S1: Hey, everyone. Quick heads up, we’ve got some tape in this show of people joyfully quitting their jobs, and when they do that, they curse. Betsey Stevenson studies big economic trends. She used to advise President Obama, and she started using this phrase to describe the economy right now. She calls it the life’s too short economy. Sometimes the take this job and shove it economy. It’s a pithy way of summing up the fact that a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September. That is a new record. The previous record was set the month before. In other words, the quitting it is all around us. I mean, if you talk to anyone who has resigned in the last few months, like, I don’t know, it’s just quit.
S2: Oh, well, that’s so funny. I was like, I don’t know any. No, that’s not true. Like somebody who is near and dear to my heart, who worked with me or my textbook just resigned and he resigned. I mean, he literally sent me an email and said, Welcome to the life’s too short economy Betsey. Oh my God, he’s like, I want more out of life than this, and I’ve got big plans.
S1: By this point, all of us know someone who’s gotten an email like this. Maybe you’ve sent an email like this. Betsey, who is a veteran sorter of economic data, says by her estimation, there are actually three kinds of quitters at the moment.
S2: One is the the angry story. The Wal-Mart worker quitting over the intercom. Attention, Wal-Mart, shoppers and associates. My name is best for electronics, I’ve been working at Wal-Mart for almost five years and I think those are people who just have had enough
S3: to generate or store manager.
S2: You’re a codeword. You know, I think the tolerance for being mistreated, for feeling underappreciated. I think our just collective tolerance for that is lower. But manage it and what this job I quit. Another one of the stories is the I have this vision for what I want to do with my life, and this isn’t I’m not actually on the right path for that. I, you know, I need to take that leap. I need to start my own business. I need to change occupations or change industries.
S1: So we have the frustrated person and the dreamer who’s the third type?
S2: The third type is a person who understands there’s a lot of opportunities out there, and now’s a really good time to find something that’s going to pay better or give better working conditions.
S1: Kind of the practical person, maybe, right?
S2: Right, so we’ve got the frustrated, the dreamer and the practical optimiser,
S1: all of these people have got one thing in common. Who they are prioritizing themselves and part of the reason Betsey loves his quitting stories is that what’s going on looks to her like a classic economic story, one of supply and demand. We are just not used to seeing it flipped like this.
S2: If we filled every job that we had open today, we would have employment there was not only higher than the pandemic, but higher than anyone would have predicted for 2022. Employers really want people back. And so that’s giving people a chance to rethink what they want to do
S1: today on the show. Stories from the great resignation. We’ll talk to a quitter and someone who has quit on three times in one week. Then Betsey is going to try to help us figure out how long all this can last. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. When we started thinking about doing a show and all these people leaving the workforce, we knew exactly who we wanted to tap into first, you.
S4: Hi, Mary. Hey guys.
S1: We opened up a phone line and we asked all of you to think of it like your own personal Wal-Mart intercom and tell us what made you resign?
S4: I’ve just always known that, you know, if I put this job or if they fire me, I have no power because they can get people lined up around the block to this thing. And that’s not the case anymore. And honestly, it’s kind of exhilarating.
S5: I call myself professionally unemployed, just taking time and figuring out what my passions are. And I realize that I’m passionate about not working full time.
S4: I quit my job today to day. I thought about it for six months and it was really hard. But I feel relieved and sad and a little scared, but mostly like a weight has been lifted.
S1: That last message we got the person who quit her job and then called us the very same day, we asked our producer Danielle to give her a call.
S6: Thank you for dropping us a voicemail.
S3: Yeah, my friend urged me to call. Oh, really? Because I said the message was like, I quit. I’m done. And she’s like, Oh my God, she sent me a screenshot and she’s like, You got you got to call into the show.
S1: So Danielle when you got this listener on the line, what did she have to say?
S6: So pre-pandemic, Rachel worked in instructional design for a big nursing home company. She kind of described it to me as H.R. adjacent. She creates those H.R. modules compliance training online that you take post-pandemic. Her job changed almost overnight. You know, eldercare got so affected by the COVID 19 pandemic that she was sending out all of this extremely important public health information to a ton of workers, and it was like nonstop for her. Her job changed so much and got so intense that she finally couldn’t take it. It was a Tuesday. I was scrolling through our voicemails and I saw hers, and she had quit that day and decided to share her story with us.
