October 21, 2021

TUNE IN, TURN ON, DROP OUT: The Great Resignation is Accelerating.

As I wrote in the spring, quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers. But this level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better. You may have heard the story that in the golden age of American labor, 20th-century workers stayed in one job for 40 years and retired with a gold watch. But that’s a total myth. The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out. And they’re being rewarded for their lack of patience: Wages for low-income workers are rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. The Great Resignation is, literally, great.

For workers, that is. For the far smaller number of employers and bosses—who in pre-pandemic times were much more comfortable—this economy must feel like leaping from the frying pan of economic chaos, only to land in the fires of Manager Hell. Job openings are sky-high. Many positions are going unfilled for months. Meanwhile, supply chains are breaking down because of a hydra of bottlenecks. Running a company requires people and parts. With people quitting and parts missing, it must kinda suck to be a boss right now. (Oh, well!) . . .

One way to capture the meaning of any set of events is to consider what it would mean if they all happened in reverse. Imagine if quits fell to nearly zero. Business formation declined. In lieu of an urban exodus, everybody moved to a dense downtown. It would be, in other words, a movement of extraordinary consolidation and centralization: everybody working in urban areas for old companies that they never leave.

Look at what we have instead: a great pushing-outward. Migration to the suburbs accelerated. More people are quitting their job to start something new. Before the pandemic, the office served for many as the last physical community left, especially as church attendance and association membership declined. But now even our office relationships are being dispersed. The Great Resignation is speeding up, and it’s created a centrifugal moment in American economic history.

Politically, the pandemic has led to centralization of authority, though the incompetence of authority may make that a short-term phenomenon. Economically, the direction has been rather the reverse.

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