SA's version of the 'Great Resignation' is a little different – as are reasons for leaving

Business Insider SA
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • The "Great Resignation" refers to the trend of workers quitting en masse amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • It's most notable in the United States, where the trend has been driven by dissatisfied low-wage workers who've had the option to rely on Covid-19 stimulus payments.
  • In South Africa, though signs of the Great Resignation have begun to emerge, it's a different version.
  • Locally, skilled workers are more likely to seek – and find – new jobs, particularly in the emerging gig economy or as freelancers and consultants for their previous employers.
  • Labour shortages overseas are also enticing skilled South Africans.
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Signs of the "Great Resignation" are rippling across South Africa, but the profile of workers ditching their jobs is different from those identified in the United States and elsewhere globally.

Almost 50 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, signalling record-breaking resignation rates. The same phenomenon has been witnessed, although to a lesser extent, in Europe, with at least one survey showing that almost half of the Dutch workforce intended on finding a new job by mid-2022.

The term "Great Resignation", coined in May 2021 by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at Mays Business School, describes a swell of voluntary resignations amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The reasons for this season of mass resignations are varied but generally relate to the newfound freedom of remote work and flexible schedules, coupled with pre-existing job dissatisfaction, particularly among Millennials and Generation Z.

"While a beat or two behind, South Africa is starting to see signs that point to the same phenomenon," says Ryan Silberman, Group CEO at Webfluential and YPO Africa member.

"Towards the end of last year, Old Mutual's reward-management platform Remchannel revealed that employee turnover had increased by 16% across all sectors, while just under 69% of its survey respondents indicated that they were battling to attract new employees or retain their existing talent."

But the industries hardest hit by quits in the US aren't the same sectors that are seeing resignations in South Africa. Similarly, the reasons for leaving employment in South Africa differ significantly from those provided by new job seekers abroad, where evidence of the Great Resignation is stronger.

In the US, for example, low-wage workers are driving the Great Resignation, according to a 2021 survey by Mercer. Covid-19 stimulus payments and additional unemployment benefits played a significant role in lightening the load on low-wage workers.

In South Africa, where a monthly R350 Social Relief of Distress grant, less than half of the lower-bound poverty line, has been afforded to those hardest hit by the pandemic, the situation has been vastly different.

South Africa's unemployment rate reached its highest levels of 35.3% at the end of 2021. And an abundance of unskilled labour in low-wage positions means the majority of employed South Africans won't be looking to quit abruptly anytime soon, and the Great Resignation will look different.

Silberman believes that a large factor in South Africa's growing resignations is the emerging gig economy and that people leaving their jobs were doing so out of desire rather than a necessity to make ends meet.

"South Africa is a good example of this phenomenon – we're finding that it's typically highly skilled people who are migrating away from salaried jobs, not those living on the breadline," explained Silberman.

"Anecdotally, and specifically across the creative industry, we're increasingly seeing these top performers leave their jobs to work for themselves and consult back to their previous employer, on their own terms."

Another key difference, says Silberman, is that many skilled South Africans are leaving their jobs for opportunities abroad. This is not a new phenomenon but is more worrying for South Africa within the context of the Great Resignation, whereby employment opportunities abroad, specifically for skilled workers, have increased dramatically.

"I believe that resignation rates in South Africa could actually exceed rates seen elsewhere," Silberman tells Business Insider SA.

"Given the demand for highly skilled jobs in South Africa, the scarcity of talent for these highly skilled jobs, and the fact that we have highly skilled South Africans landing jobs in countries all over the world, I would expect more job-hopping and resignations in SA… even with our high unemployment rate."

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