S3: It was all hands on deck. We were one of those companies where we were not just losing customers because they weren’t walking in the door, they were dying. So everything had much more of a human impact than, I think, some other industries. And so I, as a designer, got put in situations where I would. I was on the COVID task force and I needed to design communication that will be spread out throughout the entire country on what we’re going to do for cleaning protocols, what we’re going to do to eliminate spread of this virus. You know, what is this? What is the guidance coming out from the CDC essentially informing all of the employees how things needed to change on every level?
S6: So overnight, you kind of became a public health communicator.
S3: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it.
S6: When did you get to the moment of like, I can’t do this, obviously, maybe Tuesday, but you’re going to take me through like, you know, you were feeling the pressure and then it was. Was there a moment where you were like, All right, maybe I need to start thinking about leaving?
S3: I think it was May of 2021. At about May, I was like, so burned out. But what did surprise me was I stayed for like six months just trying to second guess myself and say, Well, you can’t leave a job with insurance. You can’t walk away from this situation where they need you. You carry so much on this team. Everybody relies on you. I’m very well aware of that. And it was sort of this like guilt, this like self guilt trip. Luckily, I spent the years of twenty thirteen to twenty sixteen becoming debt free from college, so I was debt free and I don’t have dependents. You know, I’m a millennial locked out of homeownership. So it was just it was just like, Well, I don’t have any other reason, you know, to not take a risk.
S6: OK, take me to Tuesday. Like, you’re may. You’re like, This isn’t for me. And then kind of all summer, you may be psyching yourself out in and out of doing this. And then Tuesday, it finally happens. How did you finally get to Tuesday?
S3: Good. S girlfriends, a lot of recent good US girlfriends. Can I say that? Good girlfriends. I went to a girlfriend’s house and she said, All right, I’m going to ask you a series of questions that I read that really helped me when I had to quit. All right. You just answer yes or no? OK. I said, All right. And she goes, Do you align with the mission of the company? I said, no. Do you feel that the company is changing the world with the way they’re approaching a problem? No. Do you feel that the company helps their customers? No. Do you feel that the that you’re being adequately compensated? No. Do you feel that you are a challenge by the work that you’re doing? No. Do you feel that you’re growing doing the work they’re doing? No. Do you feel like you’re learning any skills? No. Do you feel like you’re padding your portfolio with work that you’d be proud of? No. Then why are you working here? And that’s kind of what really did it?
S6: Did you just send in your two weeks?
S3: I had a regularly scheduled one on one with my manager who I really liked, and I just told him, like, I have nothing left. I’m so burned out. I have no energy for the kind of work that I have to do. And I kept saying, I just don’t have the I don’t have the will anymore. I just can’t do this. I’m just burned out. And he was super understanding and very surprised and sad, but he definitely understood because I think it’s happening around everywhere. It’s not the only one to quit, but I think that employers in this situation were asking people, especially during a layoff or a mass quit situation. Employers are asking more of the employees that the employees can’t handle because their lives have completely changed. Hmm. It’s too much, you know, and there’s no additional compensation for that because the company didn’t make as much profit as last year or I meant 2019. So sorry, we don’t have enough money for any increases in salary. Not every companies operating that way, but a lot of them are. And that’s not sustainable. And I think that’s kind of why you’re seeing this great resignation because employees are fed up. We know we are a number.
S6: How did you feel after that meeting? Based on your voicemail, you kind of sounded very relieved and almost like exhilarated.
S3: I was texting everybody I could think of that had like been my therapist through this whole process of like, This is what you’re worth. This is your value. You know, you need to walk away. You got when you need it out of it. There’s plenty of jobs out there. You’re skilled, you’ll find something better. You’ll you know. I texted all those people I quit. Exclamation mark. And I was very excited. I think as the day went on, I got kind of like, Oh shit, you know, because it it’s it’s your routine, it’s your daily routine goes away. Those people you talk to, even if they’re just squares in a box. There’s still people that you’re used to them expecting something of you. Even some of the company equipment, you know, that goes away.
S6: It’s a big life change.
