I first noticed that something weird was happening this past spring.
In April, the number of workers who quit their job in a single month broke an all-time U.S. record. Economists called it the “Great Resignation.” But America’s quittin’ spirit was just getting started. In July, even more people left their job. In August, quitters set yet another record. That Great Resignation? It just keeps getting greater.
“Quits,” as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, are rising in almost every industry. For those in leisure and hospitality, especially, the workplace must feel like one giant revolving door. Nearly 7 percent of employees in the “accommodations and food services” sector left their job in August. That means one in 14 hotel clerks, restaurant servers, and barbacks said sayonara in a single month. Thanks to several pandemic-relief checks, a rent moratorium, and student-loan forgiveness, everybody, particularly if they are young and have a low income, has more freedom to quit jobs they hate and hop to something else.
As I wrote in the spring, quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers. But this level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better. You may have heard the story that in the golden age of American labor, 20th-century workers stayed in one job for 40 years and retired with a gold watch. But that’s a total myth. The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out. And they’re being rewarded for their lack of patience: Wages for low-income workers are rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. The Great Resignation is, literally, great.
For workers, that is. For the far smaller number of employers and bosses—who in pre-pandemic times were much more comfortable—this economy must feel like leaping from the frying pan of economic chaos, only to land in the fires of Manager Hell. Job openings are sky-high. Many positions are going unfilled for months. Meanwhile, supply chains are breaking down because of a hydra of bottlenecks. Running a company requires people and parts. With people quitting and parts missing, it must kinda suck to be a boss right now. (Oh, well!)
The Great Resignation is not the only Great R-word overhauling the labor force.
Leisure and hospitality workers might be saying “to hell with this” on account of Americans deciding to behave like a pack of escaped zoo animals. Call it the Great Rudeness. Airlines in the United States reported that, by June 2021, the number of unruly passengers had already broken records—doubling the previous all-time pace of orneriness. The Atlantic writer Amanda Mull has chronicled America’s epidemic of bad behavior, from Trader Joe’s tirades to a poor Cape Cod restaurant that had to close briefly in the hope that its clientele would calm down after a few days in the time-out box. Cabin-fevered and filled with rage, American customers have poured into the late-pandemic economy with abandon, like the unfurling of so many angry pinched hoses. I don’t blame thousands of servers and clerks for deciding that suffering nonstop rudeness should never be a job requirement.
Meanwhile, the basic terms of employment are undergoing a Great Reset. The pandemic thrust many families into a homebound lifestyle reminiscent of the 19th-century agrarian economy—but this time with screens galore and online delivery. More families today work at home, cook at home, care for kids at home, entertain themselves at home, and even school their kids at home. The writer Aaron M. Renn has called this the rise of the DIY family, and it represents a new vision of work-life balance that is still coming into focus. By eliminating the office as a physical presence in many (but not all!) families’ lives, the pandemic may have downgraded work as the centerpiece of their identity. In fact, the share of Americans who say they plan to work beyond the age of 62 has fallen to its lowest number since the Federal Reserve Bank of New York started asking the question, in 2014. Workism isn’t going away; for many, remote work will collapse the boundary between work and life that was once delineated by the daily commute. But this is a time of broad reconsideration.
Finally, there is a Great Reshuffling of people and businesses around the country. For decades, many measures of U.S. entrepreneurship declined. But business formation has surged since the beginning of the pandemic, and the largest category by far is e-commerce. This has coincided with an uptick in moves, especially to the suburbs of large metropolitan areas. Several major companies, such as Twitter, have announced permanent work-from-home policies, while others, such as Tesla, have moved their headquarters. Several years ago, I wrote that America had lost its “mojo,” because its citizens were less likely to switch jobs, move to another state, or create new companies than they were 30 (or 100) years ago. Well, so much for all that. America’s mojo is back, baby (yeah), and it may lead to a better-job revolution that outlasts the temporary measures, such as unemployment super-benefits and rent protection, that have nourished it.
As a general rule, crises leave an unpredictable mark on history. It didn’t seem obvious that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would lead to a revolution in architecture, and yet, it without a doubt contributed directly to the invention of the skyscraper in Chicago. You might be equally surprised that one of the most important scientific legacies of World War II had nothing to do with bombs, weapons, or manufacturing; the conflict also accelerated the development of penicillin and flu vaccines. If you asked me to predict the most salutary long-term effects of the pandemic last year, I might have muttered something about urban redesign and office filtration. But we may instead look back to the pandemic as a crucial inflection point in something more fundamental: Americans’ attitudes toward work. Since early last year, many workers have had to reconsider the boundaries between boss and worker, family time and work time, home and office.
One way to capture the meaning of any set of events is to consider what it would mean if they all happened in reverse. Imagine if quits fell to nearly zero. Business formation declined. In lieu of an urban exodus, everybody moved to a dense downtown. It would be, in other words, a movement of extraordinary consolidation and centralization: everybody working in urban areas for old companies that they never leave.
Look at what we have instead: a great pushing-outward. Migration to the suburbs accelerated. More people are quitting their job to start something new. Before the pandemic, the office served for many as the last physical community left, especially as church attendance and association membership declined. But now even our office relationships are being dispersed. The Great Resignation is speeding up, and it’s created a centrifugal moment in American economic history.
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