- Nearly 20 million Americans quit their jobs between April and August this year, and the trend seems to be accelerating.
- Now dubbed the Great Resignation, this employment exodus stems from workers’ desire to find more fulfillment in life and work.
- While quitting may benefit some, experts agree that smaller adjustments can have sanguine results, as well.
The Great Resignation is here. Between April and August of this year, nearly 20 million U.S. workers quit their jobs. September continued the trend with a record-breaking 4.4 million resignation letters handed in — and a seemingly commensurate number of Help Wanted signs hung from storefront windows. And the trend is going global.
Unlike 2020, these numbers don’t represent involuntary layoffs or people kicking off a pandemic-propelled retirement. These Americans are quitting voluntarily to seek more promising positions in a reanimated market and even more have considered giving notice.
But that name, the Great Resignation, doesn’t capture the tenor of the moment. As Kathryn Hymes notes in Wired, “names often employ analogies or metaphors from our past as a bridge to how we might grapple with the present.” And the great in Great Resignation evokes a sense of danger and emergency. Consider, Hymes asks us, history’s other chart-topping greats: the Great Famine, the Great War, the Great Depression, and, most recently, the Great Recession.
This go-around, the capital-G great certainly signals upheaval, especially for employers in certain industries. For workers, however, there’s an optimism that there’s something better out there, and after the turmoil of the last two years, they won’t settle for less than better.
The Great (and not-so-terrible) Resignation
Popular imagination reminisces on a golden age of American labor — when workers joined a company, worked there for 50 years, rose in the ranks, and were then put out to the swampy pastures of Florida. This, writes Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson, is a myth. (Except for the Florida bit.)
Americans regularly quit their jobs in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but that pace only began to slow in the ‘80s. Among a barrage of Reagan-era spending cuts, deregulation, and shifting corporate culture, American workers became devalued in the economy. As their purchasing power stymied, they shackled themselves to their jobs — even the BS ones — for affordable healthcare and a financial safety net. The era also intensified the cultural belief that today sees quitting as a sign for losers, unloyal job hoppers, or (worse!) millennials.
Given this history, Thompson sees the Great Resignation as a small return to form. With wages rising and jobs aplenty, he argues, this isn’t a great-and-terrible crisis but a resurgence of American workers recognizing their economic value and searching for equal compensation.
“Several years ago, I wrote that America had lost its ‘mojo,’ because its citizens were less likely to switch jobs, move to another state, or create new companies than they were 30 (or 100) years ago,” he writes. “Well, so much for all that. America’s mojo is back, baby (yeah).”
A likely culprit of this mojo rejuvenation is — what else? — the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Americans found their lives upended by shutdown measures. They were laid off. They became their children’s full-time teachers and part-time social outlets. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs struggled as their industries transformed amid ever-revolving kaleidoscopes of rules and mandates. All of which generated immense stress that eroded people’s well-being.
“This [pandemic] has been going on for so long, it’s affecting people mentally, physically,” Danny Nelms, president of the Work Institute, told the Wall Street Journal. “All those things are continuing to make people be reflective of their life and career and their jobs. Add to that over 10 million openings, and if I want to go do something different, it’s not terribly hard to do.”
Unsurprisingly, the industries most shook up during the pandemic — retail, health care, hospitality, and food services — are also the ones witnessing the largest migrations. And while retail and food services have always endured high turnover rates, the health care industry’s troubles seem tied to burnout and a lack of support.
If Americans had kept their jobs for security, the pandemic showed how dicey that supposed safe bet truly was, and for many, the shutdowns provided ample time to think things through.
A LinkedIn survey showed that workers are now prioritizing flexibility, work-life balance, and benefits more than salary. Various articles have suggested additional motivators to be dissatisfaction, a search for safer working environments, a desire for work that aligns with skills and values, and better pay. (No one said salary wasn’t important.)
As always with large-scale events, causes are complicated and intertwined. If worker mojo-venation is one origin for the Great Resignation, another is likely as simple as the recent economic upswing. After the drudgery of the previous years, workers may be resigning simply because they can.
As Martha Maznevski, a professor of organizational behavior at Western University, succinctly told the BBC: “You can only resign if you have a choice.”
Should you join the Great Resignation?
Answer: That depends. Yes, that may be a bit of a dodge, but it’s also the only acceptable response. Such a question can’t be answered in an article or through a multiple-choice quiz. It requires a deep analysis of what makes you satisfied at work, what you need to live a fulfilling life, whether your job meets those needs, and how you want to grow your career. No one can divine whether the stars have aligned in your favor for you.