S3: Yeah, it’s a very big life change. And then you’re basically asked to figure out something else and you have to transition. And I think another thing about our society is we don’t really take adequate time for breaks. You know, for transition breaks. So, you know, I I’m hoping that I can transition and actually take some downtime because I probably haven’t processed everything that went on during the pandemic because I was moving at the speed of light the whole time.
S1: When we come back, the people getting quit on. For every gleeful I quit, like every person who ditches a job to pursue a different path. There’s an employer on the other side of all that maybe is somewhat desperate employer, maybe someone who’s been losing employees left and right, which is forcing some difficult choices for a glimpse at what that is like. Our producer Mary Wilson got in touch with a business owner in Pennsylvania. Her name is Julia. Why did you want to talk to her?
S7: I found Julia story in a local news magazine in a town actually where I used to live a few years ago, and she had written this blog post on her own business’s website that had then gotten reprinted by the local magazine. And in this post, she wrote, she was basically saying I as a business owner, I’m having a really hard time and I implore my community to see this weird moment we’re in. From my perspective, I’m begging people to see it a little bit from the perspective of someone who has to employ people because, you know, there was this moment over the summer and fall where, you know, I even caught myself looking around at people leaving their jobs or being very choosy about what jobs they would take. And I thought, Well, good for them. It’s nice to see big and small companies try to bend over backwards to keep their workers happy.
S1: Yeah, all of us want to root for the little guy.
S7: Yeah, yeah. And then I saw this post by Julia that made me think, Oh, I, I don’t have the whole story here. I need to get more of her perspective. So this is Julia James she and her husband run a grocery store called Radish and Rye Food Hub in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
S5: So we are this little grocery store in a neighborhood that is defined as USDA as a low income, low access neighborhood or, in other words, a food desert. We had this vision that like we could be offering fresh produce from this neighborhood that doesn’t really have it and supporting these local farms at the same time. When we started the business, it was just the two of us and the business grew and grew, but we were very much embedded in this community and knew know a lot of our customers by name. And people know us by name.
S7: The earlier months of the pandemic were pretty good for the business. Shopping for groceries had become this huge challenge for people. I don’t know if you experienced this Mary, but I was definitely trying to minimize my risk. I was trying to get to stores before the shelves were cleared out and and that was happening in Julia’s neighborhood, too. And so she and her husband saw this huge surge in customers like people couldn’t go to the big-box grocery stores to get what they needed. So they were going to this little, you know, you know, middle of town grocer.
S1: So it’s kind of a good news story for them.
S7: Yeah, kind of. But it got really hard.
S5: It was harder than we thought it would be to find, folks. We were hearing from people that they wanted to be working. But then it turned out that nobody. We had trouble finding folks who actually wanted to and a lot of those folks were making more on unemployment than they would be working because of that extra few hundred dollars a week. And they would say to us, you know, this is how much I’m making on unemployment. And so if I’m going to have to work, I want it to either be really, really awesome or I want to make more money than that.
S7: So for Julia’s business, the story of last year was this growth on the one hand, but a lot of uncertainty and really high turnover. Like more employee turnover than they had seen in their previous five years in the business. By spring 2021, Julia started another round of hiring to get the store back to being fully staffed. And then over the summer, she was seeing news articles about labor shortages and the great resignation. And that concept really hit home for Julia in October.
S5: Basically, at the beginning of October and one week I had three of our full time staff all turn in their notice
S3: in one week.
S5: In one week. Yeah, two of them on the same day. I thought that we were on the verge of having a team that was stable enough that the store could operate without me physically being there for a significant chunk of the of the week. And all of a sudden, that was very much not true. I just felt like, Well, I can’t. I can’t even do this even if I did work every hour that the store is open. I’m only one person. And so in response to this, we’re changing those hours so that we’re we’re losing Tuesday is completely so. We’ll be open Wednesday through Friday noon to seven, and Saturday and Sunday will remain unchanged eight to five. So we’re losing a pretty big percentage of those retail hours. They are, of course, the hours where people are least likely to shop with us. But it takes us out of convenient grocery store model and more into specialty store model.
S7: Can you explain why that’s that’s such a tricky thing for you guys in your business?
