Is the Great Resignation really about quitting the rat race?

Photo: Getty Images/4kodiak
Dec 21, 2021

A number of recent columns have charged that the “Great Resignation” is being misinterpreted.

The Economist, for one, attributed the high number of people quitting jobs, most evident in the U.S. and U.K., largely to greater availability of job openings that are giving workers confidence to try something more promising.

A true “great resignation,” the column goes on, would require radical cultural changes. The Economist wrote, “Households would need to decide, en masse, that their future consumption needs, and the income needed to fulfil them, were substantially lower. That would mean no more foreign holidays, less dining out and fewer household appliances. It would also mean fewer Christmas presents. Anyone who visited a Black Friday sale this year, in Seattle or elsewhere, would be quickly disabused of the notion that such a dramatic shift was on the cards.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, a staff writer and author of the Work in Progress newsletter, stated, “To put it as concisely as possible: The Great Resignation is mostly a dynamic ‘free agency’ period for low-income workers switching jobs to make more money, plus a moderate surge of early retirements in a pandemic.”

Bryan Lufkin, a BBC News features writer, warns about the risks of sweeping generalizations about the causes. He writes, “Because the factors driving resignations are so different, if changes do come, they’ll likely look different depending on the sector and the types of jobs. Some companies might cater more towards white-collar workers’ demands for continued pandemic-era flexibility, like remote work; other companies in service sectors might respond with long-overdue improvements to conditions or higher wages.”

The inspirational, widely-cited theory is that many workers are reassessing priorities after undergoing a pandemic-driven epiphany.

“This [pandemic] has been going on for so long, it’s affecting people mentally, physically,” Danny Nelms, president of the Work Institute, told The Wall Street Journal. “All those things are continuing to make people be reflective of their life and career and their jobs. Add to that over 10 million openings, and if I want to go do something different it’s not terribly hard to do.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s driving the Great Resignation and what does it mean for retail? Do you see similar or different catalysts triggering job movement among retail’s in-store personal versus corporate staff?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"There are always two sides to every resignation - what the new opportunity is, and what the employee is leaving behind."
"How many frontline retail workers would jump at the chance for something even a little better paying, with more respect from management and a future?"
"A big one is the exit from the workforce of older people – over 90 percent of those who have left the job market over the past couple of years are aged over 55."

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21 Comments on "Is the Great Resignation really about quitting the rat race?"

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Mark Ryski

All these things mentioned in the article are likely contributing, and I think it may be especially the case for frontline retail workers. Engaging with the public adds an extra level of exposure risk, combined with the generally low pay, and tough work hours, make it an easier decision to move on. And, the abundance of employment alternatives makes it possible. And yes, I’d suspect that the job movement between in-store and corporate staff is and will be very different.

Shep Hyken

It’s not that people don’t want to work anymore. They don’t want to work for what they perceive to be unfair compensation, which comes in the form of salary and benefits. The above article mentions people are looking for something “more promising.” I would change that to “something better.” While people look for that perfect job or career opportunity, they are willing to play in the gig economy and start some type of entrepreneurial venture, just to get by until they find something that suits them. During the pandemic, the government gave unemployed workers a head start with generous compensation. This dramatically helped the employee looking for something better. For retail to stop the exodus of employees, take a look at retailers (like Target) that have figured it out.

Paula Rosenblum

Too much being told what to do for not enough money. Continual reduction in the workforce and increases in work.

I know Californians hate the gig economy, but I’m starting to think it’s the future. At least you control your own destiny.

Richard Hernandez

This. Coupled with a risk of dealing head-on every day with the pandemic, it just isn’t worth the risk for a lot of people. And yes, the good thing is that people control their own destiny on where they want to go.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
5 months 4 days ago

Many people have re-evaluated their lives over the past 20 months. Changed perspectives over things like priorities, commuting and work content have had a dramatic impact. For many people one big benefit of working was the community aspect of spending time with other people – for many during the pandemic that benefit vanished. Add these factors to the natural movement you would get at any time and you can understand why the term is the “Great Resignation.”

