Anthony Klotz, a business school professor, coined the term “great resignation” to describe the millions of Americans who have quit their jobs in the last year. A recent CBS report estimated that “over 20 million people quit their jobs in the second half of 2021,” mostly from the retail and hospitality sectors. Employers have been searching for workers, but many are not taking.
The cause of the great resignation has come under debate. A survey conducted by the online employment platform LinkedIn provided some possible motivations for employees quitting. One is “geographic migration” to different states offering housing that is more available and affordable. Another possible factor has to do with workers seeking greater job satisfaction: Their concerns range from increasing their salary and benefits to picking a career that better suits their lifestyle.
The COVID-19 pandemic underpins the great resignation. The threat of getting sick at work, as well as the mental health challenges of social isolation, have transformed people’s beliefs regarding what is socially acceptable and “normal.” Current conditions have invited a fair amount of individual reflection and collective reassessment of priorities and future goals.
Some are more skeptical of recent data, feeling that while employees have been quitting their jobs, it is not nearly to the extent that should cause alarm. A writer from Fast Company pointed out that there is high turnover in the retail and hospitality industries, even in otherwise normal conditions. Specifically, “in 2019, 28% of the workforce quit … and in 2021, 33% of the total workforce quit.”
Nonetheless, what separates current statistics from the norm is the high number of 16 to 24-year-olds quitting their jobs, in addition to the older generations that are retiring. Adolescents and young adults of high school and college age are bound to make up the future workforce, so it has become a concern.
This target population includes college students, who work jobs to pay for their education, get ahead of paying off their loans or support their families. Students who are just starting their education, in the middle of a degree or finishing college have been affected in a variety of ways.
Those who are starting college and in the middle of a degree are affected the most, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, there are more open positions that may pay better. Retail work and hospitality work are popular entry-level jobs with options that provide more flexibility for students juggling academic and extracurricular pursuits.
On the negative side, staff that is less available due to the great resignation strains existing personnel, leading to longer shifts and less organization. Entering the workforce during such a contentious time can be a formative experience that leads students away from this work.
Work-study programs, another avenue of employment, are slowly making a return, but their future is in the balance. Near the beginning of the pandemic, schools handled the switch to online learning in different ways. Some schools allowed students to work remotely or pledged to pay their student employees for a certain amount of time, even if they couldn’t work their jobs. Other schools laid students off or phased out available positions out of lack of necessity and extra costs. With the emergence of highly contagious variants, it’s hard to predict how schools and students will adapt.
For students finishing college and entering the workforce immediately after, it is going to be an interesting transition. Typically, if students take out federal financial aid, their student loan servicer will expect them to start paying the money back within six months of graduation. In light of recent events, deadlines for repayment have been pushed back to May at the earliest. As a result, graduating students may have an advantage: They will have more time to apply for and select suitable employment to fit their prior experience and their degrees.
College students with degrees can also learn from the great resignation in deeper ways. While students with degrees are less likely to work in retail or hospitality, career satisfaction is still an issue that needs to be addressed.
At the heart of the current situation is a question about self-worth, both on the practical side — such as knowing how much to ask for — and in the nature of the work, like the expected hours and tasks to be completed. Perhaps, students graduating into the workforce will have a better idea of their practical options and personal aspirations as they explore both of these questions.
Moving forward, the U.S. economy is still working to recover, and employment is just one component of a bigger picture. Students are entering a rapidly changing world and market, which may offer a completely different set of options in five years, let alone a decade. However, with one path ending, another one begins; everybody has to change and evolve with the times to figure out what works for them.