It's not about money anymore (or rather, not only about money).
This post is a few days early. But it seemed odd to schedule its publication for American Thanksgiving or the Friday after. I would hope that people are enjoying food and loved ones on those days and not reading my musings on the state of work. Anyway — enjoy!
When I quit my job in early 2021, I didn’t have anything else lined up yet. I was in the final stages of interviewing and took a leap of faith that I would land a job in the (hopefully not too distant) future.
I was part of the executive team, and, of course, the CEO wanted to know where I was headed. I told him that I wasn’t sure yet but likely going to be making a career pivot from product managing at a fintech into writing and marketing.
He said, “Well, you know we always tried to take care of you.” That was the ending note for the last conversation I had with him.
That phrase stuck with me because I knew what he was implying. He meant that the company tried to take care of me financially. I was well-compensated for both my expertise and tenure. But it was clear that he didn’t understand how employees could be motivated by anything other than money — something that I saw many times over the years.
I wanted something more.
The Great Resignation vs. The Great Awakening
I was slightly ahead of the curve by resigning in January of 2021. By April, the phrase “The Great Resignation” had entered the scene, referring to an unprecedented number of workers who voluntarily quit their jobs. As of now (November), this trend has continued, with another record number of people quitting in September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.
This phenomenon can no longer be attributed to a blip on the radar. In April, it might have been easy to say that the shuffle was due to frustration, burnout, or a desperate need for change after months of restrictions due to the pandemic. TBH, I attributed some of my own need for change to these factors at first.
But as the months have marched forward, it has become clear that The Great Resignation is about far more. It’s about saying “Enough” with crappy management, crappy culture, and — yes — crappy compensation. There are limitless opportunities with companies that don’t treat their employees as a commodity. A lot of this is propelled by the movement toward remote work and jobs that are no longer limited by geography.
It’s not a resignation. It’s an awakening that things don’t have to be awful at work.
The definition of career success has changed
I fall into the “older Millennial” cohort, born in the early 1980s. I entered the full-time workforce in 2006, just a few years prior to the financial crisis of 2008.
I was mentored by Gen X. I wanted stability, recognition, and title in my career. When my first child was born in 2009, I also wanted flexibiltiy — but it needed to be coincident with my Career Goals.
And climb I did. I pushed for new roles and promotions. Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In taught me to advocate for myself and my salary. I reached the top of the small fintech I worked for, achieving an executive role in 2016 and managing a department.
Yet upon reaching “the top” I routinely found myself frustrated. I realized the limits of the changes I could implement. And it wasn’t me: it was a deeply ingrained company culture, where the average employee tenure was more than 10 years.
Finally, somewhere in the Fall of 2020, I realized what I wanted: to be recognized for the value that I brought to my job. Not to feel like I was just spinning my wheels, day in and day out. It wasn’t about the money or the title.
Data reflects that I’m not alone in this sentiment, particularly among my generational peers. According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, Millennials and Gen Z both prioritize employers that care about their wellbeing. They also prioritize mental-health benefits and work-life balance.
It’s a sharp turn from the hustle culture attributed to Millennials when we first entered the workforce. I can only say, speaking for my generation, that we hustled for a long time, and now we’re burned out. Gen Z came of age expecting something better.
The company drives the culture
In companies that have a great culture, it isn’t by accident. They pour care into the wellbeing of their employees, supporting them both professionally and personally. They foster relationships, no matter when or how the interactions take place. “Culture” is more than access to a beer fridge and a ping pong table at the office.
The Great Resignation/Awakening has put culture in the spotlight. Scour LinkedIn or Twitter and you’ll find stories about people leaving toxic jobs, toxic bosses, and below-market compensation. They’re tired and know what they’re worth.
What’s more, there’s a clear disconnect between employers and employees: 72 percent of U.S. executives think their workplace culture has improved since the start of the pandemic; only 21 percent of U.S. human resource professionals think so.
This misalignment is what has driven employees to respond with their feet. It’s what drove me to make a move. The reshuffle will continue and I, for one, am exhilarated to watch. Some companies are really stepping up and refocusing their energy on the employee experience. Others, well… They’ll be the ones left continuing to wonder why they can’t attract and retain good employees.
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