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The Forecast: Work after the Great Resignation

For American workers, quitting has never been more popular. What are the long-term effects?

This story was published on our The Forecast newsletter, A look at emerging industries and trends around the corner.
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For American workers, it’s never been more appealing to quit their job.

Employees have no shortage of reasons to be unhappy at work, whether it’s burnout after 18 months on Zoom, childcare issues, back-to-the-office mandates, or just run-of-the-mill bad management, and they are realizing they don’t have to settle. For the first time in decades, workers feel empowered to get what they want from the company they work for.

In the short term, the great resignation is having uneven effects on industries, some of which are seeing more people calling it quits than others. More than 15 million workers have left their jobs since April 2021, and the quits rate (the number of people quitting as a percentage of total employment) is hovering around the highest level in at least a decade.

A chart of the quits rate as a percentage of total employment for US jobs

But what about the long term? Will the pendulum of power swing back in employers’ favor, and if it does, what effects might employees still feel from this period? Might the great resignation be a precursor to the great reshuffling, a restructuring of the labor market that could perhaps lead to a better allocation of workers, and ultimately be good for the economy?

By the digits

3.9 million: Americans who quit their jobs in June 2021

1.3%: Quits rate in 2009 after the Great Recession, down from 2% in 2008

40%: Respondents to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index who said they were considering leaving their employer

15%: Typical voluntary churn rate at US companies in 2018

1 in 5: Healthcare workers who said they have at least moderately considered quitting because of Covid-19 stress

71%: Share of Gen-Zers who said they’d consider quitting if they couldn’t bring their pet to the office when it reopens

Better pay + benefits

While economists can’t get inside each person’s head to figure out exactly why workers are quitting, Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, told Quartz earlier this month that she suspects the increase in Covid caseloads is likely driving some people to the sidelines of the job market. Some workers are probably leaving jobs that aren’t the best fit for them, perhaps to find one that better suits their skills, pays more, or has better health standards. There are also signs that a shortage of childcare could be pushing some, mainly women, to leave their jobs to stay home with their children.

Gould says there are three main ways employers can get workers back on the payroll:.

  • Offering higher wages, benefits, and predictable schedules.
  • Providing more on-the-job training to ease a long-running mismatch between the skills people have and the skills employers need.
  • Considering candidates they might have discarded previously because of their lack of credentials or other requirements.

More robots

As companies struggle to find workers, they’re adding more robots and automation. Here’s a look at how and where they are showing up:

They are replacing tasks, not jobs… For instance, instead of multiple cycling instructors teaching classes of 20, a single Peloton instructor can hold a class of thousands. Meanwhile, at restaurants, tech tools like kiosks can automate reservations or provide menus—freeing up workers to deliver a better experience to customers. “That’s not necessarily what people think about in terms of robots taking jobs, but it shows that technology can expand to the scale and reach of individual workers,” says Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor, a jobs site. That said, the efficiencies created by automation will likely lead to fewer positions overall. But those that remain will pay more money, he adds.

…at small companies, too… The pandemic is expanding the use of robots beyond huge companies like Amazon and Walmart. Robots are getting cheaper and more efficient, says Lior Elazary, CEO at inVia Robotics, a robotics company whose revenue surged 600% in 2020. But are they cheaper than human labor now? “It depends,” the CEO says. A robot used to move electronics will be more expensive than one moving dollar-store items, for instance.

…but they’re staying behind the scenes. While robots are multiplying in warehouses, don’t expect to see them when walking into a shop, says Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail, a market research firm. Even in warehouses, humans are still needed to grab certain items off the shelves. And robots and humans would get in each others’ way in stores. “You will not see a robot scuttling around,” says Saunders.

The rise of “career skeptics”

One enduring legacy of the great resignation may turn out to be the way this moment is popularizing “career skepticism”—a term coined by Charlie Warzel, coauthor of a forthcoming book about remote work.

Career skeptics understand the reality that most people have to work to pay the bills. What they object to is the idea that their jobs should play a central role in their lives and identities, and the expectation they should exhaust themselves in the effort to get ahead. As Warzel writes in his newsletter: “What’s profound about the career rejectionists is that their guiding questions are simple. What if work didn’t make you feel awful? What would life be like if we didn’t live to work?”

Many of the people quitting their jobs right now seem to be acting upon such considerations, seeking out work that fits into the rest of their lives, not the other way around. Looking for a job with more flexibility tops the list of reasons Americans cite for looking for a new role in one recent Bankrate survey, while burnout emerged as the most common reason for job-hunting in a June survey from Monster.com. “There have been a lot of epiphanies and reckonings that have occurred during the time with respect with how we’re prioritizing ultimately our values, and of course how work fits into that,” Bankrate’s senior economic analyst Mark Hamrick told CNBC.

To be sure, some people will continue to prioritize their careers. But the great resignation may turn out to be a cultural turning point not unlike Occupy Wall Street, the post-financial-crisis grassroots movement that ultimately raised the prominence of income inequality in the popular consciousness.

Already, career skepticism is proving to be a global phenomenon. For example, in China, the lying-flat movement is taking off as a form of rebellion against the government’s expectation of constant hard work and industriousness. And in the long term, members of Gen Z, who have entered the workforce at a time when many companies are struggling to create a remote-work culture that makes people feel connected to their jobs, may well find the proposition of putting their employers’ needs ahead of their own to be altogether baffling. The pandemic has given lots of people a taste of what it’s like to treat your job as just a job—and it turns out, they like it.

Sound off

Which impact of the great resignation do you think is most likely?

Better pay/benefits

More automation

Life taking precedence over work

None of the above

In last week’s poll about China’s unicorns, 42% of respondents said we’ll likely see fewer unicorns in the coming decade.

Have a great week,

—John Detrixhe, senior reporter, future of finance (paper money enthusiast)

—Michelle Cheng, reporter (loves a four-day work week)

—Alex Ossola, membership editor (still trying to have it all)

—Sarah Todd, senior reporter, Quartz at Work (ready for robots to take over the boring stuff)

One 💼 thing

Employers may be having a hard time finding workers, but that doesn’t mean workers are readily landing jobs. The US had a record 10.9 million open jobs in July—and 8.4 million unemployed people. While some of them are choosing to stay at home, others simply haven’t been able to find work. Common complaints among job-seekers are that the positions available don’t fit their skills or pay expectations, and that employers take a long time to get back to them.

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