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Should I care about a Great Resignation?

Over the past few months, I’ve read news articles at the ABC and the Australian Computer Society explaining the “Great Resignation”, claiming that large numbers of workers are quitting their jobs, or are ready to, in pursuit of a better work/life balance. Over at the Sydney Morning Herald, Jim Bright thinks there’s no such thing—the rate of resignation in the United States is only very slightly higher than it usually is (The great job exodus narrative is overstated, 30 October 2021)—and at the Conversation Mark Wooden and Peter Gahan say Australia’s ‘great resignation’ is a myth. I don’t intend to get to the truth here, but I want to reflect on my reaction to Great Resignation stories.

Part of me says, where have these people been? I moved out of Sydney over twenty years ago, first experimented with non-full-time work over ten years ago, and I’ve been baking bread and brewing beer for almost all of that time. So what’s new? Another part wants to believe the Great Resignation, and that we’re finally moving towards that leisure society that people have talked about for decades but never done.

Against the first part, I myself am hardly the first person to have decided to do something other than paid work. I spent a long time in a regular job before deciding to move on to other things, and it took me even longer to develop a plan by which I could do it. What’s more, the regular job worked well for me for plenty of periods of my life, and the wealth that I built up from regular work is part of how I can afford to live without a regular job now. So I shouldn’t get too cocky.

Against the second part, nearly all of the people I know do actually seem to have a good deal of leisure time, even many of the ones who complain about the amount of work they have. Evidently the people I know don’t need to resign (though to be fair to proponents of the Great Resignation, presumably those stuck at work don’t have much time to be hanging around with me.)

Finally, I should point out that even I didn’t resign, I just moved on to something different when my previous contract came to an end. Even when working full-time I kept strict control over my hours so that I could divide my time in the way that seemed best to me. Perhaps the number of resignations is actually a sideshow: the real question is the degree to which people are exercising choice over what they do with their time, or feeling compelled to churn out more “work”.

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