Reflecting on the Great Resignation One Year Later

In early 2021, employment experts across the nation started to notice a troubling new trend: a growing number of workers were quitting their jobs en masse.

As the months went on, the phenomenon — fueled by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — continued, with more and more workers resigning from jobs they previously appeared to have been happy with. Known as the “Big Quit,” the “Great Reshuffle” or the “Great Resignation,” the trend eventually culminated with millions of workers quitting their jobs, month after month. In June 2021, an estimated ​​3.9 million people left their jobs, and there was a peak of nearly 5 million in November of 2021.

These job resignations occurred across the country but were especially focused in the South and the Midwest. Most people were leaving jobs within the food, service, and retail industries, usually as a result of wage stagnation, the rising cost of living, growing pandemic fears, and long-lasting job dissatisfaction. However, corporate leaders were not immune to the desire to seek something new either as more than 100 CEOs left their posts in the first half of 2021, a more than 100% increase from the same time in 2020.

Now, one year later, the impact of the “Great Resignation” on corporate America and the American workforce is clear. A pair of new studies have come out to help shine further light on exactly what helped to bring about the phenomenon and why it happened. It also offers a hint on what can be learned from one of the most turbulent employment eras in recent history.

Who Really Left Their Jobs Last Year?

A recent study from Pew Research Center shows that the majority of people who quit their current employment as part of the Great Resignation in 2021 did it as a result of low wages, little opportunity for advancement and feelings of disrespect in the workplace.

Pew’s data comes from a February 2022 survey of 6,627 random, non-retired U.S. adults. That group included 965 men and women who said they left a job by choice last year.

Highlights of the research include:

  • In a tie, 63% of those who left their jobs cited either “low pay” or “no opportunity for advancement” as the primary reasons they quit their previous position. Immediately below that, 57% of those surveyed cited “feeling disrespected at work.” Rounding out the top five, 48% of individuals said childcare issues factored into their decision and 45% said inflexible schedules and lack of ability to choose the hours they worked led to their decision. Forty-three percent of those surveyed also claimed insufficient health benefits or lack of paid time off as factors for leaving their jobs.
  • 40% of those who quit their jobs in 2021 believed they were working too many hours.
  • 18% cited employer-mandated vaccine requirements.
  • Individuals without a college education were twice as likely as those with a four-year college degree to cite concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study also revealed differences in how race and ethnicity factored into the Great Resignation.

The study said non-white adults who quit their job in 2021 were more likely than white adults to cite a lack of flexibility, wanting to move to a different area, undesirable work hours or their employer requiring they get a COVID-19 shot as reasons for leaving.

Age also played a major role in who decided to quit their job and who didn’t, with younger adults being significantly more likely to make that decision than older adults. People under 30 were 20% more likely to take part in the Great Resignation than those between the ages of 30 and 49. People over the age of 50 were the least likely to quit their jobs last year.

Was the Decision Worth It?

For many people who left their jobs in 2021, the answer to whether they should have quit their job appears to be “no.” In fact, some are now saying that the Great Resignation of 2021 has led to the “Great Regret” of 2022.

In a survey of more than 2,500 Gen Z and millennial workers by employment research site The Muse, researchers found that 72% of individuals who had quit their job in the last year regret the decision and now feel a sense of “buyer’s remorse.” The survey found that many individuals felt their new place of employment didn’t offer the same working environment they had been promised during the interview process, didn’t provide the same benefits they had been expecting or was simply less fulfilling overall than their previous gig.

Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, has dubbed the feeling these individuals are experiencing as “shift shock.”

She said some people joined companies thinking they found their dream job, but there was a reality check for those people. Those looking for a job sometimes don’t ask the right questions during the interview process and sometimes recruiters misrepresent the role, leading people to be disappointed in their new positions, she told The Outsider.

“It’s this really damaging phenomenon where people are brand new in a role, and they suddenly realize it’s not at all as advertised,” she added.

While a remarkable 80% of those surveyed reported that they feel that it’s okay to leave a job after just a few months of employment, unhappiness with job changes because of The Great Resignation isn’t just affecting young people.

In Pew’s study of individuals who left their jobs in 2021, 22% of those surveyed from all age groups said that despite the country’s more than 11 million current job openings, they had yet to successfully find new employment. In fact, one in five of those surveyed said that their job search had been “very difficult.”

Another 45% reported that they were either earning the same money as before or less, meaning their change in employment was not a profitable decision. And 46% said their opportunities for advancement had not increased while 47% reported that they are having the same challenges, or even greater difficulties, balancing work and family responsibilities.

In a recent survey from invoicing company Skynova, researchers reported that a large portion of the Great Resignation had also been fueled by what they called “rage quitting,” a phenomenon triggered by either work stresses, interpersonal conflicts or overall unhappiness with the workplace environment. Like the individuals polled by The Muse and Pew, these individuals who quit their job in 2021 were also plagued with guilt and remorse over their split-second decisions to leave a job.

In this case, 78% of individuals who left their job tried to get their job back after leaving. And while some individuals did report a decrease in stress and improved mental health following their decision, 40% said their stress levels increased following their resignation and 20% said they felt their mental health had worsened because of their choice.

Lessons Learned

Quitting a job you are unhappy with and finding a new job can be a good life choice, but research shows that’s not been the universal experience for those who quit in 2021. One can end up in a new position they aren’t happy with, working for employers they don’t get along with, and they may be making less money with lower quality benefits, ultimately feeling even less satisfied by their work.

The takeaway? In a tight job market where it’s more vital than ever to keep high-performing employees, the Great Resignation has yielded some important lessons for employers when it comes to hiring and recruitment. Those lessons include focusing on the human aspects of work, helping employees find purpose in their work and recognizing and responding to employee burnout. On top of this, employees want better pay, better perks and better benefits.

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