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The Great Resignation: Why are Americans quitting their jobs at record-high numbers?

While the economy struggles with more than 10 million job vacancies to fill, millions of workers are quitting their jobs. Why is this happening?

Workers currently have an unprecedented amount of power and are flexing it as they should.
Scott OlsonAFP

In August, 4.3 million US 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. The reasons for this remarkable number are numerous and complex but one thing is for certain; the pandemic has had a huge effect on how workers perceive themselves in the workplace

This huge number of resignations comes at a time of great labor unrest in the US. Nearly 100,000 workers are on strike in October, perhaps the grievances of the strikes point toward some of the reasons for the many resignations.

So why are so many people quitting the workplace?

The effect of the pandemic

The US is also experiencing its largest job vacancy crisis in its history with more than 10 million jobs being available. Businesses are having to be extremely competitive with workers due to how many jobs are available, giving workers unprecedented power with such an economic squeeze.

Another effect of the pandemic is worker exhaustion. With so many layoffs in the first three quarters of 2020 those that were left needed to plug the gaps. Covid-19 has put a good deal of frontline healthcare staff on the brink of total breakdown due to the shocking scenes present in hospitals. 62 percent of hospitals in the US are experiencing a nurse vacancy rate higher than 7.5 percent, according to a report.

So-called 'white collar' workers are being pushed to return to offices but many want to remain with the benefits of working from home with more flexible hours. The large number of vacancies mean these workers can leave businesses to pursue the opportunity to continue their pandemic era work habits elsewhere.

"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", said Adam Grant of the Wall Street Journal.

Much was said during the pandemic of the belief that the pandemic-style of work would continue. But these hopes have been since dashed, landlords are desperate for their revenue generator to resume giving them money by people simply working in offices. The evidence shows workers have had enough.

Changing relationship between workers and bosses

As a boss it is likely to be worrying to see so many staff members quit. But for workers it is very positive. Extra leverage allows workers to not be working for terrible pay or in poor conditions and forces bosses to meet the demands of workers to satisfy this.

The effect of bosses not backing workers is being played out right now in the US. 10,000 John Deere workers are on strike and have and are being joined by many other professions to protest about bad contracts. One of the largest of these was to be the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), whose 60,000 members were due to walk out in Hollywood, but bosses capitulated to worker demands for such simple things as lunch breaks and at least 10 hours break between shifts. For many so-called developed countries this level of worker rights is normal, but US businesses are finally getting pushback from workers.

While these workplace grievances exist alongside a perfect market for workers then resignations will continue. What the data doesn't show is how many people are resigning from work to rejoin the workforce in another place, but the poor job take up for September may show that it isn't happening. Time will tell how long the phenomenon will last.

While many are dubbing this phenomenon the 'great resignation', perhaps the 'great reassessment... of worker priorites' is more apt, though more cumbersome and not quite as catchy.