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‘The Great Resignation’

UT sociologist Jennifer Glass on why so many people are leaving their jobs

Two color orange horizontal divider
'I Quit' spelled out in sticky notes, with a shadow of someone walking away giving peace hand sign
Illustration by Kevin Rathge/University Communications

The numbers don’t lie. Americans are leaving their jobs in hordes, and many of those who haven’t left yet say they’re thinking about it.

A Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 global workers showed that 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year.

Among all sectors, retail has had the most resignations. Almost 650,000 retail workers quit just in April, according to the Department of Labor. A survey by executive search firm Korn Ferry found that 94% of retailers are having trouble filling empty roles, a statistic we can see with our own eyes as “Now Hiring” signs are ubiquitous.

But high turnover is happening throughout society, as evidenced by raises and signing bonuses, flexible and remote-work options. Wall Street investment banks are trying to sweeten the deal by giving staff members Apple products and Peloton bikes.

We asked UT sociology professor Jennifer Glass, an expert on work and family issues, telecommuting and new labor practices who in 2020 won a lifetime achievement award from the American Sociological Association, what exactly is going on:

In your view, why are so many people quitting their jobs?

There are a couple of different things going on: We are on the cusp of one of the largest retirements in the history of the United States, the retirement of the baby boomers. We knew that this cohort in particular was probably going to work longer because they don’t have as much savings, and I think a lot of economists in particular were thinking that we would not see this massive retirement all at once because of that factor.

But COVID threw a monkey wrench in that. A lot of people were home full time. A lot of people had saved a lot and realized that they could get by on less. But more than that I think they realized they liked being home, they liked having an easier schedule, and they didn’t want to go back to work. It’s sort of like postponed fertility or postponed marriage — well, there’s also postponed retirement. That was true for me. I started thinking seriously about my own retirement plans during COVID.

This has suggested to people that there is a different way to live, and that way involves less work and more leisure and more time with family.

Another thing that’s happened is that people have faced a financial crunch in two different ways. One was an earning crisis — people losing their jobs, cutting back on hours, not getting raises. And then there was a lack of consumption: You didn’t buy as much either. All of a sudden, shopping wasn’t such a source of enjoyment anymore and was potentially a source of disease. If you don’t go to work and you don’t socialize as much, you don’t need as many clothes. We’re spending less on personal grooming, on haircuts, on manicures. We cut back on a lot of things, and people realized the sky didn’t fall.

And so those things are also encouraging people to rethink their values: Do I want to spend more time in earning so that I can have more stuff, or do I want to spend more time in leisure having quality time with my loved ones as I’ve been able to do during a pandemic? That’s been one of the upsides.

While there are many parents who would love to go back to work and have their kids go back to school, people have also reported that there were unexpected moments of family closeness, people getting to know their family members again in new and different ways.

So you got the big retirement thing going on and people in other stages of life having this temporary reset: How much money do we really need? How much consumption do we really need?

A third thing is that people are really reevaluating their jobs: Was this the best job? Was this the best employer for me? Was I spending too much time commuting? Was it too stressful? And with some distance, people get a chance to reevaluate, not “Do I want to work?” But “Do I want to work for this employer?”

What about these times is making people question not just their jobs but their professions? 41% globally, according to a Microsoft study.

We know in general that whenever there’s a shock to the system — near-death experiences for example — it’s likely to make people reevaluate their priorities. This was a near-death experience for some people, and it certainly brought death into the lives of others who have family members who perished because of COVID-19. I also think that we have some regular, empirical generalities that we have to consider here.

It’s hard to change fields the older you get, especially if you have not gotten any training in the field that you want to move to. There’s a declining reward structure the older you get — if you retrain, you have fewer years to recoup training costs.

We also know the higher up you are in any occupational hierarchy, the harder it is to switch to a different occupation because the opportunity costs are so high — you’re giving up so much. There are not too many people who are willing to take a nosedive in salary so that they can make a move into another occupation. So changing fields is probably going to be the route that more young people take who don’t have a lot of fixed time and effort that they’ve put into a particular occupation. For people in the later stages of their career, we’ll see less of that and more “Should I retire early? Should I cut back on my hours?”

But millennials (born 1980-2000) came of age during the Great Recession, then there was COVID. Many of them ended up in occupations and in jobs they didn’t really want, but they felt like they didn’t have much choice. That’s the generation that is more likely to be thinking, “Maybe this is my last chance to switch.” Lots of times it may be because they want to have more control of their schedule or have more family time or want to be able to pursue other hobbies or interests or be able to go back to school. All of those things could precipitate thinking, “Hmm, do I want to stay in this job?”

How much money do we really need? How much consumption do we really need?

Jennifer Glass

portrait of Jennifer Glass

To what degree have government stimulus checks kept workers on the sidelines?  

