I first noticed to something strange happened that spring.
In April, the number of workers who quit their jobs in a single month broke an American record ever. Economists called it the “great resignation”. But America’s giving up spirit was about to begin. In July, even more left their jobs. In August, quitters set another record. The big resignation? It just keeps getting bigger.
“Closures,” as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, are rising in almost every industry. For those who are into leisure and hospitality, in particular, the workplace should feel like a giant revolving door. Nearly 7 percent of employees in the “accommodation and food” sector left their jobs in August. That means one in 14 hotel attendants, restaurant servers and barbacks said sayonara in a single month. Thanks to more controls of the pandemic, a rental moratorium and forgiveness of student loans, everyone, especially if they are young and have a low income, have more freedom to quit jobs, they hate and jump for something else.
As I wrote in the spring, termination is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers. But this level of completion is really an expression of optimism, saying We can do better. You may have heard the story that in the golden age of American labor, 20th-century workers became in a job for 40 years and retired with a gold watch. But it’s a total myth. The truth is, people in the 1960s and 70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the last 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have stopped being smaller, and many have stuck to bad jobs for fear that the safety net would not support them while looking for a new one. But the Americans seem to be done sticking it out. And they are rewarded for their lack of patience: Wages for low-income workers rising at their fastest pace since the Great Recession. The great resignation is literally amazing.
For workers, that is. For the far fewer numbers of employers and executives — who in the time before the pandemic were much more comfortable — this economy must feel like jumping out of the rise of economic chaos, only to land in the fires of Manager Hell. The job openings are sky high. Many positions go vacant for several months. Meanwhile, supply chains are collapsing due to one bottlenecks. Doing business requires people and parts. With people quitting and sharing shortcomings, it must be a bit of a shame to be the boss right now. (Oh good!)
The great resignation is not the only major R-word revising the workforce.
Leisure and hospitality workers may say “to hell with this” because of the Americans who decide to behave like a herd of escaped zoo animals. Call it the Great Rudeness. Airlines in the United States reported that the number of unruly passengers had already in June 2021 already broken records — a doubling of the previous pace in time as before. That Atlantic Ocean author Amanda Mull has chronicled America’s epidemic of bad behavior, from Trader Joe’s tirades to a poor Cape Cod restaurant that briefly had to close in hopes that its clientele would calm down after a few days in the timeout box. Cabin fever and filled with rage have plagued American customers into the late-pandemic economy with abandonment, as has the unfolding of so many angry squeezed snakes. I do not blame thousands of servers and clerks for having decided that suffering incessant rudeness should never be a job requirement.
Meanwhile, the basic terms of employment are undergoing a major reset. The pandemic pushed many families into a homely lifestyle reminiscent of the 19th-century agrarian economy — but this time with plenty of displays and online delivery. Several families today work at home, cook at home, look after children at home, entertain themselves at home and even teach their children at home. Author Aaron M. Renn has called this the emergence of DIY families, and it represents a new vision of work-life balance that is still in focus. By removing the office as a physical presence in many (but not all!) family life, the pandemic may have downgraded work as the center of their identity. In fact, the proportion of Americans who say they plan to work beyond age 62 has dropped its lowest number since the Federal Reserve Bank of New York began asking the question in 2014. Workism does not go away; for many, remote work will break the boundary between work and life that was once delimited by daily commuting. But this is a time of extensive reconsideration.
Finally, there is a major redeployment of people and businesses around the country. For decades, many goals for American entrepreneurship fell. But business formation has roast since the beginning of the pandemic, and the biggest category by far is e-commerce. This has coincided with one increase in a row, especially to the suburbs to large metropolitan areas. Several large companies, such as Twitter, has announced permanent employment policies from home, while others, e.g. Tesla, has moved their headquarters. Several years ago I wrote that America had lost its “Mojo” because its citizens were less likely to change jobs, move to another state, or start new businesses than they were 30 (or 100) years ago. Well, so much for all that. America’s mojo er back, baby (yes), and it could lead to a better job revolution that surpasses the temporary measures, such as unemployment benefits and rent insurance, that have fueled it.
As a general rule, crises leave an unpredictable mark on history. It did not seem obvious that the great Chicago fire of 1871 would lead to a revolution in architecture, and yet it no doubt directly contributed to the invention of the Chicago skyscraper. You might be just as surprised that one of the most important scientific legacies of World War II had nothing to do with bombs, weapons, or manufacturing; the conflict also accelerated the development of penicillin and influenza vaccines. If you asked me to predict the most long-term health effects of the pandemic last year, I might have mumbled something about urban design and office filtering. But we can instead look back on the pandemic as a crucial turning point in something more fundamental: Americans’ attitudes toward work. Since the beginning of last year, many workers have had to reconsider the boundaries between boss and worker, family time and work time, home and office.
One way to capture the significance of any set of events is to consider what it would mean if they all happened the other way around. Imagine if the endings dropped to almost zero. Business formation fell. Instead of a city walk, everyone moved to a close city center. In other words, it would be a movement of extraordinary consolidation and centralization: everyone working in urban areas for old businesses that they never leave.
Look at what we have instead: a big push-out. Migration to the suburbs accelerated. More people are quitting their jobs to start something new. Before the pandemic, the office served for many as the last physical community left, especially as church attendance and association membership declined. But now even our office relationships are spreading. The great resignation is accelerating, and it has created a centrifugal moment in American economic history.