The past year brought on a massive reckoning that has become a catalyst for many workers to reevaluate their lives, especially their careers. If the person reading this hasn’t recently quit or switched jobs, chances are they know someone who has.
Though reasons for quitting jobs are infinite, varying by demographic and industry, the recent anomaly is attributed to the pandemic’s effects on the working class over the last two years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a record-breaking 4.3 million people that quit their jobs in August 2021. According to their latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, the number of people quitting has since declined by 4.7%, but these numbers are still 24% higher than this time last year.
Consequently, the number of job openings is on the verge of breaking record highs. With over 11.3 million opportunities available, employers are scrambling to fill vacant positions. From service to business industries, all workforce sectors have been feeling the void caused by the lack of personnel.
Organizational psychologist and A&M professor Anthony Klotz first started referring to the phenomenon as “the Great Resignation” during an interview with Bloomberg. At the time, it was a prediction of what was to come. Sure enough, his prediction came true, and many held on to this name as it aligned with the unprecedented statistics The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was reporting.
Many don’t agree with the “resignation” part of the name, given the complexity of what all of this represents. In trying to grapple with the seismic changes observed in the behavior of the working-class, the unprecedented nature of it all has many experts scratching their heads. However, even though they still haven’t concurred on what to officially call this phenomenon, there is a general consensus about the fundamental reasons why this is all happening.
Why is the ‘Great Resignation’ happening now?
The COVID-19 pandemic obligated businesses to make drastic moves for survival like furloughing employees or downsizing altogether. Likewise, many workers within service industries had to make the call of putting their health first. These are some more obvious reasons that have forced people into these unprecedented, mass-exit statistics.
However, one of the biggest factors that have motivated people to take the leap and quit their jobs has been to seek a better quality of life. While before that merely meant pursuing the American Dream to achieve growth, stability, and success, it has now taken on much more nuanced and crucial significance.
Though it has inevitably caused people of all classes, wages, and industries to reevaluate their purpose within their careers, this rings particularly true for those within the business and service industries. The pandemic has forced many of these populations to look inward and examine whether or not what they are doing is fulfilling enough for the long term. It has also meant being more critical of how companies treat their employees and when enough is enough.
The average person spends about 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. When you put it into perspective, that’s about a third of a person’s life spent with coworkers and supervisors and abiding by the values set forth by an employer. In many cases, so much of this time is spent dealing with leaders that lack empathy, in environments that don’t truly invest in any kind of development or generally tolerating office and workplace politics. From micromanaging to unrealistic expectations, these factors lead to unhappy teams, low morale, and shattering burnout.
For those in the service industry, it’s been a harsher kind of struggle. Customers have become more demanding and less patient. Besides the fact that they are more exposed to the health risks of the COVID-19 virus and its variants, restaurant workers are getting fewer tips, angry passengers are berating flight attendants, and nurses struggle with difficult patients—just to name a few. This might be a potential reason why these industries are suffering from a lack of personnel the most.
To get a glimpse into how difficult the situation is: studies have shown that female tipped workers were more likely to be in poverty. During the pandemic, tipping overall had decreased while harassment had increased.
On top of all of this, understaffed teams mean more pressure on those that have stayed within their companies and roles—longer hours, tighter deadlines, and increased expectations to make up for the lack of help. Teams of four are expected to do the work of eight with no end in sight, and it becomes an endless cycle.
Consequently, the labor shortage forces companies to look inward as much as their employees are. To increase retention and reduce turnover rates, they are going the extra mile to ensure the livelihood of their employees and relying on new practices in order to make the necessary changes to survive.
The Evolution of the American Dream
In a nation known for people who live to work rather than work to live, it’s eye-opening to witness the country redefine what the American Dream can mean. What once was the pursuit of stability, a healthy family, and a promising future through hard work and determination has now shifted into an entirely different paradigm.
On the one hand, the American Dream for many means accumulating enough wealth to retire without worries or debt. On the other hand, it means scrambling for survival as well as environments that will value you and see your worth as a person.
Journalist Kurt Eichenwald said it best in a thread of tweets explaining that “‘The Great Resignation’ is not about people not wanting to work. It is about a dawning recognition that, for a larger and larger portion of this country, the American dream is dead, and with it, the inspiration of working toward a better future for oneself.”
Unfortunately, economic disparities have forced many to stay within these difficult situations because they have no other choice. For others, however, this reckoning and period of reflection have given others a certain sense of freedom to adjust their paths, start new ventures, switch careers, and seek better opportunities.