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The Great Resignation Is Changing Work in America, and It's Here to Stay

The work world is changing rapidly, thanks to historically low unemployment claims mixed with unprecedented quit rates and millions of baby boomers suddenly retiring.

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This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET's look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.

Like so many other people, Josh Feldman found his work life changing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Isolation at home with family became the norm, even while he continued working at the job he loved as the vice president of leadership and student experiences at Hillel International, a Jewish nonprofit organization. 

He adjusted for a while, just as millions of others did. But eventually, the change unexpectedly forced him to confront just how burned out he was. 

Despite his employer's efforts to offer flexible working hours, Feldman was working constantly. He'd often wade into email as soon as he woke up and stayed there after his kids went to bed. He tried to make things better by integrating regular walks into his workday, but he still struggled with overwork. And as the pandemic stretched on and the return-to-the-office date receded further into the future, the 40-year-old father of three kids under age 10 started thinking about what might come next. 

"I had been working in an unsustainable way for a long time," he said. "This stuff is not easy to change."

Finally, in August, he chose a more radical shift. Feldman left his good, stable job to start a nonprofit of his own. And he wasn't alone.

Americans have been quitting their jobs by the millions over the past year, jumping from one company to another in record numbers, often for better pay if they're low-wage workers, or better benefits if they're in white-collar jobs. They may be switching because their previous employer tried to drag them back into the office, while a competitor allowed them to continue working remotely. Or they simply wanted a change.

Whatever the reason, this great resignation, as some have called it, is quickly remaking what it means to work in America. For some, that means rethinking their careers. For others, it's a spiritual awakening, with a renewed commitment to a healthier balance between work and home. Some people moved away from big cities while working remotely during the pandemic, and now they don't want to move back. Others are finding plentiful opportunities for jobs they can perform anywhere, whereas before the only jobs they could find were near where they lived.

"People are reassessing their lives," said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas. And it's showing up in all kinds of ways. 

Recruiters, who typically struggle to get candidates to even hear an offer for a new job, are encountering little resistance. Meanwhile, seasoned office workers like Feldman are pushing change even further, taking the leap to start their own business.

Experts say all of this will likely continue far into 2022 and beyond.

Office in a box on a desk chair

The pandemic hasn't just normalized remote work. It's rapidly changing office culture around the country.

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Already, the numbers are staggering. Last April, the number of people who quit their job in a single month hit 3.8 million, an all-time record, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In August, it hit 4.2 million. And then September, 4.3 million. In November, it hit a record again of 4.5 million.

It all comes at a time of record low unemployment claims. In November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted the lowest number in more than half a century. And even still, there are nearly 11 million open jobs out there.

"We're in this really big period of flux right now where the pandemic has given people some options and forced people to stop and rest," said Rahaf Harfoush, author of Hustle and Float: Reclaim your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work. "What we're starting to see right now is -- what I'm hoping is -- the redrawing of boundaries, where people are saying 'I no longer want to sacrifice myself so completely for a job.'"

Read more: 'Hustle culture' is facing an existential crisis with millennials

Sudden change

Many economists roll their eyes at the popular title we've given this period of time. To them, the Great Resignation doesn't describe what's going on at all.

"A lot of the trends we've seen were happening before," said Julia Pollak, chief economist at employment marketplace ZipRecruiter. Those trends include retiring baby boomers, low birth rates and the shift to remote work, she said. "The pandemic accelerated them at least 20 to 30 years."

Economists and labor experts say we're actually experiencing multiple trends at once. First, and most important, is the coronavirus, which has infected more than 295 million people around the world and killed 5.4 million of them. We don't know how many people the pandemic took out of the labor force, nor how many are still at home caring for a loved one or child who is immunocompromised or can't yet be vaccinated.

There's also the baby boomers. This is the generation of more than 76 million people who were born between 1946, just after World War II ended, and 1964. US soldiers returning home were greeted with the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill, which promised them access to education benefits, jobs with good pay and affordable housing.

Shortly after, the US recorded exploding population growth. In 1946, for example, there were 20% more babies born than in 1945, the year the war ended. Many of the oldest baby boomers, well into their 70s, had already retired by the time COVID-19 hit, but others used the pandemic as an excuse to retire. Some economists estimate as many as 3 million people have done so since the pandemic began.

At the same time, the number of people turning 18 and joining the work world is shrinking. And, economists say, without immigrants to fill in the gaps, there aren't enough people to replace the baby boomers who are leaving. Further, the birth rate in the US has been declining for nearly half a century, and the United Nations predicts that won't meaningfully change for the foreseeable future.

"If birth rates continue declining, a tight labor market is here to stay," Pollak added.

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Many people are resisting efforts to return to the office as the pandemic stretches into its third year.

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New job, who dis?

The trend economists are focused on is the people quitting their jobs for better pay or better benefits, such as a job that's fully remote.

ZipRecruiter found that the average job seeker looking for work now is seeing 50% more job openings than before the pandemic. And because of the popularity and rapid acceptance of remote work, many of those job openings are suddenly available to people across the country.

Pollak prefers to call this trend the Great Promotion rather than call it resignation or quitting. Wages are growing, she noted, and recruiters are beginning to offer signing bonuses for lower-wage jobs, such as those in the leisure and hospitality industry.

Ron Hetrick said watching people jump from job to job seems more like "a game of musical chairs." A senior labor economist at labor market analytics firm Emsi Burning Glass, Hetrick said companies aren't focused enough on retaining and developing their existing employees. Rather, they've put resources into recruiting and poaching from other companies, encouraging more people to quit.

"Companies need to start shouldering the burden," he said. "Right now, they think instead of giving people raises and more meaningful work, they're saying they'll just steal employees from someone else's work -- it's short-term thinking."

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Companies are poaching employees from competitors by promising benefits like remote work with flexible hours.

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It's also costing companies money. Economists say it's hard to quantify how much it costs a company to lose an experienced employee and then train a new one, but they all agree it amounts to tens of thousands of dollars.

Part of the challenge is that companies don't have a solid game plan to follow. In times of economic uncertainty, they know to cut costs. When things are good, they know to invest. But they haven't ever encountered so few potential job candidates.

"This is an acute pain because of the situation we have," Hetrick said, adding that his assistant had just turned in her resignation because she'd gotten an offer for a job at another firm that she "couldn't turn down." 

Another challenge is the rapidly shifting office culture. Many companies, including tech giants like Apple, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google, are attempting to navigate the new normal of people expecting flexibility. Some of the loudest debates over remote work have happened in the tech world, where employees have asked for flexibility to stay home even from their luxurious offices in Silicon Valley.

Feldman, who quit his job at Hillel International, is already weighing in on that conversation. His new nonprofit, R&R: The rest of our lives, is devoted to improving nonprofit work culture, including through grants to encourage nonprofit executives to take three-month sabbaticals. He's already raised $1 million in seed funding.

"A lot of this stuff that's at a core of a more sustainable work culture for us doesn't require big-scale institutional change," he said. Instead, it requires a change in how we approach work culture, both as employers and employees.

"We're not experiencing a great resignation right now," he said. "We're experiencing a great work change."