Not that many of us can name a single day when our life took a radically different turn.
For the US academic, Anthony Klotz, it came in February last year when a reporter was interviewing him about what even he calls his “mini niche” area of expertise: how people quit their jobs.
The reporter was writing a story about the best ways to resign, but as she was chatting with Klotz, he said something else that caught her attention.
Although Covid vaccine rollouts were at that time raising hopes of a return to pre-virus normality, Klotz thought the pandemic was driving several trends that would unleash an unusually large wave of US resignations. The reporter decided to write a second story. The result was a Bloomberg article last May that quoted Klotz predicting “the great resignation is coming”. With that, one of the defining phrases of the pandemic was born.
The idea was brave at the time, because it was not reflected in the latest official US workforce data, which typically has a two-month time lag. But a few weeks later, new figures showed about 4mn workers, or 2.7 per cent of the workforce, had quit in April 2021, the highest level on record.
By November, that number had climbed to 4.5mn and when fresh figures came out on Tuesday last week they showed another 4.4mn had gone in February, or 2.9 per cent of the total.
Klotz, a 42-year-old associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, is still adjusting to the experience of being the Great Resignation inventor.
“It sounds so weird to say I coined it,” he said with evident embarrassment when I spoke to him last week about what he thinks caused the phenomenon, and where it is headed next.
He cites four causes, starting with a backlog of pent-up resignations from the first uncertain year of the pandemic, when people stayed in jobs they otherwise might have left.
Secondly, workers were burnt out. The third reason is linked to what psychologists call Terror Management Theory and the idea that people confronted with death or serious illness tend to reflect on how much meaning and contentment exists in their own lives.
“What I kept hearing was, ‘Before the pandemic I arranged my whole life around work’,” says Klotz, but coming out of the pandemic, people said, “I need work to work around my life.”
Finally, there was the unexpected freedom that millions experienced when the pandemic forced them to work at home. “Autonomy is a fundamental human need,” says Klotz, and when people get a taste of it for months on end, they do not cede it easily.
It is worth saying here that other researchers are still studying the causes and impacts of the Great Resignation — and some suspect the theory is overblown.
British economists last month said there was evidence the UK also experienced a Great Resignation, but not because workers were quitting to live their dreams, or make drastic career changes. Rather, most seemed to be switching employers, with the exception of over-50s, who have retired in larger numbers than usual.
Klotz thinks the numbers speak for themselves, at least in the US, but agrees there is obviously room for much more inquiry.
As for what he thinks will happen next, he starts with a big disclaimer.
“I’m an organisational psychologist, not an economist, so I have no business making labour market predictions,” he says. “And if I was an economist, I’d be annoyed at me for doing so.”
Still, he thinks resignation rates could stay above average for two or three years, partly because quitting can be contagious, and also because there is so much change in the workplace as employers experiment with new ways of working.
“I think that’s going to continue to keep the labour market somewhat unsettled for a while,” he says. Also, people are still “sorting out their lives” and what they want their futures to look like.
He has a word of caution, pointing to recent research suggesting employees’ wellbeing can fall after a job change.
Hopefully Klotz is an outlier. He has just resigned from Texas A&M to take a new job in the UK, at University College London’s school of management.