The Great Resignation and the human future of work

blog header great resignation - background image shows woman holding her head while looking at a laptop in her home

Much of the speculation about the so-called “Great Resignation” began after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record 4 million Americans had left their jobs in April 2021. Well, that was the record then. In August the number was 4.3 million. Another record. 4.4 million workers in September. And then yesterday we learned that 4.5 million US workers quit their jobs in November. How long will the trend continue, and what does it mean?

Plenty has already been written and said about the Great Resignation, and much has been said (and plenty by me) about the future of work, about automation and robots and how they will impact human jobs, and countless other related topics. But not enough is being made of what this might mean about the future of human meaning.

We’ve also done a lot of talking (and yes, me again) about digital transformation, and how much that has to do with data models and emerging technology.

But we haven’t talked enough about work as a form of human fulfillment, and we haven’t talked enough about the kind of transformation that happens at the human scale. What if we’re missing the big insights about the future of work and technology by not connecting all these dots?

What really matters about the human future of work and beyond

Most of the media coverage focuses on wages and benefits, and while those are undeniably important factors to understand, it strikes me as very plausible that much of what this trend is about deals with things most media coverage isn’t hitting: Gender inequality in home duties. Burnout. A re-prioritized sense of dignity. And for heavens sake, grief — or rather, the shifted perspective that comes from grief over lost loved ones.

For years when I have written and spoken about the future of work, I have said that the most important thing is for humans to have a sense of meaning. “What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.”

But even after separating those concepts, we’re still left with big questions about what a humanity-centered understanding of work looks like: what it means to accomplish, contribute, and achieve apart from income and sustenance.

And we’re still not sure what it means to address the overlapping trends of the Great Resignation (or Great Reset), and the waves of innovation around the “creator economy” particularly as it relates to Web3, the Metaverse, and emerging ideas and models of value. (I’m part of a group of future-forward experts that is forming around these topics right now. I’ll be sure to share more about that as I am able.)

One of the most frequently-recurring themes in my work is meaning, and I have very often said that I see no reason why humans shouldn’t have meaning in all sorts of different ways, work being just one.

I have also said (and been repeating a lot lately) that the economy is people. And in economic conditions where people are not cared for, they may be forced to ruthlessly prioritize themselves.

If all of this is true then the Great Resignation could be a sign that not enough people are finding enough of a sense of meaning in work. At least not sufficient to overcome the lack of meaning they are feeling in other areas of their lives, which makes sense given how much the pandemic has cut most of us off from our social circles, from our extended families, from leisure travel — heck, even from serendipitous encounters at coffee shops.

It also means these workers might become a bigger market than ever for employers who want to persuade them that they can find meaning at their place of work.

Still, if those 4.5 million, and those coming behind them, can’t find meaning in their workplaces now, why would they stay with the same employers — especially as they see machines taking over many of the functions in the jobs they face today?

Are we ready yet for a meaningful version of the future of work?

The main focus in the Great Resignation shouldn’t be employee dissatisfaction or talent acquisition cost or about technology taking over human employment opportunities. It’s good to create space for that discourse and to learn from it, but the underlying issue is far more fundamental: as much as we need to commit to making the workplace physically safe for humans, we need to commit to making it fulfilling, too. And that means honoring and respecting the humanness of human employees.

When it comes to digital transformation, the biggest lesson I share with leaders is often: it doesn’t start with tech. Surprise! Just as leaders too often want to begin digital transformation with technology instead of from human-centric values and experiences, too many leaders approach their talent strategy as if it can be driven by cost or satisfaction scores, rather than about infusing a sense of purpose and meaning into the organization at every level.

Figuring out how to build a purposeful organization and a culture of meaning, how to amplify relevance and intentionality in the digital experiences you bring to scale — all of this is part of the human-centric digital transformation effort I have been advocating, talking about, advising executive teams on, and leading workshops in for years. It was always important, but now, between the accelerating pace of digitization and the rising stakes in attracting and retaining talent, it’s more crucial than ever.

Even as intelligent machines, automation, and completely digitized experiences become increasingly pervasive, they won’t replace the nuanced value humans add in creative teams, in design of all kinds, in strategic thinking, and in the simple joy of a serendipitous human-to-human interaction, even if it’s only in a coffee shop.

