Last updated: History repeats: Pandemic, labor shortage, and The Great Resignation

History repeats: Pandemic, labor shortage, and The Great Resignation


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The Great Resignation continues. And, as vaccination efforts press on and economies reopen, so does the labor shortage.

Many businesses calling employees back to work from layoff or trying to backfill resigned positions are finding that workers have moved on.

For good.

Thousands of businesses from restaurants to tech companies have many job openings and no applicants. People working across a wide range of industries and professions are quitting en masse, changing companies and changing careers, leaving for organizations offering better pay, benefits, non-toxic work environments, and flexible schedules.

When people complain about working low-wage jobs with no benefits and for companies that enable toxic workplace cultures where customers are allowed to treat them horribly, the inevitable response follows: “If it’s so bad, why don’t you find another job?” Millions of people are doing exactly that.

Already, over 70% of workers rejoining the workforce after leaving unemployment go to work for a new employer.

Businesses are desperate to make up for lost revenue and the economy is hungry for labor. But workers have a chance to – and are – demanding change.

For obvious and unfortunate reasons, it’s not uncommon for a labor shortage to occur after a plague or pandemic.

Labor shortages in history

After the plague dubbed the Black Death, a labor shortage developed. At the time, under serfdom, serfs had to work the land, giving most of the fruits of their labor to the lords and allowed to keep just enough for themselves and their family to survive and continue working the land. Serfs were essentially tied to the land, unable to move geographically, economically, or socially. Once a serf, always a serf.

After the plague there weren’t enough serfs to work the land. The lords and high society were losing money. But they couldn’t find enough serfs to do the work that needed to be done.

Previously, scores of commoners could’ve been found to replace you if you didn’t want to put up with it anymore. After generations of working for low pay, in miserable conditions, and being treated horribly, the peasants had an opportunity to demand more to improve their situation. RJ Walker presents the quick and dirty version of this episode in economic history:

What can the Peasant Revolt of 1381 teach businesses today?

As you can see, making the connections between the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and the Great Resignation in 2021 doesn’t require much in the way of logical gymnastics. Many details are less extreme, sure. Far less bloodshed in 2021, maybe, but the overall movement and sentiment is much the same.


  • People are fed up with toxic work cultures that thrive on performative progressive talk while maintaining the status quo.
  • People are done finding ways to do more with less while someone higher up takes the credit and the compensation. Since the Great Recession, workers have adapted and put up with it, even long after the downturn had passed on paper but remained in spirit and expectation.
  • People are sick of worrying and hoping that they never have to try using their health insurance, if they’re fortunate enough to have it.
  • People are tired of being burned out. Adding unnecessary time and stress of commutes, childcare, school drop off and pickup, and revoking the flexibility of WFH is likely to lead to Burnout 2.0 for many employees.
  • People are over feeling guilty for taking their vacation time and actually not working.

Thankfully, the Great Resignation has been a civil event.

A market correction may mean deleted companies

No, the Great Resignation won’t last forever.

Markets eventually self-correct. In theory. With maybe a nudge this way or that. That’s the good news for businesses. Some businesses, anyway. Because the effects of the Great Resignation will continue to impact the future of work for a long time.

That market correction is likely to involve eliminating many businesses that insist on ignoring the voice of employees demanding better pay, non-toxic company culture, non-hostile work environments, greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, and negotiating an acceptable remote or hybrid work model (for those who aren’t itching to get back to the social life of the office).

Not every arrangement is right for everyone, and that’s to be expected. Some people thrive in an office environment, but not all.

Businesses show commitment to employee wellbeing, or lack thereof

This labor shortage is showing us industries and companies where the pay and the work environment can no longer benefit from people being or feeling trapped and unable to muster the time, money, and energy to find something better.

Why might people leave the restaurant industry?

Some people make good money on tips, sure. Most can barely make ends meet and still have to put up with increasingly rude and hostile customers. Plus, they’re still putting themselves and their loved ones at risk, because, unfortunately, the pandemic is still ongoing.

Toxic management and work cultures can no longer reap the benefits from employees who can’t escape without possibly losing what little they have.

But the Great Resignation spans pay scales, industries, and education levels, with workers from the restaurant and hospitality industries to other professionals working in corporate offices saying no to toxic, exploitative workplaces.

Inflexible work arrangements and Burnout 2.0

Forcing people to return the office for no reason at all, even after employees have emphatically said that they prefer to work from home and a lot of teams say they are more productive and happier, and adding on (taking away, really) the time to get ready in the morning, commute time, child care, and other considerations like the far less flexible work and break schedule, means that many companies are going to be dealing with Burnout 2.0.

Many employees who have been keeping it together through this continuing pandemic because of the time, space, and flexibility that a WFH or flexible hybrid work model affords are struggling with the stress of it all.

What can businesses do to attract and retain top talent?

So often, good pay and good place to work are presented as an either/or, a binary opposition, a zero-sum game. You can have good pay, or you can have a great place to work. In the words of Tony Stark, is it too much much to ask for both?

But how can companies attract top talent through and beyond the Great Resignation and the post-pandemic labor shortage? Unlike what Tony Stark does, it’s not rocket science.

But, apparently, it’s not that easy, either.
  1. Pay your people well. Money isn’t everything, but it’s still really important.
  2. Treat your people well. Foster a diverse, inclusive, psychologically safe workplace with ample challenge and opportunity for growth.
  3. Trust your people. To get their work done, to be productive, and to contribute, no matter where they’re working.
  4. Listen to your people. Survey current employees and read research from other surveys to find out what people want from a company in terms of pay, culture, benefits, and engagement.
  5. Be flexible. The future of work is changing, and it is now. Being open to remote work and flexible work schedules and processes will in turn open your talent pool from regional to national if not global talent.
  6. Upgrade your technology and your culture to foster diversity, inclusion, innovation, productivity, and growth. Many companies have upgraded to respond to the pandemic and the sudden shift to remote work. But maybe the tools weren’t the best fit or it was always intended to be a band-aid fix.
  7. Reevaluate what’s important to your company and where you want to be in five years. If you want to be back in the good ole pre-pandemic days, you may want to take a harder look at why. Is it just because it’s comfortable and familiar? If it’s because your company was doing well and the pandemic really disrupted that success, then it’s time to get acquainted with agility.

Employees are speaking loudly and clearly about what they want and what needs to change in the workplace. Across the board, many people had more time during lockdowns and working from home to upskill, reskill, and find another job for better pay.

Companies refusing to listen to how employees want to work will be the ones losing top talent and finding it impossible to attract any talent at all.

More and more companies with a notoriously toxic cultures and outdated expectations and salaries will fall behind and be unable to compete with companies that get it, that listen and take appropriate action to attract and retain the talent needed to drive innovation and growth.

HR, better.
Employees, happier.
Businesses, healthier.
It’s time to modernize the employee experience.

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