Last year, 48 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs—a record. For many, COVID-19 was the last straw. Chaotic work schedules, health risks, and economic insecurity turned jobs that had been merely dismal into ones that were truly shitty. The pandemic forced an overwhelmingly large number of workers to rethink their relationship with their employers. A substantial fraction decided to clean out their lockers and leave.
And for quite awhile, front-line employees have been getting the short end of the stick. While productivity among U.S. workers has increased by 61.8% over the past 40 years, the typical worker’s pay grew by a paltry 17.5%. Over the same period, CEOs’ pay grew by 940%. It’s no wonder employees are fed up. Even as the pandemic wanes, the Great Resignation is likely to roll on. A December survey by ResumeBuilder.com found that 23% of employees plan on quitting their job in 2022.
A professor at MIT, Zeynep Ton leads the Good Jobs Institute, and her book The Good Jobs Strategy is even more relevant now than its release date in 2014.
When we sat down with Ton, we started by asking her what, exactly, constitutes a “good” job. “A good job,” she says, “is one that lets you put food on the table, but also offers the conditions for engagement and motivation. We all want to do a good job, we want to have a sense of achievement, and we want people to recognize the good work we do. So, a good job meets basic needs, but also offers the conditions for high engagement and motivation by meeting higher needs.”
Ton’s definition is clear and high-minded, but what about the realities on the ground? The Brookings Institution estimates that there are 53 million Americans stuck in low-wage jobs. Is it realistic to think these jobs can be upgraded? “Yes,” Ton says—however, pay is where things should start. “Even in the same industry, we often see competitors providing very different jobs. In fact, pay differences between companies in the same industry tend to be even larger than across industries.”
Ton argues that when it comes to pay, many business are penny-wise but pound-foolish. They focus on minimizing wage costs rather than on maximizing the value added by employees. “Executives often ask whether front-line employees are worth $15 or $20 an hour, but the question is based on a faulty premise,” Ton says. “Psychologists talk about the attribution problem. We attribute a problem to an individual when the system’s at fault. Oftentimes, the wages are so low, and schedules are so problematic, that you operate with very high employee turnover and chronic under-staffing. Managers in these environments are constantly firefighting because people don’t show up, and they need to hire new people, and don’t have enough time, so they hire the wrong people, and have no time to train them.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of the video and editorial series The New Human Movement, which aims to highlight bold thinkers and doers who are reimagining work and leadership.
Gary Hamel is a business thinker, author, and educator. He is on the faculty of the London Business School and the Harvard Business Review Press best-selling book, Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them.
Michele Zanini is the cofounder of the Management Lab (MLab), where he helps organizations become more adaptable, innovative, and engaging places to work. He is the coauthor of Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them.