Opinion: Has 2021 been the dawn of a new 'Good Life'?
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At some point over the past 18 months of lockdowns, vaccines, grief and joy, who hasn’t considered, in one of many moments we’ve had to reflect on such matters, just how different life could be?
The pandemic has given millions of people an opportunity to consider what they want from life and work, resulting in huge numbers handing in their notice and seeking pastures new.
The phenomenon is not limited to the UK. According to US television network CNBC, almost 4 million American workers are leaving their current employers every month, a trend the network calls ‘The Great Resignation’.
Closer to home, long months of confinement to makeshift ‘offices’ in bedrooms, kitchens, or tucked under the stairs, have led to workers seeking a more palatable work-life balance.
The job side of this equation has rarely been more buoyant: between July and September, UK job vacancies reached a record 1.1 million. Though vacancy levels remain high and workers feel more comfortable leaving their jobs in favour of ones that align more closely with their priorities, there’s little prevailing sense that people are prepared to take the first job offer that comes along.
Indeed, in a development reminiscent of the popular 1970s sitcom, The Good Life, thousands are waving farewell to the corporate grind for good to live a simpler, less stressful life.
For those wishing to remain part of the workforce, career changes are now often accompanied by a move to another area or a different country.
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I have a friend in his 50s who in the summer moved with his wife to Ravenna on the Italian Adriatic where they’ve opened a language school. They’ve rented out their UK home, using the income to pay the rent on both their Italian apartment and small office in the centre of town.
Huge numbers have seen the pandemic hiatus as an opportunity to pursue entirely different careers. Occasionally, this has been out of necessity as the industries in which they previously worked have been decimated.
Stories abound of airline pilots applying to be delivery drivers and of dancers and actors moving into 9-5 occupations. Others have sought the perceived solace of writing, as the mountain of pandemic-related novels attest, while many folks have taken the opportunity to sell up and head for somewhere much warmer and sunnier – or they will, just as soon as enough people are vaccinated in the land to which they would prefer to move.
Although productivity in several industries has tumbled as a consequence, it would appear that most people have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home (WFH). Hours of unproductive commuting have been ditched; you can go to work in jeans and a t-shirt; there’s no requirement to shave every morning and provided you’re disciplined and are not scurrying to the kitchen every five minutes for a cup of tea and a chocolate Hobnob, WFH is considerably less stressful.
I believe one major reason why so many people are seeking change, be it of career or to where they wish to live, is attributable to the fact that most feel richer.
Unable to spend to the same degree as we did pre-lockdown, savings levels have soared at a time when property values have also risen, reaching record levels; a corresponding increase in stock market valuations has also played a significant part in what economists call the ‘wealth effect’.
Technically, the wealth effect occurs when assets we already own, such as shares or property, increase in value. When this happens we feel richer and, under normal circumstances, would ordinarily go out and spend our perceived wealth in shops, restaurants, bars, as well as on holidays, or a new kitchen, or a new car, for instance. Except we haven’t been able to do this for quite a while, unless we used the internet.
The pandemic prevented people from spending their ‘hidden wealth’ because most places remained closed, a situation which contributed to an even steadier rise in wealth levels.
Over a relatively short period, this development has increased the propensity for people to abandon stressful careers and accept lower salaries elsewhere in return for enjoying the flexibility of WFH or working less hours. Some people have walked away from work altogether, citing quality of life as their principle motivation.
No-one has ever experienced anything like the pandemic and its aftermath before, as life assumed an extraordinary stillness and quiet, perfect conditions for reflection and deliberation. How long will this period of contemplation and rumination will last is anyone’s guess - I just hope that those folks making a complete break from the job market have sufficient resources on which to live.