In-store staff may also reevaluate their perspectives because they may not feel safe working so close to members of the public and this may have a significant impact on their decision making.

Liza Amlani

Quitting the rat race is part of the reason for the Great Resignation. The pandemic showed us the true colors of retailers and organizations where important values like safety, DEI, and compensation were put in the spotlight. Workers took values or compensation or treatment of workers seriously and if these values did not align with the workforce, they quit. We have learned that life is just too short to be complacent.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

It’s a complex situation, fueled by the pandemic, that has been brewing for some time. Retailers will continue to face staffing shortages in area where skills are in demand (IT, logistics, customer service) in stores and at corporate until they figure out the right recipe to attract and retain the right talent, like Target and a few others are doing.

Nikki Baird

There are always two sides to every resignation – what the new opportunity is, and what the employee is leaving behind. If an employee sees that there is continuing opportunity at their current employer, then it’ll always be difficult to wedge them out of the current job. But if they see no future where they are, then just the fact that a new opportunity pays a little better or has a little more flexibility could be enough to send them out the door. Everyone is paying attention to the new opportunities and the rising wages, but there are still plenty of stories, especially in front line retail, of terrible managers doing horrible things to employees out of some mistaken perception that they can get away with it. And now they can’t. And that should always be front of mind when considering the “Great Resignation.”

Lisa Goller

Tiring of the status quo, trading up and technology are factors driving the Great Resignation.

Low-paying retail jobs that fail to cover the rising cost of living are driving associates to the exits. In-store workers feel depleted from ongoing health and safety risks from COVID-19 and hostile shoppers.

Corporate staff have more options and can move to higher-paying roles elsewhere, and use tech for remote work and superior work-life balance. Managerial roles need to offer more fulfilling career paths and generous benefits to retain retail talent.

Jeff Weidauer

To call it the Great Resignation is missing the bigger picture. People are leaving in search of new and better; the current job market has given them the confidence to make a change that has long been inside them. It’s taking a chance for a better life.

Bob Amster

The pandemic has been the catalyst for the resignation movement. The assistance provided to the then-unemployed, coupled with the pressures experienced by frontline workers, and with the realization that personal mental health is more important than many other things in life, have combined to give impetus to the resignations we have witnessed. I don’t know what percentage of those who resigned just called it a career and retired (earlier than planned).

Joel Rubinson

There are many unpredictable factors that were triggered by COVID-19. Reassessment of heath assumptions, crazed crime making normal life/work activities no longer assumed to be safe — certainly these are factors. I would add generous governmental programs that give the financial cushion and safety net that gives people the opportunity to reassess, for the moment not having to live from paycheck to paycheck.

Doug Garnett

I think the Great Resignation is simpler — it’s a demand for respecting employees. The workplace has decayed for years with frontline employees becoming the ultimate recipients of things which roll downhill.

Consider the horrific disrespect of punishing store employees for the faintest whiff of customer dissatisfaction – even though company systems are generally the reason for that dissatisfaction. Employees are forced to do irrational things – like ask every last customer to get a store credit card for the 50th time. And then, despite being on the front line, pay centers in corporate HQs so the front line is underpaid.

THESE are the issues creating the Great Resignation.

Neil Saunders

There are a number of labor dynamics at play and, taken together, they are having a big impact on the pool of people willing and able to work. A big one is the exit from the workforce of older people – over 90 percent of those who have left the job market over the past couple of years are aged over 55. Quite a lot of these people have financial security and assets, such as housing or stocks, that have appreciated in value. However employers are simply not doing enough to lure them back to work by creating jobs that they would enjoy. Retailers, and other firms, need to change this by looking at conditions, training, benefits, scheduling and so forth. Make jobs attractive and people will work them.

