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Why So Many People Are Quitting Their Jobs

Here's why that's not such a bad thing.

An astonishing 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August, a number that amounts to 2.9 percent of the total workforce. That’s the highest quit rate since the Department of Labor began conducting the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) in 2000.

Workers are quitting their jobs across industrial lines, but there are particular areas where it was more pronounced. The two tracked industries with the highest quit rate in August were retail trade, where 4.7 percent of workers quit, and accommodation and food services, where 6.4 percent of workers quit.

That adds up to more than 1.6 million people, which means that those two industries accounted for more than a third of the workers who quit across the entire economy. And it’s not difficult to discern the reasons.

Both hospitality and retail rely on poorly paid workers forced to interact with lots of people, increasing their risk of exposure to rude customers, of course, but also to COVID-19. The continuing high cost of childcare and pandemic-era shortage of facilities means that working can be unprofitable for parents who’d end up owing more in daycare bills than they can make in these industries.

The high quit rate in those industries is also likely at least somewhat self-enforcing—wouldn’t you be more likely to quit a job in which you were dealing with the stress of working short-staffed than one where you weren’t?

Government jobs, which tend to be relatively well-paid and well-protected (via unions and/or civil service law) and have more generous benefits, saw the lowest quit rate of any industry, just 0.8 percent across federal, state, and local levels.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the high quit rate is actually good news for American workers. Not many people are eager to quit their job when they don’t have another one lined up, so more people quitting their jobs mean more people have found opportunities that suit them better. And a dynamic where workers have a choice in where they work means that they have some bargaining power in what they get out of their next job.

For employers, particularly those in the industries with the highest quit rates, the solution is simple: pay workers more and treat them better. That’s obviously anathema to many businesses, where the all-important bottom line means maximizing output while minimizing costs as much as possible (and, often, pleading poverty to sympathetic conservative politicians in both parties). But at some point, the rate of turnover and/or difficulty filling roles starts costing more money than increasing wages would.

So congratulations to the 4.3 million people who quit their jobs in August. Individually, they’re moving on to better opportunities. Together, they’re exerting pressure on employers to treat workers better, hopefully paving the way for a world in which more workers are more satisfied with their professional situations and leading more fulfilling lives as a result.