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Lessons Learned From the “Great Resignation”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
April 22, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives. From the way we protect our health, to the way we go to school, work and interact with others, we’ve all had to make changes and adapt to a new way of life. It’s now been over two years since the pandemic began, and while some changes, such as mask mandates, may be fading, others are becoming permanent.

One of the biggest changes was a shift in how employees carry out their roles. For some, this meant working from home instead of working in the office. For others, this meant a loss of a job or hours, or a shift to a new industry. As we look to the future, employers, employees and educators will need to learn to navigate this new employment landscape.

To better understand recent economic and employment trends, and what these trends may mean for the future, the January 2022 Wilder School Commonwealth Poll sought the perspectives of Virginians on a variety of employment-related topics. When asked about personal employment status, about one in five respondents (17 percent) reported that they had quit their job or that they had started a new job in the past 12 months, while 28 percent said that they were likely to leave their current job sometime in the next 12 months. Nationwide, 53 percent of employed U.S. adults either quit their job or changed jobs in 2021. This phenomenon has frequently been referred to as the “Great Resignation.”

The resignation spanned across industries. Data shows that the industries with the highest levels of workers who either quit or found alternate employment included accommodation and food service (with 6.1 percent of workers leaving); retail (with 4.9 percent of workers leaving); trade, transportation and utilities (with 3.8 percent of workers leaving); and professional and business services (with 3.7 percent of workers leaving).

The Commonwealth Poll also asked participants to share their thoughts as to why a record number of Americans voluntarily left their positions in 2021. Over one-third (36 percent) of respondents attributed this behavior to receiving an increase in unemployment benefits from the government, while 14 percent believed this behavior could be explained by historically low wages. From a different perspective, about one quarter (24 percent) believed that Americans are reassessing their lives and their priorities in terms of work and family.

Findings from a nationwide poll released in March 2022 from the Pew Research Center were similar to those in Virginia. The data from this poll show that “major reasons” that workers across the United States left their jobs in 2021 included:

  • Low pay,
  • A lack of advancement opportunities,
  • Feeling disrespected at work,
  • Childcare issues,
  • A lack of flexibility to choose when to work,
  • Insufficient benefits,
  • Wanting to relocate to a different area,
  • Working too many or too few hours and
  • Employers requiring a COVID-19 vaccine.

Additional explanations included vaccine mandates, a poor work ethic and the high cost of child care. The Pew Research Center poll also found that resignations were especially high among younger workers, with 37 percent of previously employed adults between the ages of 18 and 29 saying that they quit a job in 2021. In comparison, 17 percent of those aged 30 to 49 said that they quit a job in 2021, and only 9 percent of those aged 50 to 64 and 5 percent of those aged 65 and older said that they quit a job in 2021.

So, what can we learn from the “Great Resignation?” What can policymakers, managers, those working in human resources and others do to encourage workers to stay? In a February 2022 Gallup Poll, employees were asked what they were looking for in their next job. Top responses included:

  • A significant increase in income and/or benefits,
  • Improved work-life balance and personal wellbeing,
  • The ability to use their skills and maximize their strengths on the job,
  • Improved job security,
  • Vaccination policies that align with their own beliefs, and
  • A diverse and inclusive workplace.

These findings align with those from the Commonwealth Poll and the Pew Research Center poll regarding why employees might leave a job. Employees are demanding to be compensated well for their efforts, and to be able to balance their work with other areas of their life. They want to feel valued and included in the workplace, and they want an opportunity to use their strengths at a job they enjoy. For employers hoping to retain their employees and attract new talent, these will be the key to success.


Author: Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the director of research promotion and engagement at the VCU Wilder School’s Office of Research and Outreach. She is a qualitative researcher who focuses on social equity, public policy polling, and nonprofit organizations. Twitter: @BritKeegan

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