If You're Confused About the Causes of the Great Resignation, You're Not Alone
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
“Overall, about one-in-five non-retired U.S. adults (19%) – including similar shares of men (18%) and women (20%) – say they quit a job at some point in 2021, meaning they left by choice and not because they were fired, laid off or because a temporary job had ended.”
Source: Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected, Pew Research Center, March 9, 2022
Even when all signs indicate to us that a career change is in order, it can still be tough to put the blinkers on and decide to turn down a road leading to an uncertain destination. Changing careers or even applying for a different job in the same field is one of the most stressful choices a person makes in their lifetime and gets more challenging as we advance in our years of employment, levels of status, and financial compensation.
We have all heard news reports about the Great Resignation and that an unprecedented number of people (47 million) quit their jobs in 2021, but the exact causes of this phenomenon remain somewhat murky. If you start reading articles that cite studies attempting to root out the reasons, you’ll find a laundry list of explanations – workers quitting because they desire more flexibility, mental health support, higher pay, better benefits, childcare, less stress – but many of the studies have contradictory findings or cite reasons that sound more like results than causes.
How Big a Factor was COVID-19 in the Great Resignation?
Investopedia.com, for instance, states, “The primary cause of the Great Resignation is likely intense competition for workers, as reflected in a high number of job vacancies and a lower unemployment rate.” While a low unemployment rate does embolden workers to look for work elsewhere if their current situation is falling short, it doesn’t explain the mass exodus of employees from secure jobs in nearly every sector. (That Investopedia quote, by the way, is the first thing that pops up at the top of the page when you google “Great,” “Resignation,” and “causes.”)
Meanwhile, a Pew Research study from March 2022 cites low pay, no opportunity for advancement, and disrespect as the top three reasons people quit in 2021. A study released at the same time by the Journal of Human Resource and Sustainability Studies revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic was the main cause of the Great Resignation citing five main subfactors of the pandemic as impetus for employees leaving their jobs to search for something new, finding that COVID:
1.) Gave employees more time to think about their careers and assess their priorities and option, spurring them to take steps to make change;
2.) Created fear of being infected by the COVID-19 virus;
3.) Contributed to employee stress, placing often unrealistic demands on employees forced to either serve as frontline workers with potentially dangerous consequences or work remotely and uproot their home lives while simultaneously (in many cases) caring for and schooling children. Most employees experienced rising stress levels as they attempted to navigate a deadly virus, upend their daily work routines, and maintain safe social distancing among friends and coworkers.
4.) Resulted in the rise of remote and hybrid work situations. Starting in March 2020, millions of professionals were forced to work from home, revealing the benefits of remote work, including more flexibility and work-life balance; reduced commute time and cost; more time spent with children, pets, and partners; and enhanced ability to respond to personal commitments and attend to self-care. When asked to return to office settings, many employees were reluctant to do so and quit due to unmet demands for remote or hybrid work options.
5.) Led to mandatory vaccination or weekly testing, resulting in the resignation of employees reluctant to acquire the COVID-19 vaccination even if required by their employer. (The Pew Study mentioned above found that only 8% of workers who quit in 2021 cited this as a major reason.)
Some Experts Believe the Great Resignation Had Little or Nothing to Do with COVID-19
While it may be valid that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred mass resignations, an article in the Harvard Business Review (The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic) by Joseph Fuller and William Kerr (professors at Harvard Business School) disputes this assertion. Fuller and Kerr claim that “what we are living through is not just short-term turbulence provoked by the pandemic but rather the continuation of a long-term trend.” They make their case with the graph to the right that shows that resignation rates were slowly on the rise until 2020 when the pandemic actually halted this increase. "In 2021, as stimulus checks were sent out and some of the uncertainty abated a record number of workers quit their jobs, creating the so-called Great Resignation,” Fuller and Kerr state, “But that number included many workers who might otherwise have quit in 2020 had there been no pandemic. We’re now back in line with the pre-pandemic trend, which is one that American employers are likely to be contending with for years to come.”
Fuller and Kerr believe five main factors have collectively contributes to the Great Resignation, which they have named the Five Rs: retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance:
“Workers are retiring in greater numbers but aren’t relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they’re making localized switches among industries, or reshuffling, rather than exiting the labor market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they’re demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs.”
