A historic 4.5 million workers willingly quit their jobs in November, up from a succession of records set month after month earlier in the year. Economists note that this is a strong sign of confidence in the United States job market, which is bouncing back after last year’s pandemic recession.
But of course, there’s more to be said about what it means for the state of today’s workforce. Why are workers quitting in droves, especially at a time when finances seem most dire?
While there’s no easy answer, a slew of factors could be at play. First, there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which is far from over: It dramatically worsened with the introduction of the super-contagious omicron variant, which had begun making waves in mid-November. The mutated virus officially reached U.S. shores on December 1, when the first confirmed case was identified, although that patient’s symptoms had emerged weeks earlier. Once the new variant made landfall, it spread fast, becoming the dominant strain within a few weeks.
And the effects of the virus seem to be among the foremost causes of workers quitting. Consider the results of a December survey conducted by the Census Bureau of roughly 100 million unemployed people:
- Nearly 3 million (3%) reported their reason for not working was because they were sick with COVID-19 symptoms or were caring for somebody who was sick.
- Another 5 million (5%) said they were caring for children not in school or daycare, which is a more common circumstance during pandemic lockdowns.
- And another 2.5 million (2.5%) were worried about catching COVID themselves.
Particularly vast swaths of resignations occurred in industries with great exposure to the pandemic, such as food and lodging, retail, and recreation.
But more curiously, nearly 5%, or 4.8 million people, simply said they “did not want to be employed at this time.” And, perhaps, the crux of the Great Resignation is found by reading between those lines. Those very industries that are driving the revolt employ some of the most disenfranchised workers, often offering minimum wage for toiling long hours of manual labor—and their employees are starting to wake up to their collective bargaining power. Last fall, worker strikes were in full swing, including a 10,000-strong strike at John Deere, which won workers a new contract with hefty pay raises in mid-November. Another headline-grabbing strike at Kellogg’s persisted through the month, finally securing victory in December.
Of course, there’s strength in numbers, and it’s worth noting that mid-November was also when the Labor Department reported record high job quits for September, capping a run of three straight months with record-breaking figures. The news circulated quickly online, accompanied by in-depth articles examining how workers were exhausted, fed up, and newly empowered. And as word of the revolution traveled, it likely inspired even more followers.