Why Are So Many People Quitting Their Jobs Now?

Why Are So Many People Quitting Their Jobs Now

By Julie Norwell

The number of job vacancies soared to 9.3 million in April. That’s 11% more job openings in April than the month before – and the highest number in 20 years. Although employment has yet to reach the pre-pandemic level in February 2020, it is clear that employer demand for workers is surging and the Covid-pummeled American labor market is springing back. Let’s explore why so many people are suddenly quitting their jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ published these numbers in the most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). A closer look at the government report, though, reveals a more interesting story: People are quitting their jobs in droves.

Wait, what?

That’s right. In addition to job openings, the JOLTS report measures hires, layoffs and discharges, and quits. While the number of hires remained little changed in April, the number of layoffs and discharges reached a record low. Meanwhile, the number of quits, that is, people who voluntarily left their jobs, climbed to 4 million. This is the highest level since the government began tracking these numbers in 2000.

In other words, even as employers are trying desperately to hire new employees and hang onto the ones they have, their employees are heading for the doors.

Why would workers quit when the economy is not even fully recovered?

It sounds a little crazy, but when you consider the big picture and historical trends, it starts to make perfect sense. Work just isn’t working for a lot of people anymore. And they see 2021 as a great time to find something that does.

A Rapidly Evolving Workplace Phenomenon

To be fair, work hasn’t been working for a lot of people for a long time. Bestselling author Tony Schwartz made that case 10 years ago with his book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. His based his on the work of a management consulting firm he founded in 2003 called The Energy Project. This firm helps organizations manage the threat of burnout and low employee engagement.

Since then, things have only gotten worse.

The past decade has ushered in endless new technologies to make our lives more efficient, but instead of freeing up our time, employers just try to squeeze more from workers. It’s taking a toll.

In 2018, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor on organizational behavior, wrote a book explaining how modern management harms employee health. Brigid Schulte, journalist and founding director of The Good Life Initiative at the New American Foundation, launched a podcast that digs into how modern American society is antithetical to living and working well.

In 2019 Jennifer Moss, an expert on burnout and author of two books on workplace well-being, called burnout an “epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon,” and the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as “an occupational phenomenon.”

In a recent article, What’s Wrong with the Way We Work?, historian and author Jill Lepore tackles a question in serious need of consideration: “Americans are told to give their all – time, labor, and passion – to their jobs. But do their jobs give enough back?”

Given the levels of people currently quitting their jobs, maybe not.

A Turnover Tsunami

When the global pandemic began, people who didn’t lose their jobs largely hung onto them like a man overboard clings to a life buoy (see chart). But now that the myriad pressures of a 16-month-long (and counting) pandemic are finally relenting, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that workers are headed for the doors.

Actually, a few people saw it coming.

“There is absolutely pent-up turnover demand in the U.S. workforce… [Voluntary turnover is] only going to increase,” said Danny Nelms, president of The Work Institute, in a March article boldly entitled “Turnover ‘Tsunami’ Expected Once Pandemic Ends.”

A white paper recently published by Achievers Workforce Institute, an employee recognition software company, seems equally prescient now. It contains the results of a February 2021 survey of 2,000 employed people in the U.S. and Canada, of which a jaw-dropping 52% said they intend to job hunt in 2021. That’s a 48% increase over 2020 and 2019 when 35% said they planned to change jobs. Add in respondents who said they are undecided about looking for a job and it totals two-thirds of North American employees who may be sending out resumes this year.

According to the report, the main reasons for job seeking are better compensation and benefits (35%) and better work-life balance (25%). In reality, though, it’s more complicated than that. Some workers feel completely disengaged from their company in a full remote setting. Other workers love working remotely and are prepared to quit if they are compelled to go back to an office. Some want more flexibility in when they do their work. Others feel unappreciated for the work they do. Still others are moved to pursue a specific purpose in life. And want to work for a company that aligns with that purpose.

All of them feel that the time is now ripe to find another job that suits them better.

Is Work Working for You?

Everyone has been acutely challenged for nearly two years. After an increasingly fast-paced, go-go work culture of the past two decades, it created a kind of crucible for many workers. That is driving them now to consider career changes and make employee demands that they may not have before.

“[W]e suspect that going through a crisis has highlighted company values and culture, causing employees to become more discerning about the type of organization they want to work for,” writes Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers Workforce Institute and author of the white paper.

There has never been a better time to consider what type of organization you want to work for and what you want from it.

How is your work-life balance? Are you happy with the geography? Is it flexible enough for your lifestyle? Are you challenged? Are you compensated enough? Do you feel fulfilled? In short, is work working for you?

We are at the dawn of a new normal, workers are in charge, and employers are listening. If work isn’t working for you, it’s time to change it.

Read next: The Post-Pandemic Employment Landscape is Shifting

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