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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2021-11-06 12:57

Patrick Lodge



As the socio-cultural long tail of a global pandemic continues to disrupt and transform, we’re witnessing what's been termed 'The Great Resignation'...


As the socio-cultural long tail of a global pandemic continues to disrupt and transform, we’re witnessing what the Texas A&M management professor Anthony Klotz calls ‘The Great Resignation’.


This is a trend that’s seen millions of (predominantly younger) workers in advanced economies quit their jobs or switch roles since the pandemic began. Klotz’s theory is that when humans encounter potentially lethal risks, they tend to take stock of their own mortality – and evaluate whether their lives need to change drastically.


The figures certainly bear this out. Stats released in October 2021 by job search site Joblist about the US labour market, show that almost 75% of those currently employed were considering leaving. Handle Recruitment in London surveyed its candidates in August 2021 and found that the primary reasons for looking for pastures new included: no (or poor) remote working provision, a disregard for mental healthcare by employers, and pandemic-fuelled burnout – what Handle terms ‘The Overwhelm’.


In parallel, there’s been a rise in union membership in the US and UK. There’s also evidence that people are reskilling to switch careers in far greater numbers.


But how about going one step further, i.e. to a life with no work at all? 


When lockdown forced us out of our offices to work from home, was there an ‘emperor’s new (or old?!) clothes’ moment that has laid work (as we’ve known it) bare? Has there been a widespread lightbulb moment where 21st Century work is perceived as essentially unsustainable, unhealthy and, ultimately, unfulfilling?


Over on US social news site Reddit, with almost a million subscribers, the ‘r/antiwork’ subreddit has seen its membership of ‘idlers’ rocket by 400% compared to this time last year. This makes it one of the fastest-growing threads on the Reddit platform.


Antiwork is a radical, even noble, philosophy that aims to strike at the systemic issues within capitalism. It’s exploring the various ongoing shifts such as people trying to optimise their work-life blend, workers quitting their jobs, and employees feeling disenchanted with how leadership has treated them during the pandemic. All this contributes to the rise in online antiwork engagement.


There is dedicated sincerity motivating the many people who truly want to change the meaning of work in the 2020s. But what about when some of this collides with reality? It seems there’s something of a question mark over whether anyone is following through with the anti-work online rhetoric.


Simply put, most individuals are not able to simply walk away from employment and never work again, unless they’re either trustafarians, able to exist incredibly frugally, or they’ve really embraced (and nailed) the F.I.R.E. – Financial Independence, Retire Early – movement


There are also different views to what antiwork actually denotes – many online advocates merely seek an optimal work-life blend rather than widespread, long-term unemployment.


In addition, there’s an assumption that people who are leaving their jobs are quitting work altogether, when in all likelihood, they’ll have found alternative employment.


For service-sector jobs, there may have been a sense that people didn’t want to continue in an industry that’s high risk should further lockdowns hit. There have certainly been year-on-year ‘quits’, as the US Labor Department refers to them, in leisure, hospitality, trade and construction. But people who have been out of work for a year or more will have found ways to adapt. 


Either way, there’s been plenty of debate about how to combat the burgeoning Great Resignation and retain employees, but less conversation around the possibility that sections of the workforce may elect to simply avoid – or drastically reduce their engagement with – the construct of work altogether.


More and more people are questioning careerist values and the erosion of workers’ rights, while celebrating the things they enjoy outside of their working lives. For many, perhaps there has never been a better moment to reimagine how they spend their time. There’s a global talent shortage, and at Working the Future, we’ve heard various anecdotes of people leaving after their first day on the job – or not even showing up at all. 


In a pre-COVID world where ghosting interviewees had regrettably become a behavioural norm too, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people feel the ball is currently in their court.


Antiwork’s stated aim of “unemployment for all, not just the rich!” may be more of a philosophical mantra rather than something that will ever gain much traction as a realistic practicality – under today’s mammon-driven model of capitalism, at least. Perhaps in a future world where we’ve automated pretty much every task, we’d be nearer to it.


But today – and tomorrow – people are looking for flexibility, and movements like antiwork’s greatest value might be in the support it extends to those who feel stuck, undervalued and exploited in their current jobs.


We underestimate the acute sense of unhappiness many people feel toward their working lives at our peril. 


If the pandemic has permanently changed the way people think about work, those organisations unwilling to fully embrace this change in dynamics will quickly need to get used to talent churn as part of their own 'new normal'.


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Navigating Talent RiskRecruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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