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'Great Resignation' was more like a great job migration

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Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Pedestrians walk past Joe's Buy the Slice Pizza on Monday afternoon. Addington announced Monday he was retiring and closing the restaurant.

What was behind millions of us quitting our jobs in 2021 and how that is reshaping America's workforce.

The "Great Resignation" refers to the staggering number of people who quit their jobs during the pandemic beginning with a record 3.8 million in April 2021

While Fox News contributors opined that Americans were quitting to kick back and live off government payouts, others argue that's not the case at all.

"This idea that people are taking government money and then sitting on their couches watching Netflix just isn't what we're seeing in the data," said Jacob Rosenberg, senior editor at Mother Jones.

Labor reports indicate that since spring of 2021 a record number of people left their jobs, reaching an all time high in November that year. But that number doesn't reflect the number of people who have taken on a new job.

"What we really need to focus on is a percentage, because the labor force has grown rather dramatically," said Jay Zagorsky a senior lecturer at Boston University's Questrom School of Business.

In April 2021, the number of people who quit amounted to 2.8% of the labor force. In December, after reaching the record high the previous month, the percentage rose only 0.1% according to Zagorsky.

He pointed out that quits rate data has only been collected for 20 years and in that time "the size of the labor market has grown by 20 million people" and as the number of people working goes up so will the number quitting their jobs.

COVID allowed people to reimagine the workplace, according to Rosenberg. Employees want better working conditions and the pandemic changed our way of life.

"It's nothing that has changed radically in the last year," Rosenberg said. "It's that COVID both revealed and exacerbated a lot of conditions of work that we've seen for an extremely long period of time."

The quitting power of Americans seeking better employment has been likened to a "mass union negotiation."

Frontline jobs like those in retail, food service or hospitality are seeing high quit rates while employers that are heavily unionized have seen little change in theirs, Zagorsky explained.

For those contemplating leaving their current employer, Jay Zagorsky offered this advice, "Always find another job before you quit your current position . . . search while you're employed, you'll have a much higher probability of getting a successful match."

  • Jacob Rosenberg, assistant editor, Mother Jones
  • Jay Zagorsky, senior lecturer, Boston University's Questrom School of Business
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