Such an analysis requires you to interrogate all the tacit questions contained within “Should I quit?” Questions like:
- What is your financial situation?
- What are your family obligations?
- What values should your job align with?
- What job can you secure with your current resume?
- Do you need further education? Reskilling?
- What do you need to maintain your health and mental well-being?
- How do you want to challenge yourself?
- Are you looking to move up the career ladder? A lateral move to a new field?
- And many more that only you can devise.
Afterward, you should receive something more akin to a genetic sequence than a horoscope — a career plan that fits only you and not all the Capricorns born under the waning moons of Jupiter.
The anatomy of a do-over moment
There’s a problem with the question “Should I quit?” It takes all the threads of your career-life interrogation and weaves them toward a single binary action: to quit or not. While you may need a change, phrasing the question as such may limit your perceived options.
Another approach is to ponder whether you’ve reached what leadership speaker Jon Acuff calls a “do-over moment.” These are the times in life that demand a change, but before determining your response, you analyze the nature of that change.
Acuff’s taxonomy recognizes four such moments: jumps, ceilings, negative moments, and unexpected moments.
Note that those last two are involuntary. They happen outside your control, and you have to decide how to respond. If the restaurant you worked at closed during the pandemic, you encountered a negative moment. If a former coworker offers you an attractive new job because of the current labor shortage, that’s an unexpected moment.
Jumps, conversely, are voluntary changes. You choose to change your situation, and you do so. Those joining the Great Resignation are taking this leap.
So far, so straightforward. But things get wicked when considering ceilings. These do-over moments aren’t barriers to your progress. When you hit a ceiling, you need to make a jump, but you are voluntarily standing still. You are the barrier.
During his Big Think+ interview, Acuff offered signs that someone has hit a ceiling. The big three are: you dread going to work, your industry is leaving you behind, and you don’t feel challenged at work or there are no opportunities to grow. Other potential signs include perpetual procrastination, cultural disconnect, or the feeling that you’ve changed while your industry has not.
The danger of ceilings is that they feel beyond your control. But Acuff notes that isn’t necessarily the case:
Sometimes when you’re stuck, you have to ask, “Am I blaming other people right now? Am I blaming my boss? Am I blaming the economy? Am I blaming coworkers?” Is there a list of people that I’m saying, ‘You have the power, because you put me in this situation?’” If there is, you might have to have that hard conversation.
That conversation doesn’t have to be a solo venture. It should include partners, extended family, and trusted friends and coworkers. They can help you determine if you’ve hit a ceiling and need to make a voluntary jump to something new and exciting.
Considering the nature of your do-over moment may lead you to quit, but it may also reveal another path to securing the change you want. Either way, the Great Resignation can serve as such a catalyst.
For example, even in stable times, a company would rather keep a talented employee than train another. It’s more cost-effective. During a time of labor shortages and high turnover, that’s more true than ever. You may be able to negotiate to secure additional perks or benefits. If you’re looking for new challenges and areas to grow, try discussing how you can craft your job to better match your career goals. And if your company is experiencing departures, staying put may fast-track you to a promotion.
You should also be careful of falling for that mental trap that only big do-over moments matter. Think graduation, moving to a new city, earning a promotion, or starting your own business. As Acuff notes, life is full of small jump moments. Networking, taking a class, reading a book, seeking a mentor, joining a professional organization — these are the small decisions that become transformative over time.
“When you hit a ceiling, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can actually be a laboratory for you to get better. It can actually be the gym. Hitting a ceiling is leg day. Nobody likes leg day, but it’s your chance to separate yourself from all the other people that aren’t going to put in the work that aren’t going to develop the new skills,” Acuff said.
As such, maybe the Great Resignation label misses another important point. The lesson from this moment in history is not that people are quitting. It’s that they’ve decided to seize the moment and work for something better. Good enough is no longer good enough.
They want meaningful lives, work that is fulfilling, and the opportunity to strive for their passions. Whether that comes from a large do-over moment or a small change is irrelevant. Either way, we’ve entered the Great Affirmation.
Watch more of this expert on Big Think+
Our Big Think+ class with Jon Acuff, “Take Charge of Your Career,” explores how to navigate your career in the direction of a fulfilling, happy life.
- Recognize the 4 Do-Over Moments
- Navigate Your Do-Over Moments with a Career Savings Account
- Break Through a Ceiling
- Start Your Do-Over
- Essential Questions for Making a Wise Jump
- Make the Most of Opportunities and Bumps