Employers beware: The Great Resignation is here to stay

In the classic 1993 film Dennis the Menace, the archetypal grumpy old-timer Mr Wilson tells his neighbour: “I’m a reasonable man who expects reasonable treatment from his neighbours and their children. I was with the post office for more than 43 years.”

The logical leap from reasonableness to spending four decades with a single employer looks painfully anachronistic now, but loyalty to an employer was long seen as the measure of the worker.

Gaps in a CV or short, polygamous jumps from employer to employer were signs of a person who could not be trusted.

So embedded was this thinking, that it wasn’t unusual for workers to have only three to five jobs during their entire working life.

That has since risen to more like 12, and forecasts indicate that this upward trajectory will only continue.

Colleen Ryan, head of strategy at research and insights firm TRA, says there are now strong indications that Generation Z will have as many as 18 jobs over the course of their career, and the average tenure will reduce to around two years.

Viewed alongside the adage that it takes most new employees about six months tobecome productive, that means employers are looking at a future when they may be able to squeeze only 18 good months out of a staff member before having to find a replacement.

“Shorter tenures are starting to become a social norm,” says Ryan.

“And people are now asking different questions: You’ve been there how long? It’s been three years already and you’re not looking elsewhere?

“There’s this idea now that you shouldn’t just have one experience. You should move elsewhere to get a different experience. It’s a growth mindset. It’s a learning mindset. The idea is that you acquire all these different and transferable skills.”

That is in line with the thinking expressed by author and business consultant Stephen Covey as far back as 1989, when he wrote: “Some people say they have 20 years’ experience, when in reality, they have one year repeated 20 times.”

Another factor giving workers itchy feet is the realisation that we will live and work longer than any previous generations, as average life expectancy creeps ever closer to 100 years.

“Would you really only want three jobs through that length of working life?” asks Ryan.

In the midst of all this talk about the great resignation, it sometimes gets forgotten that employment mobility is often dictated by broader economic forces. When the economy is struggling and unemployment starts to lift, workers become cautious and are far more likely to stay put.

That trend was obvious during the early stages of the pandemic, when resignations in the US dropped dramatically as workers nervously held onto the jobs they had. As the pandemic bore on, global economies remained more resilient than expected and resignations steadily picked up, reaching record numbers by April 2021.

Some of this global resignation trend could be down to the pent-up desires that were put on hold during the worst of the pandemic, but the latest data shows a staggering number of New Zealanders are thinking about leaving their jobs next year.

Research from AUT in October showed that 46 per cent of New Zealanders surveyed currently have strong thoughts about job turnover. This is up from 40 per cent in December and 35 per cent in May.

It would be easy to blame the pandemic and hope the market normalises eventually, but the reasons underpinning workers’ desire to leave a job often precede Covid-19 and will probably still be there once the pandemic eases.

What Covid-19 has really done is give workers the time to think about the reasons they’re not happy with their jobs.

Businesses which are quick to blame workers or issues beyond their control might want to pause for some self-reflection.

What Kiwis think

Ryan and her team at TRA recently completed a comprehensive study of Kiwi cultural codes, which sought to understand from a panel of 4000 New Zealanders what it means to be Kiwi in 2021 and whether businesses live up to those expectations.

The research is divided into six Kiwi codes – individuality, earned success, social equivalence, outward world view, connection to nature, and humour.

Each year of the study has reiterated the finding that businesses that align better with these values are more likely to be admired and used by consumers.

In this, the third edition of the study, one of the key findings was the growing divide between the characteristics that New Zealanders admire and what they see in businesses operating in the local market.

Brands are falling short across the six core cultural codes. The average gap between how well people expect brands to demonstrate those codes and how well brands are actually performing rose to 22 per cent – an increase of 6 per cent on pre-Covid levels.

In simpler terms, that means New Zealand businesses just aren’t living up to the standards of what constitutes a decent Kiwi in 2021.

The research is largely designed to give businesses an indication of what consumers think, but it is perhaps even more relevant to organisations confused about why they’re struggling to hold onto staff.

The area where there is the biggest divide is “social equivalence”, with a 32 per cent gap between expectations and actual delivery.

Kiwis responding to the survey said that while many organisations claim social equivalence as a value, this isn’t evident in the giant gap between the haves and have-nots, discrimination against Māori and Pasifika people and the gender pay gap.

