Let's all resign at once

Britain needs a National Resignation Day to encourage people to find satisfying jobs.

by Richard Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's summertime and the living is easy. Well, a bit easier, anyway. August in the UK may not approach French levels of relaxation, but we might eat our sandwich in the park rather than at our desks. And at some point most of us will spend a couple of weeks with sand beneath our feet and sun on our skin. No e-mails, meetings, phones or commuting ... And then, with a juddering jolt, it's back to work again.

The combination of some precious time to reflect and the stark contrast between vacational and vocational life means that September is a busy month for the recruitment agencies. Pop surveys suggest that large numbers of us come back to the office determined to change careers, or at least to switch jobs. These resolutions often go hand in hand with fantasies about downshifting to Devon or the Dordogne, retraining as a windsurfing instructor (after learning to swim properly), and taking a daily siesta.

And like these dreams, much of the enthusiasm for career redirection dissipates within a few weeks. This is for a number of distinct reasons. First, once we settle back into our jobs we may realise that they are not so bad after all. A survey by recruitment website Monster found that for 40% of people, the post-holiday blues lasted for just a couple of hours, and a further 30% bounced back within a couple of days.

A second possibility is that our jobs are just as bad as we thought, but that our dissatisfaction gets buried in the day-to-day busy-ness of business. Third, although the nagging sense remains that working life could be better, we lack the courage to make a real change. Fired up with revolutionary zeal after a few glasses of wine in a Riviera restaurant, we turn conservative when faced with the realities of mortgages to pay, mouths to feed and the uncertain prospects in a new job. Suddenly, the devil we know seems better after all.

This is a pity. There are millions of people in jobs that leave them cold who realise it only when they get the distance and time that a holiday provides. Of course, there are huge practical and psychological obstacles to moving on, but given that we spend more waking hours doing our job than on any other activity, we sell ourselves short by merely sticking it out. Surveys suggest that a high proportion - as much as half - of the people who are made redundant retrospectively come to believe it was a blessing in disguise, because it forced them to think hard about what they really wanted to do. The redundancy payment often allowed some time for setting a new direction, too, without having to worry unduly over how they were to make ends meet.

How much better if people could take the step themselves, rather than having to be pushed. How many years are wasted on profoundly unsatisfying jobs because the holders are too afraid to let go of them?

As Jessica Jarvis, a training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says: 'Plenty of people spend more time planning their holiday than their career. But if we stay in a job that we're not fully engaged with, we're not doing ourselves any favours. We're less likely to get ahead, or be promoted, and end up stagnating.'

In time for the summer surge, the institute has just developed an online tool, Effective Career Discussions, to help people think and talk about their careers more constructively.

For all the talk of a fluid, flexible, job-hopping labour market in which people try out lots of different professions before settling on one, one of the most striking facts about employment in Britain is that people are staying in jobs almost as long as before. The only major study showing any significant change, based on Labour Force Survey data, found that mean job tenure (ie, average length of time spent in a job) was seven years and six months in 2001, down from seven years and nine months in 1996. Despite all the hype to the contrary, we are just as stuck in our ruts as ever.

None of this is to say that leaving a job is without risk. There are, of course, significant financial risks; there may be a gap before finding new paid employment, and the new chosen career may be less lucrative. But it is equally important to recognise the risk of not moving: after all, the chances of being 'let go' are much higher if you are just marking time.

And it's noticeable that we are prepared to take similar risks in other domains. Divorce, for example, is typically bad news financially, especially for women. But people are increasingly reluctant to stay in an unsatisfactory relationship simply for financial reasons. Why then do they stay in unsatisfactory jobs?

Of course, it's difficult to act alone; there is always much more safety in numbers. And with unemployment low, only a limited number of new jobs are available. But both these obstacles could be solved by acting collectively.

This year, rather than just agonising, let's see some action. I therefore formally declare Friday, 3 September 2004 to be National Resignation Day.

Millions of workers will hand in their notice at 9am, precipitating a revolution in the labour market in which we all demand jobs that feed our souls as well as filling our wallets.

Workers of the UK unite! You have nothing to lose but your gripes.

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