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What Quitters Understand About the Job Market

More Americans are telling their boss to shove it. Is the workplace undergoing a revolution—or just a post-pandemic spasm?

Quitting your job is hot this summer. More Americans quit in May than any other month on record going back to the beginning of the century, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For every 100 workers in hotels, restaurants, bars, and retailers, about five of them quit last month.

Low-wage workers aren’t the only ones eyeing the door. In May, more than 700,000 workers in the bureau’s mostly white-collar category of “professional and business services” left their job—the highest monthly number ever. Across all sectors and occupations, four in 10 employees now say they’ve considered peacing out of their current place of work.

[Annie Lowrey: Workers should have the power to say ‘no’]

Why the sudden burst of quitting? One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work. Up and down the income ladder, workers have new reasons to tell their boss to shove it. Lower-wage workers who benefited from enhanced unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic may have returned to the job and realized they’re not being paid enough. Now they’re putting their foot down, forcing restaurants and clothing stores to fork over a higher wage to keep people on staff.

Meanwhile, white-collar workers say they feel overworked or generally burned out after a grueling pandemic year, and they’re marching to the corner office with new demands. A recent Bloomberg–Morning Consult survey found that nearly half of workers under 40 said they might leave their job unless their employer let them continue to work from home at least part of the time. With white-collar quits at an all-time high, it seems many of them aren’t bluffing. Higher-income workers—whose corneas are seared from several million Zoom calls, and whose lower backs have been brutalized by months of using the couch as an office chair—are flush with savings stored up during a year of existential tragedy; quitting is their way of commemorating the fragility of existence in face of cosmic dread. In short: YOLO.

Quitting gets a bad rap in life, as it’s associated with pessimism, laziness, and lack of confidence. In labor economics, however, quits signify the opposite: an optimism among workers about the future; an eagerness to do something new; and a confidence that if they jump ship, they won’t drown but rather just land on a better, richer boat.

The summer of quitting could augur something bigger: a new golden age, not only of worker power, but also of tech adoption and productivity growth. Think about the last time you went to a restaurant (an industry where wages are rising fast). If your experience was anything like mine, you scanned a QR code to order rather than chatting with a server. The restaurant served you a typical meal, despite having a smaller staff than usual. Multiply that across the economy, and you have better-paid employees working in concert with software to more efficiently serve customers. This upbeat story may really be coming true: Labor productivity is currently rising at its fastest rate in more than 20 years—and still accelerating.

As the economics writer Noah Smith explains, many of us think of robots and workers as archnemeses. But worker power and tech-powered productivity growth might go hand in hand. In a virtuous cycle, higher wages could prompt employers to automate more expensive tasks. Worker power drives productivity growth, making the overall economy richer, so people spend more money, which creates work for other people, which keeps jobs plentiful. In this rosy vision, we are in the early stages of something quite wonderful: an era of rising wages, ascendant productivity, and rising living standards for all.

[Derek Thompson: Winners and losers of the work-from-home revolution]

If this sequence represents a genuine and lasting revolution in workers’ rights, it wouldn’t be the first time that a catastrophe became the midwife to progress. As I wrote last year, “a major crisis has a way of exposing what is broken and giving a new generation of leaders a chance to build something better”—often in surprising ways. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 contributed to the invention of the modern skyscraper; the East Coast blizzard of 1888 led to the first American subway system. The COVID-19 pandemic killed 600,000 people and led to a paradigm shift in workers’ power might not sound like a particularly obvious cause-and-effect. But our responses to disasters can change the world in ways that are hard to foresee when we stare into the maw of the original crisis.

On the other hand, maybe this isn’t a revolution. Maybe it’s an illusion.

The overall annual quits total plunged in 2020 by about 500,000, suggesting that a lot of people who would have quit without the pandemic instead clung to a job they didn't like. That the number of people quitting a job is surging now isn’t necessarily proof of a paradigm shift. It’s more like evidence of an unpinched-hose effect: The pandemic constrained all sorts of normal activities—getting a cocktail, renting a car, leaving a crappy job—that are suddenly unblocked.

The White House seems to see this dynamic clearly. A blog post from the Council of Economic Advisers recently cautioned that economic data may look berserk this summer. A number of commentators are warning against drawing big conclusions about the future. “A whole lot of this is a mirage,” Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at Upwork, told me. “The White House, I think, is a lot more realistic than the median liberal pundit right now.”

Making predictions is hard, not only because the future is hard to see, but also because the present is hard to grasp. The data on quitting could be an early sign that worker power is ascendant after decades of stagnant pay and gutted labor law. But it could also be a brief statistical fluke amid this summer’s generally spasmodic economy.

How do we reconcile these two things—the awesome potential of the moment and the fact that its awesomeness might be predicated on a mirage? Maybe the answer is: Just keep doing what you’re doing. Policy makers should act as if the labor market has room to run, because it does. And employers, while seeking out complementary technology, should pay their workforce more, because they can.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter

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