called it the “Great Resignation” — a call to remap priorities in the work-life equation.
Living through and surviving pandemic lockdowns nudged many to see “work-free” living as a viable option. Grievances about low pay, unrealistic deadlines, and bad bosses bubbled up from subconscious depths to feed the impulse. Over the last year, the Reddit forum “r/antiwork”, which has been in existence since 2013, gained over 920,000 followers and saw more than 1,400 daily posts on average.
A report in The Washington Post last month noted that the record quit numbers of August “expands to 20 million if measured back to April”.
While those opting out of work include, prominently, employees in the retail and hospitality sectors, many were willing to switch jobs or to re-evaluate their options, the report said. The BLS summary said that in August, “quits increased in accommodation and food services (+157,000); wholesale trade (+26,000); and state and local government education (+25,000)”.
The quit trend was seen elsewhere too, The Post report said. Nearly 14 million have exited the labour market in OECD countries, and are classified as “not working” and “not looking for work”. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and in Germany have recorded a fall in the skilled labour force; this, however, could be due to stronger social safety nets, the report said.
Sociologist Amrita Datta, visiting assistant professor, Krea University and Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the Department of Sociology at the University of Siegen in Germany, said, “The major portion of the workforce quitting their jobs in the US are mid-ranking professionals. This also means that these workers have market values beyond their existing employers…, and the experience and contacts to bag better job opportunities or choose start-ups — something that young professionals lack and senior-level workers cannot go for because their time’s up.”
She had personally noticed a mushrooming of start-ups in Berlin, and many professionals in their late 30s and early 40s were joining them from India and China, Dr Datta said.
No rush to resign in India
The job market in India is obviously very different from that in the West, and no general analysis can be sufficient.
Speaking of white-collar urban Indians, Pankaj Kapoor, Managing Director of the real estate data analytics company Liases Foras, said the absence of social security and unemployment benefits meant the luxury of walking out of jobs was not available to most in India.
But interesting post-pandemic trends are visible, Kapoor said: “Remote working has made it possible for corporates and employees to have flexible work models. If in the past companies had planned for opening offices in Tier II and III towns, today it is becoming a reality because the pandemic has shifted our spatial economy. There are diffusions now with higher migrations and jobs are moving to people, more than the other way around.”
Indians, Kapoor said, “have not been planned and productive workers largely because labour costs are low and population resources are high. Besides, we work 365 days, unlike developed countries where climate dictates work hours.”
Anuj Puri, chairman of the realty company ANAROCK Group, said a churn was visible in the IT and ITeS sectors with many professionals switching jobs. “Several start-ups have become unicorns and many are hiring in bulk and are ready to pay significantly higher,” Puri said.
Also, work-from-home has triggered changes in the demand structure in the realty market. “There has been a major uptick in the demand for larger homes as people seek to accommodate home offices and e-schooling in their properties. This new dynamic prompted developers to offer new size configurations such as 1.5, 2.5 and 3.5 BHKs,” Puri said.
Out of the exhaustion and trauma of Covid could be emerging both predicted and unpredictable new ways of working and looking at work.
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