The Great Resignation: Why Millions of Employees Are Calling It Quits
Whether you’re an employee thinking about joining in or an employer curious about what’s behind this trend, read on.
Since spring 2021, a curious phenomenon has been happening across America. Workers are quitting their jobs in droves, and there’s no sign that this trend is about to end.
Dubbed the “Great Resignation” by Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University, millions of employees are voluntarily resigning each month. Their reasons for quitting vary, but one thing is certain—the Great Resignation is having an impact on the U.S. labor market, as well as people’s lives.
Whether you’re an employee thinking about joining in and quitting your job or an employer curious about what’s behind this trend, read on.
Table of contents
- What Is the Great Resignation?
- Why Are Workers Quitting Their Jobs?
- Why the Great Resignation Is Really the Great Reshuffle
- How Can Employers Improve Employee Retention?
- Should You Quit Your Job?
- The Bottom Line
What Is the Great Resignation?
Also known as the “Big Quit,” the Great Resignation is an ongoing trend in which a large number of workers have voluntarily quit their jobs. It began in the U.S. in April 2021.
That month, a record 4 million Americans left their jobs. That number has held steady—all told, roughly 48 million people called it quits in 2021. That’s a record number of job-jumpers.
In the “before times,” fewer than 3 million Americans resigned from their jobs each month, on average.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the trend is holding. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 million employees quit their jobs in January 2022. That’s a quit rate of nearly 3%.
While some of the folks who quit are finding new jobs, others are deciding to stay out of the workforce altogether.
You may also have noticed that the start of the Great Resignation—spring 202—coincided with the one-year anniversary of the initial COVID lockdowns here in the United States. At that time, businesses were finally reopening and more people became eligible for vaccination doses.
Faced with the tough choice of staying home or going back to work, a lot of people chose the former.
Why Are Workers Quitting Their Jobs?
When the COVID pandemic first shut down the United States, a lot of people left the labor force involuntarily. In March and April 2020, more than 22 million workers were laid off due to businesses being forced to close.
In addition, at the time, many women decided to leave the workforce because, with schools and day-care centers closed, they needed to stay home to take care of their kids.
That trend of resignations started to snowball. And by the time businesses started reopening, a much broader swath of American employees decided they wanted to quit too.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center gave some valuable insight to why the Great Resignation is happening.
According to the survey of more than 9,000 people who quit in 2021:
- 63% said their pay was too low
- 63% said they saw no opportunities for advancement
- 57% said they felt disrespected at work
- 48% said they quit due to child-care issues
- 45% said they wanted more flexibility when it came to hours
- 43% said their benefits—such as health insurance and paid time off—were unsatisfactory
While some of the workers who have resigned have done so to drop out of the 9-to-5 grind and be part of the “Anti-Work Movement,” the majority have quit to find better jobs elsewhere.
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Why the Great Resignation Is Really the Great Reshuffle
The reasons workers cited as why they quit are nothing new. Historical data shows that employee turnover has tended to run high in the U.S. in recent years.
What is outstanding about the Great Resignation is that so many workers are quitting at the same time.
Some of it boils down to simple psychology—when a friend quits their job, it’s normal to start thinking how you could do the same. And when a co-worker quits, it’s not unusual to see others resign in short order—especially if working conditions are less than stellar.
After all, there’s strength in numbers.
In addition, having an empty spot on your resume during the COVID era doesn’t look so bad. Employment gaps used to send out a big red flag to potential bosses. Now many people have a “gap year” in their history thanks to COVID.
But the Great Resignation has also caused there to be a number of job openings in the labor market. That may be an understatement—in fact, we’re experiencing a labor shortage.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 11.3 million open jobs in the U.S. in January 2022. That’s only a slight decrease from the record number of open jobs in December, 11.4 million.
This labor shortage gives workers more bargaining power for better pay, better hours, and better benefits.
It appears to be working.
Quitting for a Better Job
According to the bureau, although 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in January, 6.5 million found new ones. Rather than dropping out of the labor force, people are changing jobs.
And according to Pew, 56% of workers who switched jobs in 2021 report that they now earn more money, have more growth opportunities, and enjoy more flexibility when it comes to their schedules.
Still, there are many folks who are unable—or unwilling—to re-enter the labor force, despite the many job openings. They mostly include workers in the health care, education, restaurant, retail, and hospitality industries—jobs that put them in the front lines whenever there’s a resurgence of COVID.
How Can Employers Improve Employee Retention?
So with millions of workers calling it quits, how can employers prevent—or solve—high turnover?
According to a new survey from Pew Research Center, most people who quit in 2021 did so because they wanted better pay. One of the most tried-and-true ways to attract and retain talent is by offering more money.
Let Employees Work from Home
If the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it’s that remote work is possible—and even better for some folks. By working from home, many parents were able to take care of their kids while schools and daycare centers were shut. (Remember that child-care issues were among the main reasons why people quit last year.)
Remote workers also save money on commuting costs like gasoline, train and bus fare, etc.
In addition, companies themselves can save money by allowing employees to work from home. After all, they don’t need to use as much electricity, heat, air conditioning, etc. Companies can even downsize to smaller main offices to save on rent and insurance.
Foster a Culture of Respect
A large percentage of employees who quit last year (57%) said they did so because they felt disrespected at work.
Don’t let your employees feel neglected. Get to know them as people, listen to their frustrations, and celebrate their achievements.
And show them respect by allowing them to do the jobs the way they know how to do them. Micromanagement is the worst and will have your employees considering a career change.
Focus on Professional Development
Offer your employees plenty of ways they can grow and develop at your company. A corporate culture that puts an emphasis on employee training and education is one that will attract and retain workers.
Give them clear paths to promotion, too—but don’t make them feel like they need to create an unhealthy work/life balance. The last thing you want on your watch is employee burnout.
Should You Quit Your Job?
So if you’re thinking about joining the Great Resignation and quitting your day job, should you?
I’m going to be totally honest with you. Don’t do it unless you have a plan, unless your job is actually costing you money—think child-care expenses—or unless your job is making you extremely miserable (but even then, you should probably have a plan too).
Unless your mental or physical health is at risk—I’ve known people who have been in both circumstances—give yourself a few months to prepare before you quit.
During that time, consider setting up a side hustle or part-time job that could make you enough money to live on. I’ve helped many friends find freelance gigs on sites like Fiverr that have allowed them to quit their full-time jobs and work from home (or wherever).
In addition, there’s no harm in finding another job while you’re still employed. Just be extra-careful not to do any job searches on your work computer, and don’t neglect your current job. After all, you’ll want your current employer to give you a good reference at some point!
Many people are leaving the labor force and counting on their savings to make ends meet. I don’t recommend this—you’re going to want your savings down the road for an emergency or even for retirement.
And definitely don’t quit your job and plan to live on credit cards until you get rehired!
The Bottom Line
I quit working full-time many years ago and switched to a freelance writing and editing career. It was the best decision I ever made. I love the financial freedom and flexibility of working on my own terms. And I make more money than I ever did in an office.
For one reason or another, the Great Resignation will continue. And as long as people are using it to find better, happier careers, I will cheer them on.