The Great Resignation: Pew Research finds tie in reasons workers quit their jobs in 2021

In November, the U.S. saw 4.5 million people quit their jobs; the highest number since the government began tracking. Then, in January, the trend continued with a reported 4.3 million people quitting their jobs. 

Some call it the Great Resignation. Others, the Great Realization, as people seem to realize they aren't happy where they are.

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Pew Research looked into the driving factors behind Americans leaving their jobs in 2021 and found low-wage workers were most likely to have quit.

"I'd like to have double the people I have right now," says Rob Burnetti, General Manager of The Shores Resort & Spa. "Typically this time of year we have up near 150 people on staff. Right now we're sitting around 75 people."

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There's been broad speculation that older workers, who were close to retirement, drove the resignation wave by opting to retire early, but Pew found young workers were more likely to have walked away.

But, why? Many predicted that the push to get workers back in the office would drive a lot of people to quit for jobs that allowed them to remain remote, but not according to the survey.

"It's interesting that it didn't even really show up as a distinct point," says Dietrich Vollrath, Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, who explains working from home seems to be an issue on which employers are more likely to compromise.

"We have this understanding that there are jobs that are do-able from home and jobs that aren't," Vollrath says. "At the University of Houston we're adding a new policy to let more people work from home because of some pushback here and there."

Vollrath believes the ability to work from home is correlated with other reasons that survey participants noted for leaving a job.

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The top motive was a tie. Among people surveyed who'd left a job in 2021, 63% said low pay was a driving factor. 63% also cited lack of advancement opportunities. Desperation to fill those empty spots that workers deemed to be too dead-end have contributed to the average wage increase of 4.5% last year; the biggest bump in years.

"Wage growth over the last two years has run ahead of inflation," says Vollrath, who notes the recent inflation spike in early 2022 is now catching up. That said, the ongoing shortage of workers has many wondering if employees will maintain enough upper hand to push those wages to keep up with inflation, if not go higher.

"That's the big question for economists: how persistent is this realization about the labor market," says Vollrath.

It wasn't all about money and opportunity to climb the ladder. At 57%, the third most common reason for workers quitting was they felt disrespected at work.

The next top reasons were lack of flexibility, with things like work hours and childcare, and many of the other top reasons had to do with perceptions of a toxic workplace.

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Basically, people realized -- why am I putting up with all of this?

"I think there was a realization as well that maybe it wasn't as damaging to step away from work as you fear, like 'I couldn't possibly quit how am I going to pay my bills.' Some of those bills are only there because you work," explained Vollrath, citing things like commute costs and child care.

As for vaccine requirements, 18% of workers cited it as a reason, and it was two times more common among workers who did not have college degrees versus those who did. Overall, the pandemic itself was only a driving factor for fewer than 1 in 3 workers who quit. It more seems the pandemic helped people realize longer-standing issues they were simply tired of tolerating.

Want to learn more? See the full Pew Research report here.

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