Few of us can name a single day when our lives took a radically different turn.
For the American academic, Anthony Klotzit happened in February last year when a reporter interviewed him about what he even calls his “mini niche” area of expertise: how people quit their jobs.
The reporter was writing an article about the best ways to quit, but as she chatted with Klotz, he said something else that caught her attention.
Although Covid vaccine rollouts at the time raised hopes of a return to pre-virus normalcy, Klotz believed the pandemic was behind several trends that would trigger an unusually large wave of American quits. The journalist decided to write a second story. The result was a Bloomberg Article last May which quoted Klotz predicting “the big resignation is coming”. With this, one of defining expressions of the pandemic was born.
The idea was brave at the time, as it was not reflected in the latest official US labor force data, which typically lags two months. But a few weeks later, new figures showed that around 4 million workers, or 2.7% of the workforce, quit in April 2021, the highest level on record.
By November, that number had risen to 4.5 million and when cool numbers released on Tuesday last week, they showed an additional 4.4 million missing in February, or 2.9% 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 inventor of the great resignation.
“It seems so bizarre to say that I made it up,” he said with obvious embarrassment when I spoke to him last week about what he thinks caused the phenomenon and where it’s headed next.
He cites four causes, starting with a backlog of pent-up quits since the uncertain first year of the pandemic, when people stayed in jobs they might otherwise have left.
Second, the workers were burned. The third reason has to do with what psychologists call the Terror Management Theory and the idea that people facing death or serious illness tend to reflect on the meaning and contentment that exists in their own life.
“What I kept hearing was, ‘Before the pandemic, I organized my whole life around work,'” Klotz says, but coming out of the pandemic, people said, “I need work to work around my life.”
Finally, there was the unexpected freedom that millions of people experienced when the pandemic forced them to work from home. “Autonomy is a basic human need,” Klotz says, and when people taste it for months, they don’t give it up easily.
It’s 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 said last month there was evidence that the UK had also seen a big quit, but not because workers were leaving to live their dreams or make drastic career changes. On the contrary, most seemed to be changing employers, with the exception of the over-50s, who retired in greater numbers than usual.
Klotz thinks the numbers speak for themselves, at least in the US, but agrees there’s obviously room for a lot more investigation.
As for what he thinks will happen next, he starts with a big warning.
“I’m an organizational psychologist, not an economist, so I don’t have to make job market predictions,” he says. “And if I was an economist, I would be bored doing it.”
Still, he thinks quit rates could stay above average for two or three years, partly because quitting can be contagious, and also because there’s so much change in the workplace as employers are experimenting with new ways of working.
“I think that’s going to continue to keep the labor market somewhat unstable for some time to come,” he says. Plus, people are still “sorting out their lives” and what they want their future to look like.
It has a word of warning, pointing to recent search suggesting that employee well-being may drop after a job change.
Hopefully Klotz is an outlier. He has just resigned from Texas A&M to take up a new post in the UK, at University College London’s business school.