Workers aren’t scared of a recession—they’re still looking for a new job

The threat of a recession and even layoff news aren't keeping workers in their seats. They're still planning on seeking new jobs.
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The headlines may be filled with layoff news, but that’s not stopping many workers from job hunting. That continued momentum should give employers pause if they’re considering putting culture initiatives on hold. 

Nearly three-quarters of workers are planning to look for a new job in the next year, according to a new report from career development site The Muse that surveyed nearly 7,000 U.S. adults in February. That’s up from just 65% of job seekers in 2022, despite the fact that the U.S. has already passed the peak of the so-called Great Resignation

More than six in 10 (63%) workers report that “economic turbulence” will not deter them from seeking out new employment. More established workers were less prone to report fears of economic headwinds disrupting their plans compared to younger Gen Z workers, who may not have faced downturns in their careers yet. 

“All of these people are actively job searching right now,” Kathryn Minshew, CEO and cofounder of The Muse, tells Fortune. Even among those workers who are staying put until the economy improves, there’s many who will make a move as soon as they can, Minshew says. 

That may be bad news for employers looking to rein in budgets for benefits and corporate culture initiatives. There have been a number of discussions this year on whether employers are gaining back the upper hand. In an immediate sense, Minshew says, that’s probably true. 

“There are certainly a lot of employers who are able to hold on to people right now that they wouldn't hold on to in a boom economy, because job seekers are being more cautious,” Minshew says. “The balance of power has shifted slightly further away from employees and slightly closer to employers, as it does every time there is a recession or threatened to be one.” 

But long-term, that mindset is a bit “naive,” Minshew says. “There are still millions of people who are very aware of their market value and are looking to make the best possible choice.” And even more will be once some of the economic volatility eases. 

A good work-life balance, accessible benefits, and a solid workplace culture are still very much something that employers should be striving toward, even as budgets are reevaluated. In fact, The Muse’s survey found that work-life balance ranked as a higher priority than compensation for job seekers in every generation except for baby boomers. That factor is especially critical for Gen Z, with 60% prioritizing work-life balance and only 40% citing compensation as the most important factor in finding their next job. 

“There's a little bit of a short-sightedness to this sense [by employers] that we have the power—employees are getting laid off so we can pull back on our benefits, we can pull back on our commitments, we can pull back on a lot of the investments we were making,” Minshew says. “Many employers will not see the negative impacts of these decisions in the next few months, but, generally speaking, the preference hasn't gone away. It's just a short-term change.”

Additionally, corporate leaders should be careful about ratcheting up expectations and offering fewer amenities to workers right now. Minshew says she’s heard of leaders doing this as a strategy to push workers out the door without layoffs because they need to reduce labor costs. 

That’s a bad strategy, she says. “What often gets missed in that line of thinking is that your most talented workers are the most likely to be able to leave. Rather than making a hard, but necessary, intentional decision, and controlling who might have to leave your organization to keep costs in line, some companies are treating everyone poorly, leaving employee churn to chance,” Minshew says. 

That not only creates situations where employers are at risk of losing the people they may actually need most, but it could lead to elevated, long-term employee turnover across the board. People don't forget how you treated them, Minshew says. 

“The number one reason that people are looking to leave a current job is a toxic work culture,” she adds. Yet, there are still a lot of commonplace behaviors in corporate America that are pushing workers to look for new opportunities. And some leaders may not even realize that their actions could be causing some of this. 

In addition to corporate culture, flexibility is a major desire that makes up a big part of what workers consider a reasonable work-life balance. Yet that word can mean different things to various workers, Minshew says. Some may actually be looking for remote or hybrid work situations versus fully in-person mandates. They could also want to work part-time or simply have more accommodations around their daily work schedule. 

“There is sometimes an assumption when I say work-life balance to leaders and executives and older generations, that Gen Z doesn't want to work,” Minshew says. “Whereas when I talk about work-life balance with members of Gen Z and younger millennials, it often, for them, means more agency over when and how they work.” 

There are a lot of corporate leaders who feel like younger generations are not willing to put in the grind that they themselves did, Minshew says. But when looking at the recent layoffs, it’s perhaps not as surprising that some people may not be willing to go as above and beyond right now. 

There is, however, a huge difference between asking for flexibility and simply expecting to be able to do the bare minimum, Minshew notes. It’s actually risky to simply coast at work in a weak economic environment. “Employers are looking for places to cut costs, and employees who are putting in the bare minimum are more likely to be affected,” she adds. 

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