The Great Resignation is still happening—here are the underlying causes

November 19, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC

A record number of U.S. workers are quitting their jobs, as the COVID pandemic has caused many to rethink their work and career expectations. 

This “Great Resignation,” or “Great Reshuffle” as some call it, isn’t losing steam. About 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, a record high since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started recording this metric.

The number of LinkedIn users who have changed jobs this year was 50% more than in 2020, according to the company, up nearly 30% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Some of the people quitting are seeking out new opportunities in different, fast-growing sectors, but many are moving within their industry to find a better opportunity.

But what’s causing so many to walk out the door? Here’s a look at some of the biggest factors driving the sky-high quit levels.   

Timing is everything

The current disparity between job openings and number of employees hired is dramatic. In September, the U.S. had 10.4 million jobs open, according to the BLS. Employers hired about 6.5 million people, but 6.2 million workers left their jobs—essentially breaking even. And that’s even considering many employers bumped up minimum wages and increased benefits. 

“Employers are already raising wages. Why isn’t that enough to induce people?” says Guy Berger, LinkedIn’s principal economist.

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at The Wharton School, says it’s not just about the number of job openings, it’s about how rapidly they appeared and how demand for workers has continued. He thinks the speed at which the economy reopened after many businesses ground to a halt and laid off or furloughed employees during the early pandemic lockdowns has a big impact on the current situation. “

“Employers waited until absolutely the last minute. They waited until all their customers were back and then they tried to hire—and everybody else is trying to hire at the same time,” Cappelli says. “The jobless folks are coming back, they're just not coming back as fast as the employers want them.”

That means that now, many employees have options, and are more confident they can quit and find a new job

Quit rates typically jump when there are more open jobs, Cappelli says. And that’s happening now. But it’s also occurring at a time when lingering COVID fears and other constraints are holding back certain segments of the population from re-entering the workforce, making the squeeze even more dramatic. 

Burnout is rampant 

This year, several major companies such as Nike, LinkedIn, Bumble, and Hootsuite gave their employees paid weeklong breaks to recharge and relieve burnout symptoms. But that isn’t happening everywhere, so some employees are taking their own mental health breaks in the form of a resignation. 

Nearly nine out of 10 U.S. employees report they’ve experienced occupational burnout over the past year, according to a recent survey of 1,000 full-time employees by Visier, which specializes in employee analytics and workforce planning. More than a quarter, 27%, said they experience burnout all the time. 

Women and Black workers also tend to carry more burdens outside of work, and are more prone to exhaustion and burnout, according to the 2021 Workplace Culture report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a professional human resources membership association. About 76% of Black workers say they leave work feeling exhausted, compared to 54% of white workers. Similarly, 64% of women report exhaustion compared to 54% of men. 

This high level of burnout is not only contributing to quits, but it could be leading to a greater lag time between when an employee leaves one job and finds a new one. 

“Everyone’s been affected by the pandemic. Mental health challenges, anxiety, mood disorders, depression associated with the pandemic—I would not be surprised if they were playing a really meaningful role,” says Jason Furman, an economist and professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Finding the right opportunity 

Because employees have more job choice, there’s a greater premium being placed by workers on appreciation—and many times they’re seeking that in the form of compensation. 

Across all generations of workers, compensation was a leading driver of employees switching not only jobs, but industries, according to LinkedIn. Especially among millennials and Gen Z, 67% and 72%, respectively, cited it as the top reason. 

Yet while many employers have increased their minimum hourly wages and starting salaries, wage hikes have not been universal. National wage growth during the third quarter of 2021 only increased 2.7% year over year, according to the PayScale Index. Meanwhile, real wages, which factor in the effect of inflation, are actually down 0.5% year over year. 

Workplace culture and leadership is also playing a role in workers’ quitting. More than half, 53%, of workers who quit their job due to workplace culture say they left because of their manager, according to SHRM. 

In many cases, it’s more experienced workers who are rethinking their employment situation. 

Workers ages 20 to 25 increased their rate of resignations the most this year, according to Visier. That’s not completely surprising given this age group tends to move jobs more frequently and likely delayed career moves during the pandemic. But more surprising was the fact that workers ages 30 to 35, and 40 to 50, all increased their quit levels by over 38%, according to Visier. 

That means that many workers who quit are sitting on the sidelines waiting for more attractive opportunities, says Julia Pollak, ZipRecruiter’s labor economist. Only a third of job seekers say they feel pressured to accept the first offer, according to ZipRecruiter data. That means about two-thirds of Americans searching for a new job are taking the time to find the right match, Pollak notes. 

The pandemic threw everything into disarray, she adds—and that includes what the workplace looks and feels like. Some employers went remote and continue to offer remote opportunities, some instituted mask and vaccine mandates, some continued without making any substantial changes. 

“Companies have responded in very, very different ways, with some companies insisting that workers come back to the office full time, with others switching to a hybrid or remote model,” she says. “So workers are sorting themselves into the job conditions that they find most attractive.”

How companies roll out their health and safety procedures is playing a role in the reshuffle as well. Some workers, for example, are looking for workplaces that may be more lax about their workers' COVID vaccine status. Among all unvaccinated workers nationwide, about 37% say they would leave their job if their employer required COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment, according to the latest KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor published Oct. 28, 2021

Remote work opportunities are also popular these days. LinkedIn’s data finds that jobs offering remote work are getting 2.5 times the share of applications compared with those requiring on-site employees. 

“It's no longer the case that in order to move from one company to the competitor company that you need to uproot your whole family and move cities,” Pollak says. “​​You can now take a job at the other company, even if they're headquartered in a totally different place from the comfort of your bedroom where you've been working for the last year and a half anyway.”

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