Maeve Higgins: Pandemic gave millions of US workers a new outlook on life

Some combination of pandemic burn-out, better opportunities, remote work, and a cushion provided by stimulus cheques and unemployment benefits have contributed to this massive, chaotic churn in the labour market
Maeve Higgins: Pandemic gave millions of US workers a new outlook on life

In the US in September, a record number of 4.4m workers quitting their jobs voluntarily in September, almost 3% of the working population. Picture: iStock/PA. 

Imagine the entire population of Croatia walking off the job in the space of a month — millions of people quitting their jobs, practically all at once.

That’s close to what happened here in the US in September, where the Labor Department reported a record number of 4.4m workers quitting their jobs voluntarily in September. That is almost 3% of the working population and the highest number of people quitting since the department began tracking that number 20 years ago. 

For context, 10 years ago, in September 2011, 1.5m people quit their jobs. Some combination of pandemic burn-out, better opportunities, remote work, and a cushion provided by stimulus cheques and unemployment benefits have contributed to this massive, chaotic churn in the labour market. 

To get more specific, I spoke to several Americans who quit their jobs in the past few months, and got some complex and fascinating answers to my one simple question — why did you quit?

Alisha P* works in marketing in New York City and left her job of over five years this summer. “At the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was so terrified. Are we going to be fired or, you know, what’s going to happen here? And so, financially, I didn’t feel like that was a very smart point to make a change. But by June, things got a little bit more hopeful.”

'I felt burnt-out'

At that point, she’d spent over a year working remotely, with her workload gradually increasing. “I felt burnt-out to the point that I was like: ‘I just need to make a change’.” 

She told herself: “You know, nobody else is going to do this for you. You have to pull the trigger and make it happen.” She has since taken a new job in the same industry, but the strain of working through a pandemic helped to crystallise something she already knew about herself; that her work did not define her. While others around her were leaning into their jobs, there were points where she thought: “I can’t believe we’re still working like this when the world is falling apart.”

Our work lives were bound to change, considering how many profound shifts have occurred in other parts of our lives in the past 18 months. These shifts are both directly and indirectly related to the pandemic. 

Our work lives were bound to change, considering how many profound shifts have occurred in other parts of our lives in the past 18 months. These shifts are both directly and indirectly related to the pandemic. Picture: iStock
Our work lives were bound to change, considering how many profound shifts have occurred in other parts of our lives in the past 18 months. These shifts are both directly and indirectly related to the pandemic. Picture: iStock

In Los Angeles, 35-year-old Esme W* has a very different plan for her life than she had at the beginning of last year. Six years into an administrative job at a university, she saw little opportunity for promotion, despite performing strongly in the role.

“I was spending at least 90% of my day behind a computer, and it felt monotonous, and you know, the time was marching on. I was just
focused on my inbox, and I was wondering where the last six years had gone.” 

Esme was struggling to afford the rent on a shared apartment, and despite having health insurance, she owed thousands of dollars in medical debt, a problem 19% of American households share.

Then along came the pandemic, during which she went through a tough break-up, and three of her loved ones died — two from cancer and one from Covid-19. Esme told me losing them was a “reminder of how fragile and short life can be”. 

This realisation, coupled with caring for her aunt throughout her illness, focused Esme on the kind of work she longed for – nursing. “It just felt super meaningful, and like I could make a difference in that way, because you’re looking into somebody’s eyes and anticipating their needs. It just felt like a meaningful human connection, and that seemed important to me, and still does.”

Esme spent a lot of time in hospitals as a patient herself, and she holds nurses in high regard, but does not romanticise their job. There is a practical side, too — she plans to start a family and own a home one day, and nurses in California earn relatively high wages, good benefits, and strong worker protections in the form of unions. 

Esme used her stimulus check to pay off some of her medical debt, then she quit her job and began to take classes. Despite the significant losses she faced in the past 18 months, she is upbeat about her direction. “I feel very optimistic about the future. It’s kind of a like the pandemic really shook things up, and I think that shifted perspectives a little bit.”

Quitting is contagious

Quitting is contagious. Sarah H*, 26, left her job as a designer at a Chicago advertising agency on the spur of the moment. She watched co-workers and friends quit their jobs and began to see it as an option. Despite enjoying the atmosphere and people at her job, she realised she was being overworked and underpaid. Finding a new job with better pay and benefits was easier than she expected. 

“Truthfully, when I applied to a new job, I was like, well, I don’t even think it could happen. Honestly, I was a little pissed off with work one day. So I did it on a whim, to see what would happen, and obviously, it worked out to my benefit. And as for the timing of it, it was much faster than I had anticipated.” 

She found a job that pays her 20% more than the one she quit, and her story reflects a significant trend. Wages are increasing, and fast. The Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labour costs, jumped 1.3% in the third quarter after rising 0.7% in the April-June period — and this is measured across industries.

Employers scrambling for workers

Employers are scrambling for workers, with behemoths like Amazon growing ever more massive each day. Amazon recruits aggressively at every level, with advertising and competitive sign-on bonuses; it now employs almost 1m people in this country.

Getting workers is one thing; keeping them is another. Amy, a risk analyst with Amazon in Seattle, quit in July. She explained how she felt in her final weeks at the company. 

“I just would sit and stare at my computer and just be like: ‘Wow, I can’t bring myself to do this’.” She could not explain what was wrong; she had a reasonable workload, a kind boss, and a team she liked. But she was also burnt out from her previous role dealing with regulators and restricted products at Amazon. Last year was the most difficult of her working life: “All I was doing was working, laying on my couch, then rolling back up and working again.”

She experienced rapid weight loss because of the stress and anxiety of that role, and she also began to pay attention to the practices Amazon has been criticised for.

“Everything else in the world is such crap; it would be nice to feel not grimy about where you work,” she said. “I would like to feel good about where I work.”

Amy is looking for a new job now, at a place she feels good about. In the meantime, she is doing something very few people in this country ever get to do — she is simply not working.

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