The Great Resignation: Why Millions Are Quitting Their Jobs

young troubled woman using laptop at home

WHAT IS THE GREAT RESIGNATION? WHY MILLIONS ARE QUITTING THEIR JOBS IN THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

Dubbed “the Great Resignation,” people are quitting their jobs in droves and it’s got employers spooked. Motivating these workers to ditch the suit, hang up their apron, and flip their last burger is a narrative that’s empowering workers to leave toxic and unfulfilling jobs in the pursuit of something more. And, at the other end of the stick, the threat of being understaffed is forcing some employers to take notice, with promises of improved wages and working environments as well as the return of remote working.

That’s the idea anyway.

The full picture is – as always – more nuanced than things first appear. What is the Great Resignation?

group of people using laptops
The Great Resignation | Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

WHAT IS THE GREAT RESIGNATION? THE NUMBERS.

According to a report by the research firm Visier which looked at voluntary departures from over 50 companies, around one in four of us has now left our job for greener pastures. And – much to the dismay of employers – this trend has continued since the start of the pandemic.

The quitting itself began in 2019 when a year of record turnover and a strong labor market led to 22% of employees handing in their resignations.

And while you’d think the insecurity and economic turmoil of the pandemic would lead to people clinging tightly to their 9-5, the data says otherwise.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) latest official report shows that the quit rate peaked in August of 2021 with a further 4.3 million American workers leaving their jobs. Not only was this the sixth consecutive month of unprecedented employee turnover, but it is the highest since the BLS began tracking the quit rate in 2000. This exodus was seen throughout 2021 and, with momentum building, is expected to continue into 2022 at least.

This sky-high employee turnover is being felt in almost all sectors with the retail, service, and hospitality industries feeling the Great Resignation’s effects most keenly, though the corporate world is not itself unaffected. Over in office-land, the stats indicate women tenured between 5-10 years are most likely to quit, with resignation rates particularly high amongst 40-45-year-olds.

Zooming out a little further, it’s still the younger generation choosing to up sticks and change path, with 20-25-year-olds showing the overall highest increase in resignations.

WHY ARE PEOPLE QUITTING THEIR JOBS?

With 7-8 million unemployed and over 10 million job openings, the conditions are perfect for workers to exert a little pressure on employers.

After many received their pink slips during the lockdowns of 2020 or were forced to return to the office and cease remote working, there is a general animosity in certain sectors towards employers resulting in a particularly feisty national mood. A large and growing swathe of the working population is burnt-out, fed up, and jaded.

The pandemic has, for better or for worse, forced us to stop for a while and take stock of our lives. Faced with a life-threatening event, death became the national topic of conversation, leading many of us to question our life’s trajectory. Daily death tickers ran across our screens, forcing us to reassess our choices and consider whether we’re entirely happy with our life. This has led millions, it seems, to reimagine their lives.

For psychologist Anthony Klotz, who coined the phrase “the Great Resignation,” the movement does not come as a shock. His research shows that many people were already ready to quit their job, with the pandemic acting as the push they needed.

Klotz argues that in most Western countries, our identity is tightly bound to our work. By experiencing a separation from our work, which the pandemic provided in various ways, we come to look at ourselves differently. Often, it seems, this results in an inability to reconcile our old job with our new sense of self.

That’s not to say money doesn’t come into it. A survey by Digital has found that the primary motivator for those choosing to quit their job was to look for something with better pay or benefits. This was followed closely by a desire to focus on health, find a job they were passionate about, and work from home indefinitely. The survey allowed respondents to select multiple answers, however, and it’s suggested that people had a broad array of reasons for handing in their notice.

The holdouts are considering their options too.

