How Climate Change Is Fueling the Great Resignation

An increasing number of workers want to be at organizations that can change the world, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.


Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

In 2021, more than 40% of Americans lived in a county impacted by climate disasters and twice as many experienced a heat wave. Meanwhile, in November, the US Department of Labor reported that a record high of 4.5 million workers had left their jobs as part of The Great Resignation.

What’s the relationship between climate change and job change?

On the surface, not a whole lot.

Zety–a career website that helps people put together resumes–recently surveyed over 900 American workers to get to the bottom of the Great Resignation. When asked why they quit, the top four reasons were low salaries; limited career opportunities; not feeling valued by management; and relationships with colleagues.

This initial data explains why so many firms are using pay as a go-to strategy for driving down turnover. Not only are workers being offered higher salaries at competing organizations, but also their resignation letters are often being met with pay hikes and equity bonuses– monetary incentives to stay where they are.

While this satisfies employees’ number one complaint – that they aren’t getting paid enough – research shows that such pay hikes aren’t actually a long-term solution. According to a recent study from Cornell University, workers who accept counter offers tend to stick around for six to 24 months before leaving anyway, indicating there’s something far more than money motivating the workforce.

Look more closely at the Zety data, and you will see another layer to what employees really want. Not only do they want jobs where they can grow, feel appreciated and build bonds with coworkers, but when asked ‘what made the grass greener’ in other organizations, 75% said ‘more meaningful work.’

Considering the Great Resignation is being heavily driven by the younger workforce (56% of people aged 38 and younger had quit their job last year) the drive towards purpose may not come as a huge surprise. Afterall, it’s well known that Millennials and Generation Z have been quite vocal in the purpose movement – and that younger workers and consumers are often the ones speaking up on issues around sustainability.

Tracey Franklin, vice president of talent recruitment at Merck, put it this way: “What they want to hear about is how we’re solving cancer or what we are doing for river blindness. They believe they can actually change the world and want to work for a company who does change the world.”

This drive for change is evident in the many names The Great Resignation also goes by: "The Great Reimagination," "The Great Reset" and "The Great Realization," to name a few. These titles illuminate a major transition in how we understand the role of work in our lives. While inflation means everyone needs work that pays well, purpose and meaning are just as important to our livelihood.

What's more, the cost of zeroing in on salary hikes at the expense of addressing things like sustainability and global warming, is too much to pay over the long haul.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the cost of climate-related destruction averaged $98.6 billion per year over the past three years. Meanwhile, salary increases put some organizations at risk of going under.  Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global lead for People Cost Optimization says that while organizations might have the cash now, the hike in pay is also a sure fire way to drain an organization’s resources.

“You could be digging a hole that you won’t get out of for six or seven years,” he says.

It seems that more effective than luring employees with money would be for organizations to put their resources into tackling issues that have weight and meaning to the future of humanity.

The question isn’t just “How much more do we pay?” but “How to make purposeful change and meaningfully engage our employees in the process?”

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.