From working low-wage yet “essential” jobs to changing responsibilities and conditions, layoffs, and much more, American workers have been asked to accept significant changes to their work lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, as demand for labor reaches peak levels, workers are taking back control by saying, “I quit,” in what is being called the Great Resignation. Despite uncertainty about the future caused by the pandemic, an unprecedented 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.
In response to a world changed by the pandemic, workers, especially those in low-wage and public-facing positions, are rethinking what they value in a job. With 10.4 million jobs open for only 7.4 million unemployed, it’s no surprise that people are looking to take advantage of a strong job market. However, the record-breaking number of resignations that we are seeing today can only be explained by a combination of potent influences.
To understand what’s motivating American workers to quit, we need to look at the changing job market and how workers’ values are changing. The pandemic has thrown these dynamics into a state of fluctuation, but understanding them is key to explaining the Great Resignation.
Whether you’re employed or an employer, understanding what factors are pushing people to quit their jobs can help you to navigate better through a job market that is rapidly evolving. So, let’s dive deep into the five factors fueling the Great Resignation.
#1 – A Desire for Flexibility and Working Remotely
Since the pandemic started, one of the most significant changes to many workers’ day-to-day lives has been the switch to working remotely. According to the Pew Research Center, as much as 71% of Americans have worked from home during the pandemic, and more than half of them want to keep it that way, even after the pandemic.
Americans have enjoyed the flexibility that comes from working remotely. And with the stresses that came with the pandemic, it’s little surprise that workers are reluctant to give up one of the few things to make their lives easier. This increased desire for flexibility could indicate that workers are looking for job opportunities that offer a better work-life balance and focus more on life outside their job.
A 2021 survey of 1,500 full-time employees in America shows that, of those actively looking for job opportunities, 79% say they want flexibility in when and where they work. 51% of responders even said they would be willing to pass up a 10%-20% raise in return for more flexibility. These figures suggest that flexibility is becoming more valuable than ever to workers, and it seems that many are willing to change jobs to get it.
#2 – An Expanded Pool Job Opportunities
While some look at working remotely and see a chance for a better work-life balance, others see a chance for new job opportunities. That was the case for Maven Nzeutem, a full-time student who found that the availability of remote internships dramatically widened her possibilities and eventually landed her a new job. I spoke with Nzeutem, and this is what she had to say about her experience.
“Before the pandemic, I had never considered remote work and would not have had the opportunity to find myself in these companies. My options in my mind were limited to New York, and if I wanted to consider being somewhere else for a job, it would mean leaving everything I know and love behind for the sake of a job.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced entire industries to move into working remotely, many workers found that they suddenly had the opportunity to apply to positions all over the country or even the world. The ability to work remotely increases the amount of competition for a job, but it also allows workers to find jobs that are better suited to their needs and skills.
But this wasn’t the only factor that led Nzeutem to land her new job. Here is what she had to say about how working remotely empowered her to manage her time better and take on new opportunities.
“I was hired as a full-time employee through one of my internships. If life was not remote, this might be impossible. If I had to factor in commute time from home to school to an office, the workload might have been impossible for me to manage.”
Workers who find themselves in similar situations might explain why those with the option of working remotely are changing jobs in what has become known as the Great Resignation.
#3 – Trauma from the Pandemic
Possibly the most crucial factor influencing the Great Resignation is the fact that workers are reevaluating their priorities. Experiencing the trauma of the pandemic is undoubtedly the most prominent factor driving this reevaluation.
Many Americans have experienced true hardships throughout the pandemic. Some have watched loved one’s struggle to breathe or battled with COVID-19 themselves. While others have struggled with financial security as they slipped through the cracks of America’s welfare system amid a crisis.
Having their lives turned upside down by the pandemic has prompted many Americans to change direction in life, and that often means changing jobs as well. Those who worked low-wage jobs and struggled with financial security during the pandemic are likely looking for better-paying job opportunities. Other workers are looking to prioritize their life outside of work.
#4 – Fear of Exposure to COVID-19
Another factor that has impacted the job market in America and contributed to the Great Resignation is workers’ fears about exposure to COVID-19. During the Great Resignation, the industries most affected have been public-facing industries like retail, healthcare, and leisure or hospitality.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, across all private industries, the quit rate was up to a historic high of 3.4% in September. But, the majority of quits have been in specific industries, like food service, which is seeing quit rates as high as 6.6% per month.
These high quit rates are affecting public-facing industries due to workers’ concern about jobs that expose them to COVID-19 and its numerous variants. Despite widespread access to vaccines, the pandemic continues to smolder on, putting those who can’t switch to working remotely at added risk.
#5 – Burnout
Burnout has been growing among American workers for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the problem. According to a survey from March, workers are reporting higher levels of burnout during the pandemic. 52% of responders said they are experiencing burnout, and 67% said the problem has gotten worse during the pandemic.
For many workers, the pandemic added new concerns and uncertainty to an already stressful work life. Businesses across the country have struggled to stay open, often putting more pressure on a reduced number of employees. Workers took on new risks, responsibilities, changing hours, and more. The pandemic also added new stresses for working parents when schools and daycares closed.
A recent Gallup poll shows that American workers are among the most stressed in the world. A portion of the record-breaking number of quits fueling the Great Resignation is likely the result of American workers reaching their breaking point and looking for less stressful job opportunities.
The pandemic also gave many workers a glimpse of what it could look like to take more time for life outside of work. For some, the pandemic slowed life down and allowed them to focus on family, hobbies, self-improvement, or simply take a break. These experiences seem to be changing the way Americans think about work.
Work is a part of many Americans’ sense of self-identity, and we define ourselves in part by our jobs and the work we do. But now, it seems that fewer Americans are enamored by the idea of dedicating themselves entirely to their work. Instead, workers are focusing on creating a healthier balance between their professional and personal lives, and they are willing to change jobs to get it.
How The Great Resignation Will Impact The Workforce
The Great Resignation is reshaping the American job market. Today, low-wage workers have more negotiating leverage than they have seen in a long time. For workers unhappy with their current situation, it might be a good time to look at what options they have in the rapidly evolving job market.
And for employers, it’s long past time to look at what you can do to meet the changing needs of today’s workers. Mitigating the factors on this list will only become increasingly important as the Great Resignation continues.
Throughout history, great crises have been the catalyst for unforeseen social changes. In times of war or pandemic, uncertainty about the future motivates us to reevaluate what’s essential.
It’s far too early to say what lasting changes to the social structure will come from the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But if the Great Resignation continues, one of the pandemics lasting legacies could be a change in our relationship with work.