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I’m a sucker for a good origin story. Anthony Klotz may have the best one going right now.
Klotz, a professor of management at Texas A&M and an expert on why people quit their jobs, was being interviewed by Bloomberg reporter Arianne Cohen early last year about how people could deftly walk away from their jobs during the pandemic. Here’s how he described what happened next to Adam Grant on his WorkLife podcast.
“I was sharing my research and mentioned that I think it's really valuable that she's doing this story, because I think there's going to be a great resignation in the US and the coming months.”
Boom! A meme, a consensus, and an era-defining phrase was born.
But is it right?
Last week the U.S. Labor Department released its monthly report on labor participation. What’s called the quit rate, the number of people who quit their jobs every month, reached an all-time high. In March, 4.5 million people quit their jobs. They weren’t laid off, furloughed, or fired; they voluntarily walked away. Multiply that figure times the number of months in the calendar, and that means 50 million people are now quitting their jobs every year. That’s a third of the workforce.
A great resignation, indeed.
Not so fast. That narrative is actually quite misleading.
The Labor Department has been monitoring this figure for years. When you pan out, it turns out that the quit rate has increased every year except one for the last two decades—and that year was following the Great Recession. After hitting a low of 1.5 million quitters a month in 2009, the number of monthly quitters rose to 2 million in 2012, 3 million in 2018, a record 3.5 million in 2019, 4 million in 2020, then four-and-a-half million this year.
Clearly, something is going on in work that’s never gone on before in work. What is that something is up for debate.
A number of consensus answers are emerging.
1. Personal Opportunity.
Pew released a study in March on why workers quit their jobs. The top two reasons: pay was too low and no opportunities for advancement. Both of these reasons were cited by two-thirds of workers. Not enough flexibility and benefits weren’t good also made the top six. Clearly, with unemployment at historic lows, many workers feel they can find better opportunities elsewhere.
2. Toxic Work Culture
The father-and-son researchers Donald and Charles Sull, along with Ben Zweig, released a study earlier this year in MIT Sloan Management Review in which they analyzed 34 million online employee profiles to identify people who left jobs in 2021. They found quitting to be highest among those in retail and management consulting, then otherwise evenly distributed among food, health care, travel, media, big pharma, and financial services.
As to why these people quit, money actually ranked 16th on the list of reasons. The top reason? Corporate culture. “A toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover,” the researchers write. “Our analysis found that the leading elements contributing to toxic cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior.”
3. Weaker Work Friendships
The research firm Gartner released a study last week showing that voluntary work turnover will jump nearly 20 percent this year compared to pre-pandemic levels. “New employee expectations, and the availability of hybrid arrangements, will continue to fuel the rise in attrition,” said Garner senior director Piers Hudson.
“Employees pick a place to work not just for rational reasons, like compensation or benefits, but emotional and social reasons, like, ‘That's where my friends are,’” Kropp told Axios. The new work-from-anywhere culture, besides weakening our attachment to the offices, also weakens around attachment to our work friends and, in turn, weakens our attachment to our employers.
But while all this research is sound—and all these explanations plausible—to me, they miss the larger point. As longtime readers of The Nonlinear Life know, I’ve spent the last four years collecting nearly 400 life stories of everyday Americans. Those numbers include more than 150 stories in the last year about people’s work lives.
The overarching headline from those stories is that people are wresting control of their lives back from external forces—whether those forces are parental expectations, societal pressures, or, yes, employer demands. We are reclaiming the right to write our own stories.
This change has not happened overnight. If anything, it’s been growing for decades, as the steady escalation in the quit rate shows. The number of job quitters won’t go up indefinitely; external circumstances make fluctuation almost inevitable and life, as this newsletter's name suggests, is nonlinear.
So while job resignations are indeed real. The great resignation, which suggests those resignations are the result of the pandemic, is a myth.
If anything, the trend toward finding work that is more meaningful and more suited to our individual needs is an endemic we can all embrace.
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