Quitting is just half the story: the truth behind the ‘Great Resignation’

2021 was the year of the “Great Resignation” – a year when workers quit their jobs at historic rates. According to some, the trend was driven by an economic and psychological shift as employers struggled – and often failed – to tempt anxious staff to return to industries that have too often treated workers as dispensable. The truth is more complicated.

It is accurate to say that many people have quit their jobs in 2021 – “quits”, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, hit an all-time high in September, with over 4.3 million people leaving their jobs, and was followed only by a modest reduction of that trend in October.

Quitting, most economists will tell you, is usually an expression of optimism. And yet, 2021’s quits happened against a larger economic picture that remains difficult to interpret with confidence. Pandemic-related cash from the government helped people weather the worst of Covid, but much of that cash is now gone. Unemployment rates have fallen sharply from their highs, and the labor force participation rates – the percentage of people in the workforce or looking for a job – are up, albeit modestly. All the while, inflation looms, and the Omicron variant looms larger.

Overall unemployment rate

Overall labor participation rate

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