Where is Everybody?

By Greg Nathan posted August 5, 2022

If you run a business, a question you may be asking is “Where have all the people gone?” I’ve certainly been racking my brains as it doesn’t make sense that 20% of the workforce can simply vanish! Looking at the evidence, it seems there are three big drivers, separate from the often discussed reductions in immigration. I was aware of the first two, but the third was a surprise, especially as it involves me personally.

The Stress Epidemic

Let's start with COVID. My wife and I got it last week so it's fresh on my mind. The recent surge in cases has prevented significant numbers of people from attending work. But this still doesn’t explain the difficulty in finding and keeping staff, because COVID usually passes in a week or two.

When you consider the extra stress on business owners and their teams when they are consistently short-staffed, you can see why many people would start asking “Is this really worth it?” and decide to look at other options. So staff shortages are triggering staff shortages, which in turn is contributing to an epidemic of stress and anxiety.

Related to this, figures from Australia’s National Census reveal mental health issues are now the single most common form of chronic illness. Other studies indicate that, in the past 12 months, around a quarter of people in Australia, North America and the UK have experienced a significant mental disorder that has interfered with their ability to function in daily life.

Over the past two years, mental health agencies have also reported alarming increases in young people aged between 16 to 34 seeking help with anxiety and depression. Consider the implications of this for a tight workforce, particularly the willingness or capability of these young people to work in high-stress, interpersonally challenging jobs that do not pay all that well. Think health care, aged care, child care and hospitality.

According to the Mindshare Mental Health at Work Report, 50% of people who have recently left their jobs attribute this, at least in part, to their mental health. Again, this number is significantly higher in younger workers.

Quiet Quitting is also now a thing

The second reason for staff shortages is more subtle, and perhaps more insidious. It would appear there is a growing percentage of people who will now actively avoid doing work they believe may create feelings of stress or anxiety. And those who do have a job that they don't enjoy are increasingly digging in their heels in a form of passive-aggressive defiance. This has recently been referred to on social media as "quiet quitting", where you do the bare minimum to get by without getting sacked.

I personally find it a little sad that, for a growing number of people, the solution to not getting stressed at work is to mentally and emotionally check out. It seems to me that throwing the traditional work ethic out the window, without replacing it with something genuinely satisfying, will not just diminish our national productivity, it will also diminish our sense of meaning and purpose. Surely we can apply creative solutions to find a balance to working diligently, paying our fair share of taxes, enjoying our family life, and finding a level of personal growth and fulfilment. 

The case of the vanishing Boomers

The third reason for a lack of workers surprised me because I am part of the problem. Baby Boomers! There is compelling data that show retiring Boomers are a major contributor to the labour shortage with record numbers retiring. It appears that demographers have been predicting this for years, and that COVID has just hastened the trend.

In the USA, over 70% of people who have left the labour force during the pandemic (as opposed to just changing jobs), were over 55 years old. When you think about it, there are several reasons for this, especially when combined with the stress issues mentioned above.

Also, many Boomers are caring for aged parents at one end and grandkids at the other. Trying to balance this with full-time work has become a pressure for many, again raising the question “Do I want to continue doing this?”

Finally, having seen friends or colleagues fall sick, older business owners and leaders may revisit whether they want to continue working long hours under pressure, or whether they should make a change while they still have their health.

In a recent Harvard Business Review study 85% of business leaders reported their well-being had suffered as a result of pandemic-related challenges. Many have felt burdened and depleted managing angry customers, unreliable staff, marketplace uncertainty and supply chain challenges. Having to adapt to significant changes in technology is another pressure on older managers and franchisees.

So what's the answer?

Firstly I believe we all need to continue to explore how to create workplace cultures that are more satisfying and less stressful for everyone. A recent Australian study on What workers want ranked well-being support as the second most important benefit, just behind remuneration benefits. Interestingly, trendy workspaces were the lowest ranked benefit.

Secondly, we need to consider how to help Boomers retain their engagement and passion, or assist those who are ready for retirement with succession planning services and strategies. In franchising, this would involve helping them to exit their businesses in a financially and personally satisfying way, so a new generation of franchisees can enjoy the challenges and benefits of business ownership. Some networks are adopting a hybrid model enabling Boomers to retain equity while bringing in fresh, young business partners.

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