The Great Reset is coming
Wearing a checked shirt and with a neat apartment in the background, professor Anthony Klotz appears calm and confident as he gives another interview over Zoom. He’s an organisational psychologist and professor at Texas A & M University who studies employment. He coined the phrase ‘The Great Resignation’ in May 2021. Klotz said the Great Resignation describes how COVID-19 upended the centuries-old notion of what work is and how it should be done.
But the Great Resignation is about more than just people quitting their jobs, it’s about rebalancing the power relationship between the employer and the employee. And it’s about more than just the relationship between employer and employee, it’s part of a trend in re-examining the relationship between the individual and the collective in society.
When historians of the future look back on the early twenty-first century they’ll refer to it as the period where the individualism of the previous few centuries was challenged and reshaped society. How that’ll play out is anyone’s guess.
Those historians might read Wang Huning, a Chinese political theorist, who wrote about what he called ‘The American Crisis’ that arose from a focus on individualism. He observed that individualism leads to the destruction of social bonds and ultimately a nihilist sense of meaningless and disconnnectedness. He considers America to be based on individualism, hedonism and democracy and China based on collectivism, self-forgetfulness and authoritarianism. Opposite ends of the reshaping, perhaps.
The future historians might also consider the image of the cowboy in the old wild west and films like Rambo in the Reagan era to understand how American culture idealised the individual. But of course, not all individuals, only able-bodied, white, male individuals who demonstrate their individualism through conquering. Even if that kind of idealised individualism is horrible, the reality isn’t particularly pleasant either.
In our interconnected modern real life, individuals can’t be completely self-reliant. Devoid of social bonds with friends and family, they turned to the corporation for connection. Workplace culture replaced social life. Colleagues replaced friends. Pensions replaced having family to look after them in their old age. Company replaced family as what Aristotle called the ‘cell of society’s body’.
With the individual reliant on the organisation, the employer held the power. They could direct their employees to arrive at a particular place, on time, dressed a certain way, and following all the implicit rules of the workplace. This was what work looked like in many corporations all across the world as we entered the first couple of decades of the twenty-first century.
Juan Carlos Cubeiro, Head of Talent at Manpower Group and Mentor at the Human Age Institute, sees the change taking place. He says that, “in a world of same/same products and easy-to-replicate services, talent and people will become the most important aspect of business.” When organisations rely on the skills of people more than people rely on the organisation for a salary, then the power shifts in favour of the employee. This has been called the shift from capitalism (by which we mean the private ownership of the means of production) to talentism (the belief that having skills is more valuable than having money, especially in the form of capital). When people recognise this and the value of their skills, then it isn’t office jobs that are being reset, its the individual’s relationship with organisations that is being reset.
Huning noticed something else about the individualism of Western countries. He looked at how that individualistic spirit of wanting to conquer relied upon scientific and technological prowess. He concluded that many social and cultural problems tend to be thought of as scientific and technological problems.
This is the tech fix trap. We build technology to fix problems without seeing that it makes the problem worse. We build and use technology to bring us closer together but we don’t see how it separates others. Cars allow some people to visit relatives but roads divide neighbourhoods. Social media allows some people to connect with new friends but it amplifies the negativity and harassment directed at others. Video conferencing and virtual collaboration tools enabled some people to continue work when pandemic lockdowns disrupted the usual commuting pattern but it reduces the social connection others rely upon. Technology mediates so many of our connections with individuals and with organisations. It isn’t always the solution it may seem.
So, whether those future historians are looking at the shift in power between employer and employee or how individualism and collectivism differs between countries, or how technology affects the power shift, what they will surely notice that The Great Reset didn’t happen all at the same time for everyone. In fact, it happened slowest for those with the least power in society.