The pandemic has added many new buzzwords and phrases to our lingo such as “sanitising”, “social distancing”, “quarantine”, “zooming” and “flattening the curve”. But another term is vying for its place in our collective consciousness and has already gripped the attention of international media outlets.
The “Great Resignation” has also edged its way into South African conversations. But will it be one to remember here? And is this new “trend” really biting into our own world of work? These are key questions that we should ponder as we celebrate Workers’ Day on 1 May.
Labour analysts, employers and the media have paid much attention to high worker turnover statistics in the United States, where the return to the post-lockdown workplace was met with en masse voluntary resignation. According to the “Great Resignation” narrative, employees used the pandemic’s disruptive effect on the world of work as an opportunity to contemplate their career paths and to leave jobs they were dissatisfied with.
We could call this “luxury unemployment”, where workers in developed economies are choosing to leave “inconvenient jobs” on a grand scale because they increasingly have other options to pursue. For employers this tendency is less of a luxury. They are left with the high costs of finding replacements and training new entrants for the vacated jobs.
Should the “great” trend concern South Africa? Not to be outdone or dropped from the bandwagon, recent reports from small, sector-specific data sources have surfaced, sounding the alarm that South African workers may also be ascending the “Great Resignation”.
Skilled workers are allegedly entertaining the same temptations as American workers to leave their “lousy jobs” and call it a day in pursuit of better opportunities. Apparently, the long, peaceful hours in home offices, spent away from toxic work cultures with happy family lives in the background, and interspersed with appropriately distanced Zoom and Teams meetings, is enough to convince employees that their old jobs in stuffy offices are no longer worth it.
And the alternative options are plentiful. Or are they?
In considering this question, we should remember the very different contexts. Unemployment rates have come down rapidly in the US and are approaching pre-pandemic levels; in contrast, they have risen sharply to historical highs in South Africa. In this climate, average Americans now have a greater range of job options than during the peak of the pandemic; not so in South Africa.
Noah Williams’ compelling analysis of Google searches emphasises how unemployment has gradually slipped from international public interest over the course of the pandemic. Google searches have progressively pivoted away from “unemployment” towards “inflation”, the other evil twin in the famous “economic misery index”.
Although it seems that developed economies can limit their focus to one of these battles at any given time, policymakers on our shores are simultaneously stumped by record unemployment statistics and also worried about breaching the South African Reserve Bank’s upper bound inflation target in the face of rising fuel and food prices.
Unemployment remains a dominant and structural concern in South Africa, regardless of how other macroeconomic factors evolve. Being picky about jobs is not a luxury the average South African can afford. It therefore seems inconceivable that South African workers — especially low-paid employees — have embarked on a “Great Resignation”.
We may nevertheless be tempted to believe that swathes of “luxury unemployment”, synonymous with a Great Resignation narrative, are imploding our labour market. One set of statistics potentially supports this narrative. Since 2016 Statistics South Africa has asked employed participants in their Quarterly Labour Force Survey whether they are satisfied with their jobs. Never before has the job satisfaction rate exceeded the threshold of 75%.
That is, apart from the treacherous months of South Africa’s hard lockdown, when, for the first time, more than three-quarters of workers surprisingly admitted to being happy with their work. Was working from home the best thing that could have happened to white-collar workers? Or is it rather that blue-collar workers — the few of them who were lucky enough to hold onto scarce jobs in hard times — were grateful that they were not forced into unemployment queues alongside many other desperate South Africans?
In subsequent months, as the workplace opened up, job satisfaction dipped to pre-lockdown levels, consistent with the idea that traditional modes of work continue to fall out of favour with highly skilled workers. This perfectly aligns with a “Great Resignation” story.But this trajectory may as well signal that some low-paid workers were slowly starting to find jobs again, and their paltry working conditions were pulling down the average satisfaction score. This is consistent with the opposite of a “Great Resignation”, so that these statistics could send our thinking in either direction.
We need to consider another angle. Although some workers in some highly skilled sectors have reportedly switched to greener or leaner pastures, this is a weak explanation for why most South Africans have started to work less. Immediately after the imposition of South Africa’s state of disaster, workers retreated from an unforgiving labour market — but they were not “resigning” into luxury unemployment.
People were not only tossed out of their jobs, but the labour market shock was so far reaching that workers took themselves out of the reckoning for finding a job altogether. They became “economically inactive” or “discouraged workers”, and were, according to official definitions, not even in line for being classified as unemployed — they were involuntarily excluded from the labour market, and not voluntarily resigning.
Once the aftershocks of the lockdown started to bite more deeply, individuals were forced back into the job search by new waves of poverty; they were brave enough to venture back into the labour market despite harsh prospects. But instead of transitioning into actual jobs, most entrants joined the unemployment queue, as employment recovered more sluggishly than the rising wave of entrants.
But who were these entrants? Data from Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey show that first-time job seekers dominate unemployment statistics. And their proportion has been increasing steadily over time. Recent events have only amplified this trajectory. Even under a modest post-lockdown job growth path, the rising demand for work from the youth places pressure on the labour market. Instead of a “Great Resignation” we could, arguably, speak of the “Great Entry”. All of this is not new.
Our research from a decade ago already highlighted an emerging “youth bulge”, which refers to the rapidly rising number of young job seekers. These younger generations have been more likely to enter the labour market but find themselves in unemployment queues. And as these younger generations age, our unemployment problem is likely to compound if there is no way for the “Great Entry” to be converted into the “Great Employment”.
The tendency of South African workers to leave the post-lockdown labour market is neither pervasive (“Great”), nor voluntary (“Resignation”). In fact, average workers rapidly re-entered the growing job queue. They simply do not have the luxury to voluntarily leave their jobs and risk their livelihoods. Although some highly skilled workers may be embarking on a “minor resignation”, this tendency pales in comparison to South Africa’s more pressing “great entry” without the jobs to accommodate them.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.