Why Are People Quitting Their Jobs?

by Meg Embry

Updated August 17, 2022 • 6 min read


People are quitting their jobs and pursuing new careers at unprecedented rates.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the "quits rate" in the U.S. reached an all-time high this spring. Four million people quit their jobs in April 2021.

Many have blamed the resulting worker shortage on stimulus checks and unemployment benefits that allegedly dissuade folks from returning to their poorly-paid jobs. But that isn't the whole story.

Quitting in search of greener pastures isn't new for Americans. The average person changes jobs 12 times in their life. Before the pandemic, one survey found that nearly half of working adults make a significant career change at least once in their lives.

Top Three Reasons People Changed Careers Before the Pandemic

  • Unhappy in previous job
  • Wanted greater flexibility
  • Wanted better income

Source: Indeed

The pandemic has accelerated that trend dramatically. According to the BLS, quits made up roughly 18% of all job separations in April 2020.

A year later, quits jumped to nearly 70% of all job separations.

What Is Going On?

The pandemic sparked a sea change in American beliefs about work. People are reevaluating where they want to work, how much time they want to devote to their jobs, and what they want to get out of their careers.

As of summer 2021, 95% of workers are considering changing jobs, and 92% say they would switch industries to do it.

There has been a lot of media coverage concerning the overwhelming exodus of leisure and hospitality workers. But even the highly credentialed are willing to walk away from their careers in favor of work that aligns with their post-pandemic values.

More than 700,000 people in professional and business services left their jobs in April — the highest number ever recorded.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Two of the biggest are burnout and lack of fulfillment.

According to a recent special report, 62% of workers quit in search of a better work/life balance, and 50% quit because they wanted a greater sense of purpose. For many, these two things go hand in hand.

"The pandemic put things into perspective for me," said Naida Allen. Allen recently ditched her "soul-destroying" job as a business development executive to become a content creator.

"We should value our health and happiness more, take more risks – rather than stay stuck in a perpetual Groundhog Day."

Burnout Is Driving Change

It's no surprise that burnout plays a major role in the great job migration of 2021. In fact, 67% of workers believe burnout has worsened during the pandemic.

Burnout is "the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation because of prolonged stress or frustration." The condition was added to the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases in 2019, before the pandemic made things even worse.

According to a 2021 Gallup report:

of U.S. workers

report feeling stressed on a daily basis

of respondents

said their lives have been drastically
affected by pandemic

Right now, healthcare workers and teachers are especially burnt out.

A recent McKinsey survey revealed that 22% of bedside nurses plan to leave their roles within the next year. Nurses cited insufficient staffing, heavy workloads, and the increased emotional toll of their jobs as their top motivators for leaving.

Joelle Jean recently worked as a family nurse practitioner in an urgent care center in New York City. She was already feeling worn thin before the pandemic.

Then her clinic started seeing symptomatic patients.

"It became clear that getting a daily quota of patients through the door would be prioritized over nurses' concerns about safety," she said. "I realized it was time for me to leave."

Jean quit to become a senior writer for NurseJournal.org. Her new job is entirely remote. "Honestly, it's such a huge relief."

of workers

expect to work remotely at least
part of the time after the pandemic

1 in 3

would not work for an employer
that requires them to be in the office full time

Like nurses, teachers are leaving their profession at such high rates that it's threatening employee supply.

Since the pandemic, teachers have reported more burnout and depression than the general public.

1 in 4 teachers
is considering quitting, citing mode of teaching and health as their biggest stressors

Teachers have risked exposure in their classrooms while feeling unsupported, underappreciated, and underpaid. In the "Teaching During Covid-19" Facebook group, teacher Meghan O'Hara posted about submitting her resignation:

"I'm a bit nervous about what the future brings, but I'm certain it will be better than the treatment we have gotten this year in the public education system. At the end of last year, we were miracle workers. Now we are babysitters who better go into schools during a pandemic, and we had better like it. And if we don't like it, then we can just quit. OK, I don't like it; I quit!"

O'Hara got into real estate instead. After only two deals, her commission check was more money than she could have made in nine months of teaching. "So trust me when I say I'll be absolutely fine," she said.

Nearly three hundred teachers commented on her post to support her decision and share their own stories of quitting.

People are also leaving established careers in search of personal fulfillment.

"The pandemic has opened up our eyes to the brevity of life," said Ian Sells, Founder and CEO of Million Dollar Sellers and Rebate Key Inc.

"It jolted a lot of people. It empowered them to move away from what they're used to doing. People are hungry for more relevant and worthy endeavors, and they are being very clear about that."

That was certainly the case for Natasha Williams, who was laid off after 12 years in public administration in the oil and gas industry.

"I had two master's degrees, certifications, and compliance licenses," she said. "I did so much to ensure career longevity in that field. But I lost it all when my company downsized in the pandemic."

Instead of looking for another job in her industry, Williams stopped to think about what she really wanted. She thought of her grandmother, who developed a staffing agency for domestic workers in the early 20th century. "She was immaculate, always in pearls and an apron."

The memory inspired Williams to launch her own apron line, Reign Solo, and join the 17% of Black women in the United States who are currently launching a small business. Her apron line has since been featured on Cupcake Wars and the Food Network.

She doesn't regret striking out on her own.

"I was already in such a risky situation. Why not take a few more risks? Why not do something to honor my grandmother's legacy? To nurture my creativity?" Williams said. "This year made it so clear: You only live once."

Apparently, lots of people are having the same thought. With the pandemic surging, a record 4.5 million new business applications were submitted in 2020 — a 24% increase from the year before. Many report leaving steady, high-paying jobs to pursue all kinds of personally fulfilling avenues, like becoming wellness coaches, launching startups, writing blogs, and going back to school.

What Students Should Know

It might be disconcerting to hear about so many people walking away from stable careers that require specialized degrees when you are in the middle of getting your own degree.

But long-time career coach Stacy Richards says students can learn a lot from the collective shift in how we value work.

"Many folks needed a global crisis to show them what they really want out of life. You can prioritize that level of introspection now. You are already more equipped to think of your jobs holistically, which will help you crisis-proof your futures."

A Good Time for a Change

While the great pandemic job migration might look unstable on the surface, it's actually a boon for anyone ready to change careers.

That's because job openings are currently outstripping job searchers.

As a result, employers are competing for skilled workers by raising wages, offering flexible work options, and in some cases experimenting with shorter workweeks to combat burnout. Some companies have even introduced bonus programs, college tuition reimbursement, and retirement programs.

So if you have been feeling burnt out and unfulfilled, now may be a good time to make a major career change — while workers are enjoying historic bargaining power in the American job market.

You can join the job migration trend by going back to school for something you love, sending your freshly polished resume to a dream employer, or launching a new passion project of your own.

"You'd be surprised where passion can take you," said Williams. "It's now or never."

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for TheBestSchools.org covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: Aaron Foster, khuang54, zmeel, Ljupco | Getty Images

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