Universal Basic Meaning

Scratch the surface of any debate about the future of work and you’ll find there an argument for Universal Basic Income.

And certainly from a purely survivalist standpoint that’s an important consideration.

We need to know what it is going to look like for people not to have the financial resources from working. We also need to understand how this model might concentrate power and opportunity into fewer and fewer hands.

But we also need to think beyond this consideration of the future of work. Humans rely on work for more than income; we also rely on work for meaning.

Humans have historically derived associated work with what we do; we have historically derived associated work with who we are.

Our work is in so many cases our identities, as the long tradition of names, last names and family names, derived from professions demonstrates. Carpenter, Baker, Butcher, and so many others — and this happens across languages, not just English. Throughout the world and throughout human history, we have taken so much of who we are and what we are about from what we do for a living, and what our ancestors have done for a living.

As I have previously written:

We derive a tremendous amount of meaning from our work—the sense of accomplishment, of problems solved, of having provided for ourselves and for our families, of having made a contribution, of having value and self-worth.

We have to recognize the possibility of a post-human-work world, or at least a world where human work has fundamentally changed—so that as we look at automation, we see the impact on both the experiences automation creates and the experiences automation displaces. Because in the future scenario where all the human work has vanished, where do humans get the same sense of meaning? That meaning we have historically derived from work will have to come from something other than work. We need a better answer.

— from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

The Need for Universal Basic Meaning

My radical idea is that there needs to be some kind of replacement, or reinforcement, for the meaning we derive from work, like a “Universal Basic Meaning” that’s supplied around us.

Not to take the place of work; not to replace jobs. But to enhance jobs and everything else we do, every experience we have. What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.

Because while I do think about the financial implications of job displacement and replacement from automation, I’m nearly as concerned about people not having the resources of meaning and identity.

I wonder about what it’s going to do to us, as human jobs shift away from work we can develop identity around. What I think is going to be needed, even more than ever, are meaningful experiences in the world around us. Meaningful experiences at scale.

One concern I have is that as experiences become increasingly automated and are often selected for automation by how mundane and repetitive — and hence, how meaningless — they are, that we will be increasingly surrounded by meaningless experiences. It makes rational sense to automate the tedious tasks in our workflow and throughout our lives, but it’s easy to imagine this at scale where more and more of our everyday experiences and interactions are automated, and they’re all meaningless.

Because the interconnectedness of data and algorithms and emerging technologies are more and more part of our everyday environments, and they can create experiences that have outsized impact on who we are and how we live our lives. And it’s important that we appreciate the way these systems change us.

This is why I always say we should “automate the meaningful too.” It is important that we now, in the early stages of automating human experiences, encode them with all the enlightenment, all the equity, all the evolved thinking we can.

In the weeks and months to come, I’ll write more about Universal Basic Meaning, how this idea can inform our understanding of ethical and practical data-based experiences, and how we can build the most meaningful experiences at scale.

Measuring Human Work

One thing I said during last night’s “future of work”-themed event for Envoy in Atlanta (which will be re-broadcast as a webinar on January 30th) that I probably haven’t said enough elsewhere about human-centric digital transformation is that when it comes to people and productivity, we shouldn’t start with efficiency. That shouldn’t be the leading measure. In general, efficiency is for processes. People contribute to processes, but what they contribute to those processes is often of higher value than efficiency: it’s good judgment, context, decision-making, knowing when something needs to be slowed down or stopped in order to keep damage from happening — which is not efficient in the short term, but far more effective in the long term.

Whatever humans are being measured for that only comes down to efficiency is almost guaranteed to be replaced by machines. Which is fine! In most cases, we need to recognize and cultivate the higher value that humans bring to the work around those tasks and processes, though, which is where the new jobs of the future likely come in.

Ideally humans at work shouldn’t really be measured, per se, at all, but evaluated on performance according to values. Make people more effective at their work, help them do their work more thoughtfully and meaningfully, and more in alignment with the company’s purpose and goals, and inevitably their output will be better in every dimension, including efficiency.