As one respondent said: “It’s personally taxing standing up for yourself, especially as a woman in a male-dominated industry… I feel like I can’t speak up against people.”

Ryan says the younger generation are growing tired of waiting for change to happen and are instead opting out. This is why younger workers around the world are driving the “Great Resignation” trend.

That is reflected in the language of activist Greta Thunberg, who used her time at the COP26 climate conference to call out the “blah, blah, blah” we so often hear from business and national leaders.

“Gen Z is absolutely an activist generation,” says Ryan.

“They are kind of over it with the purpose statements and targets. They want to know what you’re doing. What are the numbers? How much have you actually done?

“And it’s not about making donations. You might have given away a million dollars, but that doesn’t matter if your profits are still a billion dollars.”

The research is also showing the signs of a cultural clash between the older generation and the younger ones who are asking these uncomfortable questions.

One respondent exclaimed: “You need to have a pecking order based on experience. They’ve still got their training wheels on but they want to be the boss. They need to do their time.”

But on the other side of the generational divide, younger workers no longer see the world in those hierarchical terms.

“It’s challenging for employers because typically the way you’ve always approached these things is hierarchy,” explains Ryan.

“You’d say: ‘Come here and have a bigger job. It’s a promotion.’ This used to be appealing, especially if there was a ceiling where you are, but we now have flatter agile structures, which are evolving all the time.”

That means workers are becoming more likely to make lateral career moves if they feel they can learn more or work for an organisation that better represents their values.

If a company’s ethics or workplace culture are lacking, it’s never been easier for employees to move on.

Unshackled from the old notion of company loyalty, in a market with record low unemployment of 3.4 per cent, New Zealand workers have greater bargaining power to choose who they want to work for and how they want to work.

That, in turn, places a heavy onus on employers to start living up to the high expectations of what it means to be a good Kiwi, or risk missing out on the best talent.

The emergence of vaccines and the slow end of the pandemic isn’t going to reverse a trend that has been years in the making. We may hope for the return of reasonable men like Mr Wilson who stay in the same role for 40 years. But in doing so, we might miss out on the opportunity to embrace an insatiably curious breed of workers who want to push things forwards rather than floating along with the status quo for a few more decades.

Understanding the Kiwi cultural codes

TRA has tracked Kiwi cultural codes over the past three years, finding that brands which better resonate with what it means to be Kiwi end up being loved and used more by consumers. The problem, however, is that the idea of Kiwiness isn’t stagnant and evolves.

The latest rundown of the study pinned down core cultural codes to six areas. There is an expectation from consumers that brands operating locally should exhibit these traits.

However, TRA head of strategy Colleen Ryan stresses that the aim shouldn’t be for a company to be all these things at once. This would simply come across as trying too hard to be Kiwi. Instead, businesses should focus on the bits they’re already good at and develop those.

1. Individuality
Religion, gender, sexuality, how you run your household and bring up your kids – Kiwis believe you can do it how you like, just don’t make a big deal of it and most definitely don’t force it on others.

2. Earned success
The concept of Tall Poppy Syndrome isn’t as pronounced as it once was. New Zealanders are happy to celebrate success, as long as you have the numbers to back it up. Fame for fame’s sake doesn’t cut it for Kiwis. They want to see that you’ve earned your place in the world.

3. Social equivalence
Comparatively, New Zealand might be doing well compared to the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean we should brush over the issues we face. Kiwis want to see progress on the gender pay gap, discrimination against Māori and Pasifika and social inequality.

4. Outward world view
Both New Zealand born-Kiwis and new migrants are extremely proud to call NZ home, but the country is no longer viewed as a place on the outskirts of the world. It is now part of the global economy, and the challenge lies in showing the rest of the world what Kiwis can bring to the table.

5. Connection to nature
New Zealanders have a special connection to nature, but it is changing. A lawn is not a substitute for the great outdoors, and as we become more suburban, the need to connect with the natural environment only grows.

6. Humour
New Zealanders have a brand of humour distinct from anything you might see elsewhere. It’s filled with self-deprecating banter, shared among friends and family and it’s often used to laugh at the hard things. The research showed that Kiwis appreciate a familiar bit of humour from companies, even when things are tough.

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