S5: Yeah, it’s a constant balancing act to say like, OK, well, we could charge a little more, but that’s going to make it a little less affordable for the customers, or we could pay a little less for it. But that’s going to make it less viable for the farmers to keep doing what we’re doing or we could pay ourselves or our staff a little less. But then we maybe we can’t keep doing it on a personal level. So I think there’s this constant tension that has always been there, but is maybe really exacerbated right now.
S7: There’s so many things I read and hear about how prospective employees and just people looking for jobs, they just feel like the scales have been tilted toward them, like they have just a little bit more power than they’re used to. Are there ways in which you have felt that
S5: we got one application from someone who I think it started off seeming like a sincere application and then evolved into this rant about what bullshit our application was in those words, and that how dare we have the nerve to ask for references? We’re not a big enough business to have the audacity to do that. Like, we don’t have some right to verify. It was all very confusing to me, and certainly we have never before had anything like that. That’s how I also threatened to launch a social media smear campaign against us if we did not interview him. We did not interview him and so far, no smear campaign. OK, but I feel like my Facebook feed is is really celebrating the rise of the worker. And yes, these workers, especially in the service industry, have been exploited for so long. And now this is great death to the capitalist pigs ends. And I don’t disagree that the service industry is historically overworked and under compensated and like, it’s true. I am a capitalist. I have made investments and I own all these things refrigerators and kitchen equipment and things like that that are more than I can effectively operate by myself. And so I have to employ people in order to make full use of those. And you could say, well, it’s necessarily exploitive for one person to own all of that stuff. Like everyone should own a refrigerator, but that’s just not a viable model to feed your community, right? So I just when I see those those memes or feel that voting, I feel like, who is it that you’re gloating about? Like, Amazon’s not going anywhere. They’re fine. I think it’s the smallest businesses that have the hardest time writing out those market pressures. And ultimately, the bigger companies are going to be more able to absorb increases in the costs of labor or goods where the smaller companies are going to be much more squeezed. Like, what do you think is the end game here? Who do you think ultimately this is going to help or hurt?
S1: When we come back, is all this quitting sustainable? After hearing from Rachel and Julia, I wanted to go back to economist Betsey Stevenson because she’s talked about this moment we’re in right now as an economic transition. And when she said that she’s been clear economic transitions, they’ve got winners and losers. I wondered if employers like Julia would be on the losing end long term because they simply are not going to be able to find the help they need. That was certainly the fear this summer. Back then, Julia was not alone when she blamed government assistance for her inability to staff up, and Betsey gets that logic. But she’s come to see it differently.
S2: You know, I will tell you that my views about cash assistance has been enormously shaped by the pandemic.
S1: What do you mean by that?
S2: We made people better off by giving them money, and I know there’s a lot of people who are worried that that’s why people aren’t going back to work. But I think we empowered them to not only negotiate better jobs, but to change occupations and change industries in a way where they’re going to be better utilized and that they’re going to come out ahead.
S1: Were you kind of suspicious of of cash assistance before it happened? But then you saw the impact?
S2: Like all economists, you worry that, oh, of course, if I give people money, then if they’re getting money for nothing, then maybe they won’t work. That’s what I mean, that every economist has that fear. Every conservative has that fear. But I think what we didn’t see is that we’ve seen coming out of this pandemic is. Insuring people against the worst outcomes, putting a cushion underneath them gives them leverage in the labor market. That’s like being in a union.
S1: Yeah, because I was going to say the people were seeing in the middle of this pandemic, you know, sort of quitting their jobs, they’re not doing anything in an organized way. That’s what’s so strange about it. For me, looking at it from the outside, I think, OK, this thing is happening, but it’s not organized. And is that a problem? And I guess what you’re saying is it is kind of organized by the fact that there’s this cash buffer. And so that’s giving people monetary protection
S2: that they need. It’s a cash buffer. Plus a shared experience has helped organize us. I have been puzzled for a long time why workers didn’t simply demand more. And I think what the answer is is they didn’t demand more because they didn’t have other options. And once we gave them other options, meaning that the threat of starvation by the cash assistance plus the opportunity for other jobs increased. People used that to say This is not OK. Those are the frustrated people. Those are the ones saying, No, you can’t treat me this way. I’m going to get a higher wage somewhere else. And then the the the sort of practical opportunists. They became a little bit less nervous. If you are barely hanging on risk can feel really, really hard to want to embrace. And so giving people a little bit of additional support allows people to take on the risk that they need to make a transition, to make a jump, to make an improvement. Hmm.
