Jorge, 26, has been working in Germany for four years at Standard & Poor’s but is finding himself increasingly alone. This year, several of his colleagues decided to take the plunge and leave their jobs without a plan B.
Although he says quitting is still something rare, an exodus of employees is already a reality on the other side of the Atlantic in what’s becoming known as the “Great Resignation” – and it’s threatening to spread throughout Europe.
More than 4 million Americans are deciding to quit their jobs every month since the since the post-COVID-19 recovery started, a figure that rises to 20 million if measured from May to September.
There are some factors that may explain the causes of a revolution that has caught economists by surprise: a change of priorities due to the pandemic, labour burnout or savings achieved thanks to policies of economic stimuli could be some of them.
But the truth is, there is no single reason yet to point to for the shift.
COVID as a catalyst for a better work-life balance
The figures speak for themselves. The number of resignations has increased by 15 per cent this year, compared to the same period in 2019 before the pandemic began.
“Without any doubt, the pandemic is one of the reasons. There has been a cultural change regarding one’s priorities, people are now questioning whether work should play the role it had before,” Jerónimo Maillo, Professor of European Law at CEU San Pablo University, told Euronews.
Both experts and workers are pointing to the pandemic as a catalyst for change.
Sonia moved to New York three years ago to work in marketing, and says COVID-19 has altered work routines beyond recognition.
“People who decide to quit are taking this decision based on their desire to improve their quality of life, not to increase their salaries,” she said.
The Great Resignation seems to be picking up speed and this has led many experts to predict a global expansion. But will the revolution reach Europe?
The Great Resignation: A European trend?
Unlike what is happening in the US, Europe’s unemployment rate is on the verge of returning to pre-crisis levels.
In France, the number of people in the labour force is even higher than before the pandemic, while in Spain, the number of resignations between 2020 and 2021 has fallen, according to the Spanish Ministry of Social Security.
For Raymond Torres, Director of International Economy at Funcas, these figures show that what we are seeing in Europe is not a Great Resignation, but a major reconsideration of work.
“On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, workers are rethinking their relationship towards work. In the USA, quitting has been the most common solution, but in Europe the employment data doesn’t correlate,” he explained.
“This apathy has been reproduced in a deeper way: it’s not that they don’t want to work, but they want to change their way of working”.
Maillo agrees. “Some of the factors seen in the US could be happening in Europe,” he said.
“Such as a cultural change and people’s search for flexibility in order to balance their work life. However, there are differences too. In the US, for example, it’s easier to resign because it’s not as difficult to find another job”.
Aside from the feasability of landing a new job, there are clear differences in how discontent at work is approached and dealt with on both sides of the Pond.
“In the European Union, labour market institutions, especially negotiations between unions and employers, along with tools such as demonstrations and strikes, can be used to show discontent,” said Elvira Gonzalez, a labour market and employment policy expert at the European Centre of Expertise.
“Our strong labour institutions reduce the chances of seeing something similar to the Great Resigntaion here in the EU,” says Gonzalez.
Different countries, different situations
The homogeneity between states in the US gives rise to a large-scale phenomenon. However, this is not the case in Europe. In order to determine if there are similarities with the US case, we need to look at where each European country is starting from.
“In Germany, Europe’s largest economy, the country has been experiencing a shortage of workers for years. It has a very low unemployment rate, which is close to full employment,” said González. “In Spain, on the other hand, this sounds like science fiction”.
With an unemployment rate of nearly 15 per cent and a precarious labour market, not many people in Spain are encouraged to quit their job.
“Even if workers are not overly well treated, they hold out until they have another opportunity”, Maillo pointed out.
These different mentalities are fostered by the different characteristics in each European labour market. While in some countries resignation is not an option, in Germany, workers can take their time to find another job.
The number of resignations has also increased in France. Last September, the country registered a 9 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2019. Almost half of those workers who left their posts were voluntary resignations.
A European success?
Another reason that could help to shed light on why the impact of the Great Resignation is still not being felt in Europe would be the use of pandemic-linked unemployment benefits.
In the US, the government handed out stimulus cheques to millions of citizens, while in the Old World, the injection of stimulus in Europe was linked to a work contract.
“The European recovery plans, such as the Ertes, were conditioned on there being no layoffs. This tied the worker to the company,” González said.
For Maillo, this has been a European success, since this type of subsidy has made it possible for workers to get their jobs back easily.
Furthermore, there was a drastic rise in the US’ unemployment rate.
“It went from 3 per cent to 14 per cent in just a few months. In Europe, on the other hand, this increase was attenuated because government payments required workers to hold an employment contract. This has had a positive effect because it kept people away from inactivity,” Torres argued.
When it comes to assessing whether the Great Resignation could lead to a change of trend in the labour market, the Funcas analyst remains cautious.
“People are rethinking the type of work they do and this could be seen in the rest of advanced countries,” he said.
This will not be seen, at least for the time being, he added. Only time will tell if the great working revolution that started in the US during the post-pandemic era will spread to other economies.