U.S. workers have been quitting their jobs in record numbers, a history-making phenomenon dubbed the “Great Resignation.” The trend has been described as an overall plus for workers, who are seen as exercising the freedom to explore new opportunities. However, the term “resignation” itself implies a degree of choice that is simply not an option for many workers. Employers who claim to support equity and diversity need to keep pressing for broader government policies that open up opportunities for all workers, not just for some.
Glowing success stories abound in commentary about the Great Resignation, yet they tend to leave out key details that make all the difference in a worker’s ability to pursue new opportunities.
For example, CNN recently described a hospitality worker in Alaska who quit her unsatisfying job, moved to Texas with her boyfriend, attended a coding boot camp, and started interning as a software engineer.
That transition sounds easy enough, at least for workers who appear to be young and in good health, and who have the financial resources to stop working, move thousands of miles away, attend a training course in a new field, and begin an internship without the guarantee of a new job at the end of the effort.
It also helps to have the educational background and social capital needed to successfully navigate training and land an internship in a new field. Those assets are easy to take for granted, but they are far from universal.
Having a life partner to bear half the load is another key advantage, as is the apparent absence of children and other dependent family members from the picture drawn by CNN.
All in all, the CNN profile raises more questions than it answers. Given the abundance of opportunities available for young, healthy adults with resources and without family responsibilities, it is all too obvious why many workers can and do choose to leave for greener pastures. The harder question is what to do about those who do not have a choice.
In fact, all this sudden talk of freedom and opportunity is quite a turnaround from just a few months ago, when more attention was still being paid to the impact of the pandemic on working mothers.
Reporter Don Lee of The Los Angeles Times took on the topic in depth last August. He notes that many working mothers were forced to quit and stay home when schools and daycare closed at the outset of the pandemic. Now that schools and daycare are reopening many of them are returning to work, but they are paying the consequence for their absence.
“The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on millions of moms in terms of job security, pay equity and long-term career opportunities — losses many will likely never recover,” Lee writes.
“In significant numbers, they endured pay cuts, reduced hours, diminished retirement benefits and lost promotions,” he adds.
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The opportunity to work from home has been cited as a key factor contributing to the Great Resignation, but the experience of women during the pandemic demonstrates that working from home is not an equal opportunity.
Lee cites Misty Heggeness, a U.S. Census Bureau economist, who explains that teleworking mothers often struggle to keep up with their colleagues due to the demands of family multitasking while working from home. They are also cut off from spontaneous career opportunities that arise for employees who are meeting and bonding with supervisors in person.
“[Heggeness] and other experts fear the pandemic’s long-term effects will deprive the economy of needed productive workers and set back decades of advances that women had made professionally and in corporate America, including narrowing the pay gap with men,” Lee writes.
All of this should raise red flags for employers who profess to support women’s equality in the workplace. Supporting parental leave is a start, but a complex web of career advancement issues also needs to be addressed.
An equally thorny problem arises in the context of the gig economy. Long before the pandemic struck, economists were raising concerns about gig worker exploitation, including long hours and unpredictable on-demand schedules that obstruct career development goals, disrupt family life, and interfere with health and sleep patterns.
These workers, too, are at risk of falling behind as others move forward in the Great Resignation.
Erika Rodriguez, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maine at Farmington, stresses the importance of polices that enable workers to control their time, work at a reasonable pace, and get more healthful rest in their daily lives. In the absence of supportive government or corporate policies, she advocates for workers to collaborate on a “slow-up” strategy and set their own boundaries.
However, Rodriguez also notes that setting boundaries is a potentially risky strategy that could lead to loss of promotion opportunities or even termination. In addition, the slow-up strategy is not available to all workers in all fields. The state of affairs in the food delivery app sector within the gig economy underscores that point.
In New York City, for example, app-based delivery gig workers have been protesting a mounting list of grievances including “wage theft, no access to bathrooms, arbitrary deactivations, rampant e-bike theft, and violent assault and murder while they're working,” as described in Vice last spring, over and above the expense of buying, maintaining and repairing their own delivery bikes, while enduring the relentless grind of keeping pace with incentives and penalties meted out by the apps.
In this context, the slow-up strategy is pure fantasy. The idea of quitting work, moving across the country, and taking a training course leading to an office job is equally far-fetched, if not more so.
Despite opportunity gaps like these, success stories about the Great Resignation can be useful. They can help raise awareness among employers about the importance of raising wages, adding benefits, creating new pathways for promotion, and implementing workplace programs that support diversity and inclusion.
On the big picture, though, it’s important to keep in mind that the Great Resignation was not coined as an all-purpose term referring to equal opportunities for career mobility. It is credited to the Texas A&M professor Anthony Klotz, who has spent years studying the reasons why employees choose to resign. His particular area of focus is on “the different ways that employees resign and the causes and effects of different resignation styles.”
In a corporate context, those choices made during the Great Resignation can certainly lead to new opportunities and motivate a change in corporate culture. However, many other members of the working public will remain walled off from this world.
Corporate leaders who seek to open new doors need to reach beyond their own operations, and lobby for voting rights, reproductive rights, and other areas of foundational public policy that impact the agency of workers both in and out of working hours.
Image credit: Norma Mortenson via Pexels
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.