American workers are staying put

The Great Resignation is in the rearview mirror. What was it all about, anyway?

A highway rest stop that has a "Exit" sign
Jake Warga / Getty

The “Great Resignation” is solidly in the rearview mirror. Why were so many people quitting, anyway?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Staying Put

After a stretch of runaway quitting over the past few years—you might’ve heard it dubbed the “Great Resignation”—American workers are largely staying put. In July, the rates of American workers quitting their jobs normalized to about where they were before the pandemic. New data from the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey show that quit rates slid even further in November, the lowest they’ve been since September 2020. If you exclude those early COVID months, when layoffs were soaring and people were quitting their jobs at very low rates, quit rates are now at their lowest point since March 2018.

The Great Resignation was to some extent a misnomer. People weren’t really dropping out of the workforce: Although Americans were leaving jobs at unusually high rates, many workers were jumping to new ones that paid more, or otherwise better served their needs. “Quitting is a good proxy for switching jobs,” Nick Bunker, the economic-research director at Indeed’s Hiring Lab, told me. “The vast majority of people only quit a job if they’ve got a new job lined up or they think they can get one relatively quickly.” As my colleague Derek Thompson wrote in 2021, the moment was “more like the Big Switch than the Big Quit.” It has also been called, among other things, the Great Reset, the Great Reshuffle, the Great Reckoning, and the Great Upgrade.

People quit not because they are lazy or because, as Kim Kardashian infamously posited, no one wants to get off their ass and work. In fact, the opposite is commonly true: Workers quit because they are confident that they can nab a better opportunity. “Quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers,” Derek wrote in another article in 2021. “But this level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better.” The Great Resignation was, in many ways, a moment of ambition.

Workers had major leverage in 2021 and 2022, as employers who were scrambling to reopen their businesses and replace laid-off staff wooed workers with benefits and higher pay. The number of quits relative to layoffs and firings soared: Before the pandemic, that ratio was at 1.77, and by April 2020, it had plummeted to 0.21, as tracked by the economist Aaron Sojourner’s Labor Leverage Ratio measure. It peaked at 3.35 in April 2022 and has since moderated to 2.27, a decline of 32 percent. But it’s still well higher than it was pre-pandemic, in part because layoffs (despite some high-profile tech cuts) remain broadly quite low.

Workers still have leverage, but not as much as they did two years ago. And they, along with their employers, are largely not making big moves. Companies are being cautious as they wait to see if the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates, said Julia Pollak, the chief economist at ZipRecruiter. They’re not rushing to slash staff, but they’re also not growing all that much: Hires have been sliding in recent months too. So what to call this wait-and-see era? “There’s a bit of fatigue now among economists” about using “quirky phrases” to describe economic trends, Pollak said. Perhaps it’s best to call the present moment nothing at all.


Today’s News

  1. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer last month and currently remains in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center recovering from a procedure and related complications. Austin recently faced criticism for his delay in notifying the public and key political leaders, including President Joe Biden, about his hospitalization.
  2. A panel of three federal appeals-court judges questioned Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
  3. French President Emmanuel Macron appointed Gabriel Attal, the 34-year-old education minister, as the country’s prime minister, making him both the youngest and the first openly gay person to hold the office.

Evening Read

Screengrab from "American Fiction," showing Jeffrey Wright and Erika Alexander walking outdoors

American Fiction and the ‘Just Literature’ Problem

By Tyler Austin Harper

“Why are these books here?” asks Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the writer protagonist of the film American Fiction, as he points to four novels stacked neatly on the shelf of a chain bookstore. The name Ellison sticks out from their spines.

Monk wants to know why his Greek-tragedy-inspired novels are housed not in “Mythology” but in the “African American Studies” section. A bookstore employee offers the obvious explanation: “I would imagine that this author, Ellison, is … Black.” He has the decency to stammer the response, but this does little to alleviate Monk’s fury. “That’s me, Ellison. He is me, and he and I are Black,” the writer fumes. “These books have nothing to do with African American studies.” He taps one of his titles with an impatient finger. “They’re just literature.”

Read the full article.

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Over the years, like many of my fellow internet users with an email account, I have received many missives from Quora, surfacing questions of the most unhinged variety. So I greatly appreciated my colleague Jacob Stern’s article today looking at what on earth the deal with the site is. He writes, “Fourteen years into its run, Quora now provides an answer to one fundamental question: How has the internet evolved? From idealism to opportunism, from knowledge-seeking to attention-grabbing, from asking questions to shouting answers.”

— Lora

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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