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The switching generation: US workers quit jobs in record numbers

This is the second part of an FT series analysing how the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the labour market and changed the way millions of people think about work

Lindsay Coleman has quit two jobs this year.

The first, in January, was in sales at the software company where she had worked for almost six years, ever since she graduated from college. She loved her colleagues there, but felt that she could not turn down an offer from a competitor for a role she thought might be more enjoyable.

But by October Coleman realised that she that she’d rather sell apartments instead of software and after earning her real estate licence, she resigned again to join The Corcoran Group.

“Software sales is a very lucrative career, but I always deep down knew it wasn’t what I loved and didn’t ever know if I would do something about it,” said Coleman, 29.

“When you are, like, sitting alone in an apartment all the time doing a job, every day, all day, you really realise if you’re happy or not,” she added.

Coleman is part of an unprecedented wave of US workers quitting their jobs in 2021. Some 4.4m Americans quit roles in September alone, the labour department reported earlier this month, breaking a record for the most resignations in a single month since the survey began in 2001. The previous record was set in August.

Across the US, workers are in high demand as businesses expand to take advantage of an economy rebounding from the coronavirus pandemic. While some are attempting to wield their newfound leverage to gain better pay and benefits from their existing employers through organised action, far more are abandoning their old gigs for better ones.

Job openings, too, have soared. Economists believe that most quitters likely had other roles lined up before turning in their notice, since labour force participation has held steady since its 2020 slump despite record rates of resignation.

“In 2021 we’ve really seen the quit rate for workers pick up as demand for workers picks up as well,” said Nick Bunker, an economist at the jobs site Indeed. “So this is really the story of many workers seeing opportunities in the labour market going out and seizing them.”

Line chart of Total quits, in thousands, seasonally adjusted showing More US workers are quitting their jobs

“The Great Resignation”, as it is already being dubbed, initially came as a surprise to many economists who argue that workers have typically been unwilling to disturb the status quo even when they are unhappy in their jobs.

But the Covid-19 crisis muddled both economic and social norms, leading workers to re-evaluate what they want out of their working lives. The result was that many who had previously been on the fence about quitting decided to finally bite the bullet.

“It’s ‘Covid clarity’,” said Alexander Alonso, chief knowledge officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, who has been studying the phenomenon for six months.

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Most pandemic-era quitters leave in search of better pay, a better work-life balance or better benefits in the workplace, Alonso said. “It’s not the return to the [office] that people are fighting,” he added.

Industries that have been most disrupted by the pandemic have also had the greatest number of resignations, Bunker said, pointing to manufacturing, leisure and hospitality.

Danit Sibovits, a New York-based lawyer
Danit Sibovits, a New York-based lawyer, quit her job in June. ‘I was stagnant,’ she said

For Danit Sibovits, a New York-based lawyer, it was a dearth of workplace benefits that led her to quit her job at an insurance defence firm in June. Her old company did not provide associates with basic work-from-home equipment such as laptops or wellness resources during last year’s lockdowns.

“I was stagnant,” said Sibovits, 38. “Pre-Covid I was OK. I could deal with it. And then I couldn’t.”

In Houston, another lawyer came to the same realisation. Aparna Shewakramani, 36, had been practising law for 10 years, most recently as the general counsel at an insurance brokerage. She never really enjoyed her job, and the pandemic gave her the opportunity to star in an unscripted Netflix series called Indian Matchmaking.

Shewakramani took a leave of absence from work to pursue other opportunities, including writing a book after the show became an overnight sensation, but never returned. She resigned in April.

“I had to trim the fat, and for me, that was my stable career,” Shewakramani said.

The need for greater financial stability pushed Jenna Coluccio, a 27-year-old doctor’s assistant, to quit her job in June. She knew that the downtown Manhattan intensive care unit she had worked in for just over two years was underpaying her and was not the right cultural fit for her long-term.

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Though she had planned to stay in the job for three years, the stress of the Covid-19 crisis pushed her to start looking for a new role at her preferred hospital sooner. She received an offer a few weeks later, and immediately handed in her notice.

“People keep talking about how this is a generation that keeps switching jobs,” Coluccio said. “It’s because no one allows themselves to be bullied or be undervalued. And you know what? That’s absolutely right. Our parents taught us that you should stick with it, stay at a job, but why?”


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