A survey by the Morning Consult for Prudential in mid-September discovered that nearly half of all full-time employed adults in the US are now actively looking for a new job or, at the very least, considering it. Of the already resigned, one-third of them quit to strike out on their own, choosing to start their own business rather than become someone else’s employee.

three people sitting beside table
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THE ANTI-WORK MOVEMENT

A repeating theme amongst the alumni of the Great Resigners is that the pandemic showed them exactly how vulnerable they are as an employee. Employees discovered that their job security went pretty much out the window when things hit the fan, not knowing one week to the next how long their role would remain or if they would be allowed to continue working from home.

Over the course of 2020 and early 2021, this naturally created a negative attitude towards some employers.

Perhaps the best place to get a taste of this resentment is the Reddit community /r/Anti-Work, which has come to reflect the general mood of the times. In 2019, the subreddit had just 13,000 subscribers, but over the course of the pandemic, it has blown up, sitting now with over a million members all venting their frustrations and sharing their resignation stories.

Sending the Anti-Work movement viral are the delicious screenshots of text interactions between employees and employers. The general theme is that of pressure to work unreasonable hours, come in on employee days off, and an expectation that they should be just grateful for their low-waged jobs.

Now finding itself in the top 10 subreddits by daily post count, the community has the air of a disjointed but powerful union collaborating to force better working conditions and expose bad employers.

The resignation texts have resonated particularly strongly with the internet, with comments almost universally celebrating the moral victories over unreasonable employer requests.

One conversation shows a boss berating an employee for using a stool during a 12-hour packing shift ending in a delicious backpedal by the unreasonable boss and a quit that will go down in history.

Another has a manager tell an employee whose father passed away the day before to “stop being a victim” and work an unarranged night shift. Justifiably, the employee conveys their feelings and resigns.

Look through the subreddit’s top posts, and you’ll see post titles such as:

Quit my job last night, it was nice to be home to make the kids breakfast and take them to school today! Off to hunt for a new opportunity, wish me luck 🙂

Never told a boss off like this. And it felt amazing.

This sub gave me the motivation to finally quit my abusive job. I may not have health insurance, but I feel so free.

CHANGE FOR THE BETTER?

If nothing else, the Anti-Work community movement normalizing the idea that it’s OK to expect more from your employer, even if your job is not considered high-skilled or important.

Combined with the pro-worker sentiment and economic conditions, the labor crunch is forcing employers to work harder to attract employees. This is already being seen in the service industry, where restaurants are having to forego the tip system and instead simply pay their waiting staff reliable and higher wages.

Prior to the labor crunch, most restaurants had been using the subminimum-wage tipping system. This system had been criticized for a while by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders and others who pushed the “Raise the Wage Act,” which ultimately failed to manifest. 

Nevertheless, employers are now being forced to listen as they scramble to attract workers and retain their existing staff. This is manifesting in retention bonuses, benefits that support workers’ professional and personal development and well-being, and perks such as permitting remote working. Ignore your employee’s qualms, and you may find yourself like McDonald’s who are now under constant threat of walkouts and protests by staff unhappy with the management of the workplaces, sometimes mid-shift,

The Great Resignation may well indicate the start of a new era in work, shifting away from drudgery and burnout towards a focus on employee well-being and appreciation. Some companies as Kickstarter, for example, have already begun trialing the 4-day workweek after a global campaign has begun expounding the benefits. With disgruntled workers sharing their walkouts on TikTok and other social platforms, the anti-work movement keeps finding fuel for its fire.

Elsewhere, in Portugal, measures have also come into effect to protect employees’ personal time. There, it has now become illegal for employers to call or message outside of work hours. And while this may lead to fewer posts on /r/Anti-Work from the Portuguese contingent, it’s certainly a welcome sign that employees are no longer on their back heels when it comes to rights.What this all represents is that people no longer want to settle for a lifestyle and job that doesn’t suit them. Whereas pre-2020, most would have perhaps stuck with their job and plowed on, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for not only the Great Resignation but the empowerment of employees believing they are worth more than their old pay-check would have them think.

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Sue Dhillon is an Indian American writer, journalist, and trainer.

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