S1: You are really bullish. It seems like to me on this transition that’s happening
S2: like, I think we’ll end up in a good place. And you think some economists think like, you know, it’s the beginning of the apocalypse?
S1: A little bit. I mean, you do see economists who are concerned about rising wages and saying, you know, they’re like, Get back to work, get back to work, get low wages, get back on this on the assembly line, you know? Um. But I wonder why you think about it differently and what you would say to an economist who’s saying that
S2: I’ve watched the wages of college graduates rise for decades without causing harm to the economy, and I don’t understand why everybody is upset that the wages of people with less education are finally rising,
S1: because we should be clear that the data that I’ve seen looks like the lower 40 percent of wage earners are having
S2: that. So that’s that’s what I mean, like why we’re seeing workers at the bottom getting huge wage gains. I’m not worried about the rise in wages because it really does come to the fact that I’ve seen the I’ve seen the labor share of income fall for a long time, and I’m I’m glad to see market forces pushing it up. I actually think that it’s good for the economy, that it’s coming from market forces rather than coming from, you know, a whole bunch of regulatory efforts. And I think we need to have real questions about how we treat workers. Darren Smuggler had this has this study that that I just to me was jaw dropping, which he showed that managers with an MBA, it’s not that they bring more value to their company, it’s that they squeeze the workers more. So they become more profitable by lowering what goes to workers, not by
S1: and keeping it for themselves,
S2: keeping it for shareholders, for capitalists. The company becomes more profitable. Where did the profits come from? Oh, it comes from squeezing workers wages. So of course, you can make more profit if you can pay workers very little. Because now it’s going to not cost you very much to make it. But is that the is that the way we want to drive profits is that the right way is a fair way?
S1: But I guess that means that there are some choices ahead here because. If we want to keep the same amount of money going to the people with MBAs and the shareholders, we’re going to have to raise prices. Now if we decide those people should get a little bit less, which probably won’t make Wall Street very happy, then maybe we can keep prices the same.
S2: Well, every every year we become more productive. Right. That’s what economic growth is. And to then, who gets those productivity gains? Did the workers get it or did the shareholders get it, or did they share it and how did they share it? So I agree with you that Wall Street wants to see profits that keep coming. But what I think is that there’s been taking more than their fair share. And you know, if we if workers take some back, I don’t think that this bargaining power is going to last forever. I don’t think, you know, all productivity gains are going to go to workers for now and for the rest of time. And I don’t think that at all. I just think that workers have a moment, which is what I would call this. I would call this a moment. It’s not even really a successful revolution. It’s a moment where we’re seeing a little bit more redistribution towards workers. I think that actually we’ll be better off for that.
S1: When you say it’s a moment that sort of implies that it’s transient. Yes. Do you think it’ll take for our economy to settle into something? That’s regular and what is regular.
S2: So I do think that this is a transition where people will land in new jobs, they’ll come back into the labor force. It’ll take two or three years for us to get there. And then that sort of settles down. And then the question is, how much power do workers hold on to someone that’s going to depend on how tight the labor market is, you know, how much people come surging into back into the labor market? Do we have a big surge in labor supply? It has helped that it’s been really tight. But I do believe the economists who say, you know, don’t, you know, don’t dawdle around forever, like, look for that new job now because it’s a really good time to find a new job. Yeah, I would tell anyone out there who’s been thinking about making a career change. Don’t put it off any longer. Now’s the time to do it. The thing is, once everybody’s done that, we won’t need to do that anymore. So I think it could really. You know, I think we could see that job will stick. Yeah, that job will stick. So a year from now, things will look, I think, very different. And two years from now, hopefully there will be even more different because people are sort of in their new jobs and happily working away at them.
S1: Betsey Stevenson is a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land Mary Wilson, Elena Schwartz and Danielle Hewitt. So much thanks today to anyone and everyone who called in and told us their quitting story. We loved hearing from you. We will be calling on you again. This show gets oversight and insight from Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go find me tweeting about my dog over on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. In the meantime, I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.