I think it’s too early to say. The best information we have is from comparative state analyses where we looked at states that refused unemployment — states with governors who said, “No we want to get everybody back to work” — versus states that accepted them. As best I can tell so far, we just don’t see any differences in return-to-work rates. I don’t think we can give the stimulus checks that much credit for what’s going on.

People also have savings, and I think the drop in consumption has been much more profound in people’s thinking than temporary stimulus checks, because everybody knows those checks are going to end.

One thing the stimulus checks have done is empowered people at the very bottom. A stimulus check is not going to have much impact on anybody who’s making $45,000 a year or more. But the stimulus checks are going to be quite important for people who are making minimum wage or anything under $20 an hour. Those are the people working very long, erratic schedules for pretty lousy pay, and now they have the opportunity to say no. For a long time, we’ve immiserated workers at the bottom of the occupational structure, and we’ve kept prices low in doing so, and they’ve suffered.

Now we’re seeing a recalibration of that. Employers, these people no longer feel like they need to work their long, erratic schedules at your discretion for very low wages. That’s probably a good thing. That’s not a very good use of labor power anyway. Now maybe fast-food restaurants, for example, will figure out a different way to schedule people, or a different way to provide benefits or autonomy or, heaven forbid, a promotion ladder — who knows what they’ll come up with? But for the first time in a very long time, we don’t have a slave-wage class that is forced to do whatever kind of work is available because they’ll starve otherwise, and that’s probably a good thing in an industrial democracy. We are certainly the only rich country that doesn’t have some basic income guarantee.

I think the draconian labor discipline of the past is probably a thing of the past. Maybe employers will have to rethink some of these positions. Maybe they’re going to need to think more about whether there’s always going to be a reserve army of workers out there to do whatever it is you want them to do. A person with a high school degree is not going to be a long-term solution for American workers in these fields. They used to become a machinist and go to work for $45 an hour, and this was in the ’70s. Imagine what that would be today.

People who don’t have advanced degrees also have been hurt by the massive transformations and all the technological disruption in our economy. The big commerce moguls and the tech giants think disrupting everything is a good thing, but there is always someone who wins and someone who loses. And it’s definitely been low-wage workers — predominantly women and people of color — who have paid the price for that disruption. So now rather than jobs in retail, now they’re pushing big trucks around gigantic warehouses. How that’s an improvement in your life I don’t know. I never hear people who love disruption talk about these disruptions.

I also think if we truly need those low-wage workers, it’s going to force us to rethink our immigration policy, and that’s a good thing too.

Once a two-day weekend became the norm, that was never going to be reversed. Are there other permanent changes to work like that you think are coming out of this? What are some things we’ve likely seen the end of?

I’m one of those people who says, “Never say never,” because, yeah, we had a weekend, but now we don’t. If you look at the number of Americans who work either evenings or weekends, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 or 40%. So we don’t have a weekend anymore. We used to have a 40-hour workweek. We don’t anymore. Most people are working either too few hours or they’re overworked, working more than 45 or 50 hours.

All of the things that we work so hard for during the labor movement from the 1880s to the 1930s have been significantly eroded over the past 40 years, since the 1970s in particular, and I’m not sure anything other than federally mandated legislation to create the labor floor that says, “You simply cannot treat workers worse than this,” can reverse that. We’ve lost that floor.

Right now we are in a temporary moment of worker power, where they’re saying, “No, we’re not going to take these crappy jobs,” but I don’t think it will stay this way for very long. We’ve got global capitalism now. We’ve got a lot of international competition, so employers will just say: “You don’t want this? Fine, I’ll move it to Mexico. I’ll move it to China.” Now, eventually we may run out of places to move it, but as long as you have unregulated global capitalism and the inability of workers to organize across national boundaries, whatever labor protections that are not enshrined in law are going to continue to get eroded.

We learned some things from the 1930s. One is that overtime pay is a terrible way to enforce a 40-hour workweek. It just didn’t work. It’s also a mistake to try to divide and conquer the labor force. If you go back to the Social Security Act and all of these labor acts that came out of the Depression, the only way that Congress could get these through was to appease racist representatives from the South and exclude the categories of work in which most African American people labored: domestic service and agricultural work. And they continue to do that; they have these carve-outs. “Well, we’ll have a 40-hour week but not for managers.” What that meant was that all of a sudden everybody became a manager. Ever notice how many shift managers there are at fast food restaurants? Because now they’re not subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act — they’re not hourly workers anymore. Business is very creative in finding workarounds for this kind of legislation.

We’ve learned a lot, and what we need to do is create universal policies. It’s time to craft legislation that is deeply meaningful and adheres to our American values. It can be done, but it’s going to take a lot of political will in a divided country. The message we’re seeing right now is people voting with their feet.