The Great Resignation

If you’re reading the post-COVID analysis going on in current literature, you’ve likely come across a growing concern called “The Great Resignation.” America is seeing people retire, change jobs, move, and rethink their work. This is shaking the workplace and falling heavy on the shoulders of organizational leaders just about the time they were getting ready to take a long vacation.

Why? Why is the workforce shifting dramatically in the waning days of COVID? I would suggest six reasons.

  1. For those approaching retirement and able to afford it, this seems like a good moment to hand the reins to others and go rest. Leaders (and their employees) are simply worn out from the constant protocols, open or closed status, masks or no mask questions, vaccination debates, bottom line strategies, and schedule management challenges. At age 69, I seriously considered retirement. Coming home tired from tough days, I often remarked to my wife, “You know, I don’t need this job.” I’ll tell you her response later. The simple reality is… many are headed into retirement – and the absence of mature, hard-working seniors will be felt.
  2. Worker shortages have propelled a wage war among employers that is causing an average wage increase. People can make more money somewhere else. As good workers are hard to find, organizations are paying more (which is a big piece of the inflation we are experiencing as the cost of goods increases to cover the cost of labor). People are resigning to go where they can make more money. And if your job is in higher education, this means that retaining the same faculty will require a significant bump in tuition.
  3. The deepening anxiety connected to COVID has wearied many people to the point that they want a fresh start somewhere. They are tired of the bouncing ball of public school being in, and out, and in, and virtual, and dismissed early, and rescheduled sports, and weather closures. Parents of school children, by and large, are ready to go ballistic on the public education system. Add to this their own work schedule, health concerns, family gatherings, shattered vacation plans, and unavoidable closures … and soon, anywhere else looks better than here.
  4. The already-sharply-divided culture has shifted into warp speed during the pandemic. Having an opinion is no longer the social sport of conversation. We’ve turned into attack zombies who go after those who see things in a different way. Name your issue – vaccines, masks, racism, woke, BLM, CRT, LGBTQI, Trump, the truckers, Build Back Better, immigration, Biden, Ukraine, city potholes, housing costs, the local board of education, the election, a new Supreme Court Justice. And by the time you read this, there will be three new exploding issues. What does this have to do with the great resignation? People are leaving their tribes in search of a tribe that they agree with. And the result is that we are splintering into smaller and smaller tribes because each new issue raises the complexity of belonging to a tribe that sees the world as I do.
  5. Sometimes people leave because God has other work for them to do. I have seen this as the pandemic has opened the eyes of many friends to the need that exists in the medical community or the public classroom or a counseling office. Or some feel the call of God to move closer to their families and provide care for aging parents. God moves us around to accomplish good work.
  6. And finally, some people have gotten used to working from home in their gym shorts and sweatshirts… and they don’t want to go back to the gritty world of bumping shoulders. It is the beginning of America’s slide into isolation, and I predict, the launch of an emerging loneliness that will play itself out in significant mental illness. We are created as communal beings and do not do well without significant friendships.

In the past two weeks, I have attended two gatherings that brought the reality of the great resignation close to home. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is a collaborative network of almost 200 global schools who share a common commitment to Christ-centered higher education. From 2020-2022, we saw 63 presidential changes in our institutions – almost a third. The following week I attended the annual gathering of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association where I saw the same turnover in presidential leadership among our state private schools. And at both gatherings, a major topic of discussion was, “What are you doing to deal with the great resignation?” One president replied, “I’m quitting.”

As a university that employs between 400-500 people, I see all six of the above reasons at work in the decisions of the people I serve. Having asked the WHY question, maybe it is time to speak wisdom into these reasons.

  1. Retire. The book Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr has been helpful to me in thinking about work in my advancing years. When I declared, “I don’t need this job”, my wife replied, “But does God still want you to do this work?” She would bring God into it. If you are healthy, have gas in the tank, and can find the smile of God in the work you are currently doing, maybe COVID is not your best exit ramp. The world may need a few seasoned persons to get us into tomorrow.
  2. Make more money. I have no moral conviction against making more money; but be sure you are not exchanging meaningful work for something less valuable in the long run. And is it possible that the better question is, “Do I bring value to my organization that allows us to work smarter, to serve more people, and to enable a more profitable organization to pay higher salaries?” Should we focus on what we give as much as what we get? I’ve always appreciated the people who focus on the value their work adds rather than solely on the check they take home.
  3. The fresh start. The grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, but it still must be mowed. Fresh starts are often a gift. If you need one, go for it. But remember that friendship networks take years to build, and finding a new church, doctor, grocery store, jogging partner, favorite restaurant, neighbor, etc. may be more draining than you think. In times of stress, it is good to rely on a dependable network of familiarity.
  4. A tribe like me. Good luck finding one. When you go through your list of every important social, political, and religious issue and check the boxes, you may find yourself looking for a lost tribe. I have great respect for people who find themselves out of alignment with an organization’s primary mission, theology, or culture, and rather than fighting it, take the path of integrity and leave. We ask our employees to sign a contract of “abiding in hearty fellowship” with the mission of our university. I would never wish their signature to be a lie.
  5. God is calling me. Then go. Do what God is leading you to do, with the confidence that God will be with you.
  6. I like working from home. Be sure to weigh the cost of this in human interaction, camaraderie, and the discipline of presence. I like working from home too … but I also know that my walk down a hallway or across a campus or in a chapel service may well be the presence that God intends as a gift to someone… or the chance to receive the gift of presence from someone. Showing up is a big part of doing university work. We are not creating pixels; we are forming people.

My prayer is that the people of God will think carefully about our work in the days of the great resignation. God is always making all things new. I wish to go there.

Comments

  1. Dan, thank you for this blog “for such a time as this!”

  2. Thanks, Dan, for your insight. I always have looked to my dad’s example when I think about retirement. He was the Director of Children and Family Services for our county. When he retired, he worked for the local Nazarene church, helped to start a compassionate ministry center in our local town supported by local churches, and filled pulpits. He was invited to speak in 15 different churches in our town, which shows the level of respect afforded him.

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