Why are workers quitting?

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American workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. In September 2021 (the last month for which reliable data are available), 4.4 million workers, or three percent of the employed labor force, quit their jobs. Both of these quitting figures are the highest ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indeed, the number of workers who quit this past September is three times greater than the number who quit ten years ago in September 2011. The magnitude and duration of this job quitting explosion has caused some observers to label the current economic period as The Great Resignation.

Of course, job quitting is not evenly distributed over the labor force. It is three times higher in private than in government employment. In terms of geography, job quitting is lowest in the northeast region and highest in the south. In terms of occupation, job quitting is highest among restaurant and hotel workers. These are among the lowest paid employees, but restaurant workers have received a 5.6 percent and hotel workers a 9.0 percent (inflation adjusted) hourly pay raise over the past year.

Job quitting in a capitalist economy is hardly surprising. Many, perhaps most, employees dread their work and consider it a necessary form of slavery. Labor force participation in the United States has been declining for all groups (men, women, whites, people of color) for at least two decades. This persistent decline may be long term statistical evidence for the alienating and oppressive character of work under profit obsessed capitalism. Here is how social analyst Shawgi Tell explains the current wave of job quitting:

Burnout, years of poor working conditions, poor pay, poor benefits, poor treatment, fear of COVID, pandemic stress, lack of daycare options, lack of job mobility, and autocratic employers are just some of the many reasons millions in the U.S. and elsewhere have left work in a short time.

If all or most capitalist employment is inherently alienating, what explains the rather sudden job quitting acceleration? The most plausible explanation emphasizes the special conditions created by the COVID depression of the last 20 months. The partial recovery from the depths of the COVID depression has produced a labor shortage that puts workers in a relatively strong position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the number of available jobs exceeds the number of unemployed workers by about 36 percent. Although many of the available jobs are poorly paid and/or onerous to perform, the labor shortage means that a worker can leave employment with a reasonable expectation of finding another job.

The broad resistance to vaccination (and even mask wearing) plus the proliferation of COVID variants increases the emotional stress of many jobs. A survey conducted in September by the Harris Poll illuminates the job quitting phenomenon. 76 percent of the workers surveyed expressed concern about COVID and wanted their employers to make work more flexible in terms of schedule or location. Half of the workers surveyed intend to make career changes because of COVID. 69 percent of employed parents want their children’s schools to mandate vaccination for children, teachers, and staff, and 61 percent feel burned out from managing their children’s educational needs. Unexpectedly, far more employed men consider quitting their jobs due to COVID than employed women. The survey concludes that “the 9-to-5, in-the-office paradigm is outdated.

In the past retirement has often been a reason for job quitting, and the COVID depression has apparently increased early retirement. It is estimated that as much as 60 percent of current job quitters are retiring from the labor force.

Colorado is no exception to the job quitting phenomenon. Colorado workers are quitting their jobs at the state’s highest rate in the past two decades. In September 4.4 percent of Colorado workers (1 in 23) voluntarily left their jobs, which made the Colorado quit rate fourth highest in the nation. Colorado also had the nation’s largest decline in employer layoffs and involuntary job discharges. Some of Colorado’s high quitting rate may reflect seasonal variation in tourism, an important industry in the Colorado economy. It may also reflect the aging of the Colorado population. Colorado was formerly one of the youngest states in the country. Now it is one of the fastest aging states, which may increase job quitting for retirement purposes. Although a considerable number of Colorado workers object to vaccinations, there is no evidence that vaccination mandates contributed to job quitting in this state.

How will future labor historians interpret The Great Resignation? Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggests that it will be understood as a de facto general strike against the alienating conditions of work in a capitalist economy. He could be correct. 

Just Economics is written by members of the Economic Justice Collective of the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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