In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed commerce and business worldwide and changed the way we approach work. The economic ramifications still linger years later.
One major change that began later that year, as businesses reopened, was a mass migration of employees — either out of the workforce or toward new or better opportunities. This phenomenon has been referred to by many names, including the “big quit,” describing the number of people leaving their jobs, and the “great reshuffle,” calling to mind the notion of people repositioning themselves and refocusing their careers.
But perhaps the most-used moniker is the “great resignation,” referring to the millions of people who left their jobs for better opportunities or greener pastures — about 50 million in 2021 alone. The trend continues as of August 2022, with about 2.7% of workers in America quitting their jobs during that month, a number that rarely exceeded about 2% prior to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
As economists continue to study this trend and understand its implications, they’ve identified spinoff trends and topics in the wake of the great resignation, such as the “great regret,” the “great rethink,” the “great restructure,” and — bucking the naming convention — “quiet quitting.” Here’s a rundown of what this all means.
What is the great resignation?
For much of the past 15 years, the rate of people resigning from their jobs in a given month has hovered around 2%, according to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, that number dropped as low as about 1.2% — and in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of resignations dropped almost as low, hitting about 1.6% in April 2020.
However, as businesses reopened and seemed to stabilize around August of that year, resignations skyrocketed, surpassing 2% by August 2020, when a staggering 4.3 million Americans decided to quit their jobs, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. The trend continued for well over a year, hitting as high as 3% by November 2021 before finally starting an apparent downward trajectory. According to the BLS, the number has hovered around 2.7% or 2.8% for much of the latter half of 2022 — still well above the expected rate, but trending toward correction.
This period of a relatively high resignation rate was dubbed the “great resignation” by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at University College London.
Within this group were people abandoning the workforce for good, people who temporarily left the workforce to pursue training or education, and people who were dissatisfied with their jobs and hoping to find something better. For that last group, job security and competitive pay were at the top of their priority lists. Stepping away from the labor force, even if briefly, can give people time to reevaluate their work lives, contemplate the changes they want to make, and begin working toward their goals using further education and networking.
What has changed since the start of the great resignation?
It’s difficult to assess the full impact of a trend while it’s ongoing, as the great resignation is. Each month, the rate of employees quitting their jobs still exceeds what could be projected under typical economic conditions. Still, economists and analysts have recognized several trends and countertrends resulting from the reshuffling of workforce talent.
The grass isn’t always greener: What is the great regret?
About midway through 2022, surveyors and researchers began noticing a trend of people thinking twice after their decisions to quit their jobs and pursue new work. Studies showed that about 20% to 26% of people who quit during the peak months of the great resignation regretted doing so.
A Joblist.com survey of 15,000 people who left their jobs reported about 26% regretted the decision, citing reasons like unexpected difficulty of the new job, missing their former coworkers, and the new job or company culture not meeting expectations. About 3% of the people who said they regretted their decision said the higher pay wasn’t worth leaving their former jobs.
The great regret only represents a small portion of those who left their jobs during the first months of the great resignation; if only about one-quarter regrets the decision, then about three-quarters may still believe they made the right call for their circumstances. Other reports, such as that by the Washington Post’s Karla Miller, suggest that many of those who quit to find new opportunities are thriving and enjoying what their new workplaces have to offer.
Still, this trend means there are likely 10 million to 15 million people who, in retrospect, might have wanted to stay at their previous workplaces.
Going back: What is the great return?
Some believe the great regret may lead to the great return, with people hoping to get their old jobs back or find different roles at the companies they left.
Antoinette Boyd, director of career success for Maryville University, spoke to CNBC about this trend in August 2022. “They may find the grass is not greener,” she said, noting that many people found their new jobs to be less enjoyable or more stressful than their old ones.
Further, she noted that people who felt their growth hampered in their old jobs, after leaving, would see new benefits added at their previous workplaces, or new opportunities open that they could have pursued more easily if they had chosen to stay.
Evaluating your position: What is the great rethink?
Not as much a trend as a latent consideration amid the great resignation, some note that this time of change comes with the opportunity for employees to give heavy thought to their careers — what they like, what they don’t, and what they would want to change. The Harvard Business Review’s Ranjay Gulati dubbed this approach the “great rethink.”
Gulati saw friends of his considering pursuing new opportunities in their workplaces or elsewhere, then stopping to ask themselves why they were in that career to begin with. Some, Gulati writes, came to the realization that their careers were counter to their personal values or desires. He suggests that people can find more meaning, fulfillment, and enjoyment in their careers if they really take the time to rethink their positions.
The mindset of the great rethink offers professionals the chance to reevaluate what they really want from their careers, then figure out how to find something that better aligns with their goals. That might mean pursuing a college degree or certificate to upskill, reskill, or pivot entirely into a new career.
Not above or beyond: What is quiet quitting?
Quiet quitting, a phrase of hazy origin that arose on TikTok in 2022, is a more recent trend not directly related to the great resignation but stemming from many of the same concerns. This is a mindset popular among generation Z and younger millennials that eschews the “hustle” and “grind” culture that has become part of working life for many.
