Why American workers are quitting in record numbers

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The number of Americans quitting their jobs has hit record highs over the past several months in a phenomenon economists have been calling the “Great Resignation.” In August, 4.3 million U.S. workers — almost 3 percent of the entire American workforce — voluntarily left their positions, the highest number since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking “quits” in 2020.

Workers are quitting at high rates in every industry, but the trend has been especially pronounced for frontline businesses like restaurants, hotels, retail stores and health care providers. Recent quit rates are a stark contrast to early in the coronavirus pandemic, when the number of quits plummeted to the lowest levels in a decade, as COVID-related business closures put millions of Americans out of work.

The Great Resignation comes at a time when businesses across the country are struggling to find workers to fill open positions. There were 10.4 million job openings in August, down slightly from the record of 11.1 million openings the previous month.

Economists generally believe that relatively high quit rates are a signal of a healthy economy, since it suggests workers feel optimistic about their prospects and have leverage to improve their circumstances. In the short term, however, some worry that having so many companies unable to meet staffing needs could slow economic recovery and contribute to mounting supply chain issues.

Why there’s debate

Rather than offering one reason so many Americans are quitting their jobs, experts mostly believe the Great Resignation is the result of a variety of forces coming together. Something not on that list is employer vaccine mandates, which don’t appear to have caused a significant number of people to quit.

One of the most common explanations is that workers are simply burned-out. The high quit rates in customer-facing jobs and health care suggest that people in these fields have become exhausted after 18 months of extra hours, confrontations over COVID mitigation rules and fear of catching the virus. Many white-collar workers, on the other hand, may be eager to maintain some of the elements of pandemic-era work that benefitted them — like remote work and flexible hours — and willing to move on as their employers transition back to the office.

Others see the Great Resignation as the sign of a major shift in the power dynamic between workers and their employers. Labor Bureau data doesn’t track whether people quitting are finding another position, but record levels of job openings mean prospects for quitters have never been higher. While many have struggled financially during the pandemic, a large share of Americans have actually increased their savings — meaning they have more of a cushion to absorb a job transition. These factors mean workers have greater freedom to leave unsatisfying jobs to pursue something that suits them better.

On top of these short-term influences, some experts argue that the pandemic has had a more fundamental and lasting impact on Americans’ relationship with work. They argue that the human tragedy — and, in some cases, indifference from their employers — that workers have experienced over the past year and a half has led millions of people to deprioritize work in their lives.

What’s next

The big unanswered question about the Great Resignation is whether it’s a short-term phenomenon brought on by extreme circumstances or a more lasting shift in attitudes toward work. If it is in fact temporary, it’s possible there could be a correction in the near future that sees quits drop dramatically, some economists say.


Frontline workers are fed up

“Frontline workers in health care, child care, hospitality and food service industries, pushed to the brink of human endurance, decide that the grueling hours, inadequate pay, lack of balance and abuse by employers and clientele are no longer acceptable trade-offs for their mental and physical well-being.” — Karla L. Miller, Washington Post

Tough jobs became intolerable with the added stressors of the pandemic

“Covid-19 placed systemic problems in sharp relief. Workers were expected to show up every day and risk their health for far less than a living wage, without the support of child care or benefits. What was a raw deal before became, for many, untenable.” — Laura Entis, Vox

Lots of job openings mean it’s easy for workers to move on to something better

“People have options. And because they have options, their demands and their interests and their tolerance for things that are not aligned with their values on how they want to live their lives, they're going to leave and they're going to look for it elsewhere.” — Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School professor, to PBS NewsHour

The balance of power has shifted in workers’ favor

“For at least two generations, workers have been on their back heels. We are now seeing a labor market that is tight, and prospects are becoming increasingly clear that it’s going to remain tight. It’s now going to be a workers’ market, and they’re empowered. I think they are starting to flex their collective muscle.” — Mark Zandi, economist, to Time

The pandemic accelerated a generational shift in attitudes toward work

“The Great Resignation is not a mad dash away from the office; it’s the culmination of a long march toward freedom. More than a decade ago, psychologists documented a generational shift in the centrality of work in our lives. Millennials were more interested in jobs that provided leisure time and vacation time than Gen Xers and baby boomers. They were less concerned about net worth than net freedom.” — Adam Grant, Wall Street Journal

Many employers took their workers for granted during the COVID recession

“See, since forever, the conventional wisdom held that in downturns, the employer could get away with almost anything; employees needed work and so would be grateful merely to have a job — frills and niceties were 100 percent unnecessary. But the common thread that runs through virtually every motivation for the Great Resignation departures we are seeing is a decision to no longer accept the unacceptable.” — Phillip Kane, Inc.

The pandemic led millions to reevaluate their priorities

“We know that when human beings come into contact with death and illness in their lives, it causes them to take a step back and ask existential questions. Like, what gives me purpose and happiness in life, and does that match up with how I'm spending my [life] right now? So, in many cases, those reflections will lead to life pivots.” — Anthony Klotz, psychologist, to Business Insider

Pandemic relief programs have given many workers more financial freedom

“Thanks to several pandemic-relief checks, a rent moratorium, and student-loan forgiveness, everybody, particularly if they are young and have a low income, has more freedom to quit jobs they hate and hop to something else.” — Derek Thompson, Atlantic

Some of the current wave of quits is simply making up for last year’s low quit rate

“It’s also possible that many of these mid-level employees may have delayed transitioning out of their roles due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, meaning that the boost we’ve seen over the last several months could be the result of more than a year’s worth of pent-up resignations.” — Ian Cook, Harvard Business Review

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images