Cassie Longman is a 23-year-old server in Indianapolis, Indiana. Or, she was. In November, she turned in her two weeks notice and turned her attention to her real passion: graphic design. She’s only freelancing right now, and that suits her just fine until she figures out her next step.
Evan Lee is 31, living in Minneapolis. He’s spent most of his adult life as a programmer, but last summer, he decided to resign and devote his time to finishing a pilot script. He knows it’s a risk, but life is short. He wants to see if he can get a TV show off the ground.
At the moment, Courtney Ehresman lives in Phoenix, Arizona, but she’s hoping that changes soon. She left her career as an elementary school teacher and, well she isn’t really sure what’s next — just that the job she’s had for the last 10 years won’t be part of her future.
The Future of Work
You probably know people like this. They’re far from alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November — the highest number on record. It’s not just your imagination. People really are leaving their jobs in record droves.
Economists are calling it the “Great Resignation” — the record-breaking number of Americans who have decided to part ways with their profession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them “quits” and an unprecedented number of people voluntarily joined their ranks over the course of 2021.
Unsurprisingly, healthcare and service industry jobs saw some of the biggest jumps. Healthcare workers have been vocal about the burnout and discouragement they’ve faced over the last few years, feeling helpless against the torrent of misinformation and vaccine skepticism that has flooded their hospitals with unnecessary sickness and death. In December, The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the health care sector had lost about half a million workers since the pandemic began.
The stakes aren’t quite as high for the service industry, but many of them are fed up too. In August of 2021, an astonishing seven percent of employees in “accommodations and food services” alone quit. CNN reported that transportation, warehousing and utilities workers also left in growing numbers. And another poll showed that at least 55 percent of America’s teachers are at least thinking about retiring earlier than planned.
For many, this has been a cause of frustration; proof that Americans are too lazy to work. And to be sure, changing norms and collective burnout have put many employers in a difficult position.
But it’s still too early to say what all of this means for the moral fiber of America’s working class. Instead of a sign that younger generations just don’t have what it takes to commit to a job, some early speculation suggests that Americans’ time spent in COVID lockdown led to some serious reflection, and that reflection motivated us to explore other career options for more fulfilling jobs.
COVID-19 exposed a lot of problems in our collective professional mindset, and with more of us working at home, there appears to be a reshuffling afoot of just what it means to have a career. In many cases, Americans aren’t quitting because they don’t want to work. They’re quitting because they want work that’s stable, fulfilling and fair. It has less to do with younger generations being lazy than it does with them reappraising their own worth, and just how much they can expect from a job.
For some employers, this is less than ideal. Many bosses and managers are having to rethink what it means to run a business and keep employees happy in the sorta-not-quite-post-pandemic economy. For example, the wages for low-income jobs are rising faster than they have since the Great Recession.
But for employees, the trend is largely positive. Relief checks, rent moratoriums and student-loan forgiveness opportunities are giving laborers who’ve clung to jobs they don’t like a little extra leverage to start thinking about a career they actually want instead of the one they happen to have. Many of us love to dream about our calling or our passion, but haven’t had the freedom to pursue it. But now, with a bit of a safety net, such pursuits feel a little more realistic.
But why now? It’s easy to blame COVID-19 – that catch-all excuse for pretty much everything going on in the world right now — but what is it actually doing to fuel the Great Resignation?
One thing that will probably ring extra true for people who work in food service, accommodations or other front-facing service jobs? Rudeness. Whether it’s record numbers of unruly passengers on airline flights, restaurant customers refusing to abide by pandemic protocols or grocery shoppers ranting in the aisles, many Americans took their COVID-fueled irritation out on low-paid employees just trying to do their jobs. Putting up with unhappy customers is at least a part of lots of different jobs, but the bad behavior of the last few years was different, and many workers just couldn’t take it anymore.
Another possible reason is a shift in how we think about work in general. As working from home becomes more and more normal, the physical office is losing its place as the pillar of American life. We’re thinking about retiring earlier. It remains to be seen exactly where the melting of the physical bounds between work and home will lead but, so far, it appears to be leading us to focus less on the former and more on the latter.
The Great Reshuffling
There’s a common myth you hear about jobs in the old days, which is that our grandparents only worked one job their entire life. That may have been true for some people but for the most part, people in the 60s and 70s tended to quit their jobs more than we have over the last 20 years, not less.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when the social safety net started to shrink that people started quitting less. The risks of leaving a steady job you didn’t like started to outweigh the benefits of taking a risk on something more personally fulfilling.
But a change may be afoot, with more and more workers starting to feel that they can do better than the jobs they’ve got. Right now, money is still an enormous struggle for many Americans and that probably won’t change anytime soon. But there is a little extra freedom to take real stock of your professional life and decide whether or not it’s going the way you want it to go. If it’s not, you’re at a rare moment in time where you might be able to explore other options.
Christians are in a particularly interesting position with this. For many years, Christians have tended to equate “profession” and “calling,” implying that your job is part of your divine reason for being. It’s a well-intended idea, but it can backfire — people end up staying in jobs they don’t like because they believe it’s what God wants them to do. But perhaps the Great Resignation can be part of a re-evaluation of just how we think about the connections between our work and our spiritual lives.
Maybe God’s plan for our career has less to do with the specific job and more to do with our hearts — the interior posture we bring to our lives. In that sense, it has less to do with what you’re doing than how you do it. And if you find yourself struggling to be joyful, hopeful and compassionate at work, then that’s probably a far more serious abdication of God’s plan for your life than switching careers would ever be. And the flip side is true too: if you have a job that brings you more contentment and less stress, you might be in a better place to really focus on what God has in store for your life.
So maybe it’s not the Great Resignation after all. Call it the Great Reshuffling instead — a new generation rethinking its workplace priorities and preparing for something better.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.