How the pandemic accelerated already existing labour market trends
Engagement 3 minute read

How the pandemic accelerated already existing labour market trends

Megan Orr | March 29, 2022

Whether you call it the Great Resignation, the Great Reckoning, or even the Great Retirement, there has been a massive shift in labour market trends over the course of the last two years. But is the pandemic wholly to blame, or did it only highlight factors that were already—and always have been—in play?

From financial setbacks to staffing issues, many industries and organizations across Canada (and the world) have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many organizations are still reeling from the “Great Resignation” and continue to struggle to recruit and retain talent. 

The Harvard Business Review writes that while it’s true that a record number of employees resigned in 2021, “what we are living through is not just short-term turbulence provoked by the pandemic but rather the continuation of a long-term trend”. The data that they point to shows that the number of people quitting has increased by 0.10% every year from 2009 to 2019. 

In 2020, the number of people quitting slowed due to the pandemic and the resulting financial insecurity. However, in 2021, there seemed to be a dramatic increase in quitting—when in reality it was everyone who would’ve quit in 2020 on top of the numbers for 2021. Quitting rates are back to pre-pandemic levels, but news outlets—and reality tv stars—who claim expertise on hard work and labour market trends are still touting that “nobody wants to work these days”. 

The Harvard Business Review calls the contributing factors to the changes in labour market trends the 5 Rs: retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance. They write that “workers are retiring in greater numbers but aren’t relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they’re making localized switches among industries, or reshuffling, rather than exiting the labor market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they’re demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs”.

Studies have actually shown that retirements are contributing to the higher number of resignations, with more people retiring and at younger ages. 

As for the other 4 Rs, the Harvard Business Review notes that, in 2021, relocation was the lowest on record in more than 70 years. Additionally, high levels of burnout across a wide range of industries have had many people reconsidering their careers. 

It’s arguable that the fifth and final R, reluctance, is what we’re currently seeing as the biggest challenge facing employers and their employees. So many employees are feeling reluctant to return to business as usual, either out of concerns about COVID or because they feel—like many of us—that there’s no going back to normal when normal has changed irrevocably. 

Conversely, the other factors—retirement, relocation, reconsideration, and reshuffling—all exist with or without COVID as an influencing factor. Reluctance, however, is perhaps the labour market trend that we’re seeing is most influenced by the pandemic.

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