The claim that retirement helped trigger the Great Resignation seems contradicted by the Pew Study, which found that among those surveyed, only 15% were over the age of 50, but Pew only surveyed workers who quit in 2021 and were still considered to be “non-retired workers.” Retirement wasn’t cited as a reason any of them quit, because the study wasn’t even considering retirement as a factor. This seems like a gross oversight, especially when you consider that 2.4 million of the 4.2 million people who left their jobs between March 2020 and July 2021 were retirees. Reasons range from concerns about COVID exposure risk to a desire to spend more time with family buoyed by an ability to retire due to spikes in residential home values and stock prices.
Among the Five Rs described by Fuller and Kerr, reconsideration is one of the largest factors contributing to the Great Resignation yet hardest to completely pin down. The Pew Study supports this conviction – of those non-retirement workers who quit a job at any point in 2021, the items listed below are the main reason why they did so. (The percentages do not add up to 100 since people were able to list multiple reasons they resigned.)
1. Low pay (major reason: 37%, minor reason: 26%)
2. No opportunities for advancement (major reason: 33%, minor reason: 30%)
3. Feeling disrespected at work (major reason: 35%, minor reason: 21%)
4. Child care issues 48% (among those with a child younger than 18 in the household) (major reason: 24%, minor reason: 24%)
5. Lack of flexibility (major reason: 24%, minor reason: 21%)
6. Inadequate Benefits (major reason: 23%, minor reason: 20%)
7. Relocation (major reason: 22%, minor reason: 13%)
8. Working too many hours (major reason: 20%, minor reason: 19%)
9. Working too few hours (major reason: 16%, minor reason: 14%)
10. COVID-19 vaccine requirement (major reason: 8%, minor reason: 10%)
Reconsideration covers many reasons but is arguably tied most closely among the choices in this list to six of the top eight: no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected at work, child care issues, lack of flexibility, inadequate benefits, and working too many hours. While low pay, relocation, working too few hours, and COVID-19 vaccine requirements are all things that might also qualify as reconsideration, they seem less tied to the burnout-related reasons Fuller and Kerr discuss in their article that caused people to reconsider their work situations. Because the demands of caregiving fall more heavily on female shoulders, one-third of women considered leaving the workforce, switching jobs, or cutting their work hours.
By the way, for those tempted to naysay the value of a college degree, the Pew Study bore interesting results. It revealed that among those who quit in 2021 (but didn’t retire), college graduates are more likely than those with less formal education to report that they’re now earning more and possess more opportunities for advancement. Counterintuitive to this revelation, the study also found that younger adults and those with lower incomes were more likely to quit.
What Can We Learn from the Great Resignation?
As someone willing to eagerly plunge down rabbit holes to try to understand the seemingly inexplicable, I admit that the Great Resignation data is vast and dizzying and appreciate the think tanks, academic journals, and universities willing to elucidate this phenomenon. When people ask me what I think the reasons are, I tend to tell them that COVID didn’t cause it but rather catalyzed it. I don’t possess the chops of a researcher, but I have worked with enough clients in career transition to notice that before COVID workplaces were falling short in responding to workers’ needs for flexibility, balance, mental health support, and child care accommodations, just to name a few factors.
When workers were suddenly forced in 2020 to shift to a work-from-home arrangement or (if frontline workers) put themselves in mortal danger, employees were understandably compelled to rethink their priorities. A surprisingly strong job market emboldened workers to demand more from employers and to leave companies unwilling to meet their needs. I admit that’s an over-simplification at best, but along with the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is a brighter future for workers who know their worth and are willing to hold out for more.
If it’s true that this time has caused most of us to reassess our work-life balance and start valuing self-care, time spent with loved ones, and a quality home life, I hope it is also a time to reflect on how we can create better work cultures. Maybe this mountain of Great Resignation data could be put to good use and create workplaces where people are not expected to sacrifice their personal needs in order to earn a living.
That's a lofty expectation, I know, and only time will tell if we succeed, but it starts with asking ourselves what we expect of work beyond a paycheck. This may seem like something only a privileged few can afford to ask themselves, but if that’s true, those same people of privilege are in a better position to shape the look and feel of work going forward. Leaders who tune into the emotional needs of their employees as much as they do their financial, intellectual, educational, and social needs will not only have less turnover – they will create workplaces with dazzling results.
Kristin Schuchman, MSW is a career counselor and author based in Portland, Oregon who works with creative and mission-driven professionals. She writes resumes and coaches individuals seeking support for career indecision, next steps, work re-entry, advancement, starting a business, and work-life-balance. She offers a free 30-minute Zoom or phone session and presently works with clients remotely. You can find her books The DIY Website Workbook and Jump Start: How to redirect a career that has stalled, lost direction or reached a crossroads on Amazon.