What is “the Great Resignation”?


Jake Bruner '23, Writer

With the advent of COVID-19, firms across the United States have been experiencing an unprecedented number of employee resignations. A lack of worker protections during the COVID pandemic coupled with long-term wage stagnation and the rising cost of living, saw private-sector resignation rates soar to a record 3.4% (Bureau of Labor Statistics) in 2021. In increasingly stressful jobs, the number of resignations have reached more remarkable highs. For instance, in November, the accommodation and food services industry saw resignation rates reach nearly 7%, compared to only 1.7% of individuals in finance. This means that, in the month of November, a total of 4.5 million workers quit of their own volition, constituting 3.4% of all workers nationwide. So why does this matter? This movement, akin to a general strike, has led to widespread so-called “labor shortages” and industry disruptions as workers attempt to monumentally shift the power dynamics of the jobs market.

Experts hypothesize that COVID-19 isolations and quarantines sparked a culturally-pervasive reevaluation of individuals’ careers and long-term goals. Especially with the added flexibility of virtual work-from-home arrangements, employees were generally hesitant to return to stressful work environments, which, in cases, promote a toxic culture of always-on-the-clock availability and normalized over time. Given workers’ experience with unceremonious, unpredictable layoffs when the pandemic hit, many finally ascertained that their workplace did not value them as much as previously thought. Many argue this realization provokes a more aloof relationship with one’s workplace. On online forms, like the growing subreddit ‘r/antiwork/,’ workers discuss shared experiences of feeling patronized and mistreated in their jobs. From unreasonable asks to insultingly low pay, sharing experiences like these have contributed to perpetuating this cultural phenomenon. 

While this movement is sometimes characterized as a “labor shortage,” a more faithful representation views it through a lens of collective bargaining and an intentional cultural shift. In many ways, the Great Resignation questions much of America’s pro-business values. While the nationwide jobs market has precedently leaned toward corporate bargaining power, a more wary workforce could turn the tides in favor of worker bargaining. 

This didn’t come without a cost however since much of the movement was born of desperation on the behalf of an increasingly inhospitable economic environment. As work-from-home caused extreme inflation in the housing market, wages remained utterly stagnant—a trend (or lack thereof) that has been observed for much of the last decade. This divergence implicates that a minimum or low hourly wage can no longer suffice a basic living in many places across America; the pandemic may have merely been a cataclysm that facilitated other upheavals of the status quo. So as of yet, it seems there is no end in sight for the Great Resignation.