Ryan Mathews
Let’s see — I could continue in a low-paying, dead-end job where up until the pandemic I was treated like a hunk of meat or I could quit and get better wages, hours and working conditions — hmmm — what to do? What’s driving the so-called Great Resignation is that some employers took their employees for granted at best and as an unwanted cost line on a balance sheet that should be cut as often as possible. The result was that for the last 10 to 20 years lower paid workers have been working harder than most of us, largely without recognition or appropriate compensation. That makes resignation pretty attractive. Also, in the early days of the pandemic many workers found their take home pay was equal to, or in some cases larger than, their normal net income, so going to work didn’t make economic sense. This ought to be a wake up call for retailers. Pay people well, give them decent benefits, recognize and treat them as human beings, give them a path for… Read more »
David Spear

There are many dynamics that are contributing to this situation, and every industry is experiencing different outcomes. Trying to force a “square peg into a round hole” misses the unique characteristics that are at play. One – and I emphasize “one” – factor that individuals are evaluating is a company’s culture. For better or worse, the pandemic forced companies to make many decisions that put a bright spotlight directly on many parts of the inner culture of the company. This has either excited or dismayed employees and has caused a wave of exits. Sure, this is just a microcosm, but there are 15-20 other similar situations that are contributing to the Great Resignation.

Gene Detroyer

How many frontline retail workers would jump at the chance for something even a little better paying, with more respect from management and a future?

Mel Kleiman

The answer to what is driving the Great Resignation is the NEWS. The news is no longer reporting the news. The NEWS is creating the NEWS.

The message has been heard now is the time to be looking for a new job, now is the time to ask for more money. As a worker, you are in demand, take advantage of the situation, and workers are doing just that.
For years I have said recruiting hourly workers has been marketing with a rotten budget. All of the sudden innovative businesses are looking at recruiting for the hourly workforce as something that must be done, and it must be done right.

Will the ball shift back? I will not say never, but I will say it is going to be a long time coming. Maybe all for the better.

In retail, the quality of your frontline worker determines the quality of your product.

Gary Sankary

Retailers who are complaining that they’re having a hard time hiring people need to realize that it’s not a lack of labor. It’s a lack of people who want to do what you want the them to do, at the pay you’re offering. Many of these companies love the free market when it means they can grow margins. They seem to be less enthusiastic when they have share their success with their employees.

Brandon Rael
One of the silver linings of the relentless pandemic has been the recognition of how vital the front-line retail staff is to ensuring a good customer experience. We may have acknowledged that the front-line staff were the heroes in helping to keep our economy afloat during the worse parts of the pandemic. However, this didn’t immediately translate to improved compensation structures, incentives, bonuses, and defined career paths. The Great Resignation is a real phenomenon fueled by the emotional, physical and mental strain of working during these pandemic fueled times, as well as a relatively healthy job market with better alternatives. However, retailers have stepped up, most notably Walmart, as they have committed to invest nearly $1 billion over the next five years in store associate career-driven training and development. Amazon quickly followed that trend by expanding the education and skills training benefits it offers to its U.S. employees with a total investment of $1.2 billion by 2025. While these moves won’t stop the Great Resignation, these are critical first steps to driving a better, sustainable,… Read more »
Bill Hanifin

The resignations are best illustrated by a dumbbell curve.

Younger workers in front-line, lower-paying hourly wage jobs are right to assess if this should be their future. Why not take time to review and assess, especially when the government has made it possible to stay at home and gather thoughts.

The research evidencing how older workers are leaving the workforce makes sense also. This is more of a great retirement, rather than resignation. Maybe we will see a large influx of retirement age folks applying their skills and experience to charitable causes and non-profits. Wouldn’t that be an unexpected by-product of the pandemic?

The middle of the curve are people who may be contemplating lifestyle changes and considering their options but don’t have the ability to just resign and look for the next gig. The good news is that many people are engaging in self-assessment through the course of the pandemic and are making small changes that are in their control.

"There are always two sides to every resignation - what the new opportunity is, and what the employee is leaving behind."
"How many frontline retail workers would jump at the chance for something even a little better paying, with more respect from management and a future?"
"A big one is the exit from the workforce of older people – over 90 percent of those who have left the job market over the past couple of years are aged over 55."

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