The Great Resignation

What Is the Great Resignation?

The Great Resignation describes the higher-than-normal quit rate of American workers that began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the fall as vaccination eased the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the unemployment rate decreased, and job openings increased. Texas A&M University professor Anthony Klotz is credited by The Boston Globe with coining the term.

Key Takeaways

  • The biggest cause of the Great Resignation may be the sheer number of job openings combined with a lower unemployment rate.
  • Industries hit hard by the pandemic—such as accommodations, food service, leisure, and hospitality—have had the most job openings.
  • Many people have gained a clearer idea during the pandemic of what type of work environment they prefer and considered switching jobs if their current position doesn’t support their well-being.

Understanding the Great Resignation

Though each individual’s reasons for changing jobs or leaving the workforce are tied to their personal circumstances, here are some common themes and theories that became clear while researching this article:

  • Workers who would have resigned in 2020 delayed their decision until the job market improved.
  • Burnout caused people to seek more meaningful work with better work-life balance.
  • Employers demanded an unreasonable return to in-person work when remote work had proven effective.
  • Employer, customer, or client mistreatment during the pandemic pushed workers to leave at the first opportunity.
  • Pandemic experiences caused workers to reevaluate life priorities.
  • Low-wage workers now have opportunities to earn more by changing employers.
  • People want to live where they want instead of near their current job and are switching employers if necessary to gain that flexibility.
  • Fewer people are willing to work for a company that doesn’t align with their values.

People are also interested in changing jobs for more-traditional reasons, such as wanting better compensation and benefits or having a lack of advancement opportunities in their current job.

Staying home may have also changed some people’s perspectives on what is necessary and what is not. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau distinguished between work efforts that were required to live and those that were “voluntary,” needed not to live but to keep up with the Joneses. As writer Cal Newport put it in The New Yorker, “It’s hard to account for the cost of voluntary work if you’re tangled in a cultural context where everyone is getting and spending.”

Resignation Trends

Harvard economist Jason Furman told Slate’s Jordan Weissmann in June 2021 that the number of people leaving their jobs was in line with expectations given the number of job openings, suggesting that the sheer volume of opportunities could be driving resignations. In December 2021, more than 4.3 million people quit their jobs (down slightly from a record of 4.5 million in November 2021), while less than 1.2 million were discharged or laid off. There were 10.9 million job openings on the last business day of December.

Percent of Workers Who Quit Their Jobs, All Industries and Regions
 Year  Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
2021  2.4 2.5 2.8 2.5 2.7 2.7 2.9 3.0 2.8 3.0 2.9
2020   2.2 1.9 1.6 1.7 1.9 2.3 2.1 2.3 2.4 2.3 2.4
2019   2.4 2.3 2.3 2.3 2.3 2.4 2.4 2.3 2.3 2.3 2.3

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The industries with the highest resignation rate in December 2021 were accommodation and food services (6.0%) and retail trade (4.9%). Accommodation and food services was also the industry with the highest job openings rate at 10.2%. Health care and social assistance was the second highest, with an openings rate of 8.4%.

Job Openings as a Percent of Total Jobs Plus Openings, All Industries and Regions
 Year  June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
 2021  6.5 7.0 6.7 6.7 6.9 6.8 6.8

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Resignation Intentions

A Bankrate survey conducted in late July 2021 found that 55% of Americans who are employed or looking for a job said they were likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months. In particular, 77% of Gen Z'ers and 63% of millennials were planning to job hunt, and 72% of those who earn less than $30,000 per year were planning to seek new employment. Black and Hispanic Americans were also particularly interested in getting new jobs. Older workers and those earning more than $80,000 per year were less likely to say they would be job searching.

A Microsoft survey conducted in January 2021 found that globally more than 40% of workers were likely to consider leaving their current employer in the next year. A Prudential survey in late May found that 48% of workers were rethinking what type of job they want. Nevertheless, it’s one thing to contemplate a job change when answering a survey and another thing to actually do it.


How Can Companies Prevent Employees From Leaving During the Great Resignation?

Klotz says that companies can retain employees who are burned out by giving them a break and more support. Experts say they can offer employees more accommodating work arrangements, including remote work, hybrid work, and flexible schedules. And they can listen to what employees say they want and need instead of making tone-deaf, top-down decisions.

What Are the Signs of Burnout at Work?

Burnout looks different in different lines of work. A burned-out respiratory therapist or veterinary technician has experienced a level of trauma at work that a typical office employee has not. Still, in general, some common symptoms include exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of ineffectiveness. Workplace conditions—such as routine exposure to COVID-19, understaffing, insufficient time off, and emotional abuse—have contributed to burnout during the pandemic.

Is the Great Resignation Just a Great Exaggeration?

Resignation rates have been trending upward since hitting a low of 1.2% in August and September of 2009. They plummeted to a low of 1.6%, not seen since June 2013, in April 2020. The Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking the quit rate in 2000.

Article Sources

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  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "New COVID-19 Cases and Hospitalizations Among Adults."

  4. The Boston Globe. "'The Great Resignation' is Looming: Why People are Quitting Their Jobs Post-Pandemic."

  5. Robert Half Talent Solutions. "Robert Half Research Points to Job Optimism Among Canadian Workers."

  6. Prudential. "Shifting Worker Expectations Guide the Coming Talent Migration."

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  10. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey."

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  14. Bankrate. "Survey: 55% Expecting to Search for a New Job over the Next 12 Months."

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  18. The New Republic. "Burnout Syndrome is Real but Exaggerated in America."