Do You Understand Why the Workforce Is Leaving?

Employers now need to prioritize their employees like never before in order to stay competitive in the labor market, and job seekers should be aware of the options available.


Over 36 million people quit their jobs in 2020. Another 38 million followed their example in 2021. Signs of a rebound in October raised hopes before the "Great Resignation" peaked in November: a record 4.5 million quits in one month. Experts predict more waves of resignations to come. While everyone seems to have an opinion about where it's headed, how much do you know about the forces driving this mass exodus of workers?

In record numbers, people have been assuming a risk-loving attitude once reserved only for Silicon Valley tech startups. I used to think it was the tech industry itself that gave people that mindset, but since the pandemic, the public has become much more aware of the power of the workforce. With more options, high expectations and a greater emphasis on self-care, the workforce is leaving at record rates. To adapt to this new normal, everyone — from employers to job seekers — should understand how this shift occurred and why it's here to stay.

More Options Boost Confidence

With almost 11 million job openings in October 2021, employers find themselves competing for high-quality workers, which means job seekers have more options. The pandemic's economic uncertainty, however, has emboldened people to make new choices instead of returning to what they used to consider a stable job. In 2020, 1.4 million applications were filed to form new businesses likely to hire employees, and by September 2021, 1.4 million more had been filed. With a monthly pace well above the pre-pandemic averages, this dive into entrepreneurship is unlikely to slow any time soon. The pandemic made even stable jobs seem risky, so it seems people are more willing to take risks that would at least make them happy.

At the same time, alternative economic options for job seekers are thriving. According to Pew Research, 16% of U.S. adults have made money using gig platforms. In July 2020, Upwork reported that COVID-19 had driven 12% of the American workforce to freelance, and nearly 6 out of 10 workers who shifted to remote positions during the pandemic were also considering freelance work. Even social media has become a legitimate source of serious income, with the top two TikTok influencer channels pulling in almost $40 million in 2020. With technology making it increasingly easy to become a part of these alternative economies, people have the confidence to take chances like never before.

Expectations Are High

Not only are workers facing an abundance of options, but the pandemic has also fundamentally shifted people's conception of a "good job" — job seekers have come to expect much more. Employers who offered increased benefits, more flexible work schedules and remote or hybrid positions during the pandemic are now having to keep those options open to gain and keep quality employees. Even Starbucks workers, who were given income increases during the height of the pandemic, are now unionizing as the company tries to take those benefits away. One survey found that 26% of human resources professionals increased benefits to help employees manage financial stress during the pandemic, and now major companies are considering adding this financial wellness planning as a recruitment strategy to stand out for job seekers, who they know have the upper hand.

As companies increasingly compete for talent, expectations will continue to rise. In an August 2021 survey, 76% of job seekers expressed higher expectations for a prospective employer, up 5% from January 2019. Nearly six out of every 10 people who were quitting their jobs reported that more than compensation, career advancement or even a better work-life balance, they wanted to find a better fit with their values, to feel personally fulfilled and appreciated. People want more opportunities for career advancement and personal empowerment, but seven out of 10 also expect their job to make a social impact. Six out of 10 would prefer a job with an organization that was conscientious about its effects on the environment. Employers now need to prioritize their employees like never before in order to stay competitive in the labor market, and job seekers should be aware of the options available.

Mental Health Matters

With its massive impact, across borders and social divides, the pandemic prompted society as a whole to extend permission — for everyone — to start taking much greater care of their psychological and emotional well-being. Simone Biles backed out of the Olympics to attend to her mental health. Actor Will Poulter recently admitted to his own mental health struggles during the pandemic, and pop star Camila Cabello spoke publicly about how the burnout and crippling anxiety she developed during COVID-19 drove her to reevaluate her own approach to mental wellness. Public displays likely represent only a small fraction of those same behaviors carried out in private, which means behind closed doors, everyday people are likely making the same connections.

Not only are people starting to realize that mental well-being is important, but they've never given themselves permission to think about it that way. Individuals are now empowered to care about their psychological and emotional health openly and without shame, but without the pandemic, they might not have arrived there independently. With remote and hybrid workers, employers are encouraging collaboration and better ways to connect, which means employees are talking about their mental well-being with each other. Mental health concerns have ceased to be an embarrassing topic, and people are realizing that happiness is pretty damn important.

The pandemic taught us that life is uncertain, and even a comfortable job comes with risks. As people continue to realize this, more become willing to take the risk that makes them happiest, and employers need to step up their game in response to entice people back. While companies might need to reconsider what they offer in a job, whether you return to the workforce or not, if you embrace who you are and what you do well, there will always be a job for you.

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