Like the great resignation, quiet quitting has its roots in disillusionment and dissatisfaction in the workplace. It involves employees feeling burned out, less engaged, and less motivated to work harder than they need to. Rather than going above and beyond their stated duties, workers who adopt the quiet quitting mindset are choosing to do only what is expected of them or outlined in their job descriptions and nothing more — no responding to emails over the weekend and no taking on extra projects or responsibilities, for example.
While the phrase “quiet quitting” is new, the concept isn’t, having been referred to by terms and phrases like “coasting” or “lying flat” before, according to CNBC. In fact, some have begun referring to the phenomenon as “roller coasting” or “acting our wage” to remove some of the stigma of the word “quitting” but still indicate that workers are making the choice to stick to their core duties and nothing more.
A focus on quality of work and quality of life following the great resignation
In the August 2021 edition of the Bankrate job seeker survey, more than half of respondents said they were likely to search for a new job in 2022. About 56% of people surveyed listed remote work and flexible hours as a priority. The survey further revealed that working women faced the extra burdens of juggling children and online schooling along with their careers.
During the pandemic, about 1 in 5 U.S. adults either suffered a loss of income or became unemployed, and many who remained employed initially did so as so-called “essential workers,” or employees whose roles were deemed too important to work from home or participate in lockdowns unless it was necessary. This group included healthcare workers, first responders, and service employees, and many in these groups felt added pressure or stress while working in potentially unsafe conditions.
As a direct result of some of these factors, many U.S. workers saw the reopening economy as an opportunity to begin prioritizing flexibility, higher pay, personal values, and greater security in their jobs. It’s no longer enough just to have a job — employees in a post-COVID-19 economy expect to be more valued, better compensated, and stable.
Not only that, but an additional effect the pandemic had on the workforce was to bring the notion of remote work into prominence, which can be seen as a quality-of-life improvement. Today, more than 40% of those in the labor market expect to have the option of working remotely at least one day per week.
Companies faced with hiring challenges
Even before the pandemic, employers in many industries faced a shortage of qualified workers to fill vital roles in their organizations. These were mostly higher-skill positions that required higher education or specialized training. In a post-COVID-19 world — owing in part to the demand for higher pay, better benefits, and improved quality of life — those shortages now extend across positions at all skill and educational levels.
Some of the industries most affected by the great resignation are food and customer service, construction and manufacturing, education and health services, professional and business services, trade, and transportation, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The field most affected is leisure and hospitality, which faced a relatively shocking 6.4% resignation rate as of September 2021 — more than twice the national average even at the peak of the great resignation — and still faces monthly resignation rates well above 5% as of August 2022.
Indicators like stock prices show that the economy is on the rebound from the lows of early 2020, but that doesn’t mean that all is well in the world of the workforce. Coronavirus still poses a threat not only to the well-being of individuals but also to that of the larger workforce. With new variants popping up and new COVID-19 cases still reaching well into the tens of thousands per day (as of October 2022), the pandemic could still pose a threat to the labor market as businesses are forced to meet any new challenges that arise.
As more and more workers have resigned, companies have found themselves understaffed. Coinciding with the millions who have quit their jobs, the number of unfilled positions is consequently also in the millions, as companies continue to fight increasingly difficult odds.
Reskilling for a job-seeker’s economy: Make the great resignation work for you
There are reportedly more than 10.1 million open jobs in the U.S., according to the BLS. That’s nearly two open positions for every person designated as unemployed. Many of these positions are in the service and hospitality sectors, but there are also lucrative, rewarding careers available in almost all industries.
If you are among the unemployed, or if you’re considering a pivot into a new or better career, the best time to act may be now. Updating your resume and maintaining open lines of communication with your professional network can be fruitful ways to make inroads and discover new opportunities. You may also consider earning your online degree or professional certificate to learn the skills you’ll need to succeed in your chosen profession.
At Maryville University, we offer 100% online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, along with certificate programs for high-growth and high-demand fields such as business and computer science. Want to learn more? Schedule a call with an advisor, and we can discuss how earning your education online and on your schedule can help you achieve your personal and professional goals.
BLS, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey
CNBC, “26% of job switchers regret joining the Great Resignation, survey finds: ‘They’ve sobered up’”
CNBC, “How ‘quiet quitting’ became the next phase of the Great Resignation”
Economic Policy Institute, “JOLTS”
Forbes, “Why The Big Quit Is Happening And Why Every Boss Should Embrace It”
Harvard Business Review, “The Great Resignation or the Great Rethink?”
Joblist.com, “Q2 2022 United States Job Market Report”
The Los Angeles Times, “Gen Z didn’t coin ‘quiet quitting’ — Gen X did”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 4. Quits levels and rates by industry and region, seasonally adjusted”
Washington Post, “Transcript: The Great Resignation with Molly M. Anderson, Anthony C. Klotz, PhD & Elaine Welteroth”
Washington Post, “‘Zero regrets.’ Six months after quitting, these workers are thriving.”