More than 4 million people have left their jobs each month in the U.S. so far this year — and according to new research, this record-breaking trend isn't going to quit anytime soon.
About 40% of workers are considering quitting their current jobs in the next 3-to-6 months, a report from McKinsey and Co. published last week, which surveyed more than 13,000 people across the globe, including 6,294 Americans, between February and April, has found.
"This isn't just a passing trend, or a pandemic-related change to the labor market," Bonnie Dowling, one of the authors of the report, says of the elevated quit rates. "There's been a fundamental shift in workers' mentality, and their willingness to prioritize other things in their life beyond whatever job they hold. … We're never going back to how things were in 2019."
Such conversations about "The Great Resignation" often focus on why people quit — low pay, few opportunities for career advancement, an inflexible work schedule — but what we hear less often is what happens after people leave their jobs.
McKinsey and Co. also spoke with more than 2,800 people in six countries — the U.S., Australia, Canada, Singapore, India and the United Kingdom — who left their full-time jobs within the last two years to find out where workers are going.
About 48% of people who quit have pursued new opportunities in different industries, the report found.
Dowling points to two factors driving this exodus: pandemic-induced burnout and better odds of securing a higher-paid role in a tight labor market.
"A lot of people realized just how volatile, or unsafe, their industry was during the pandemic, especially those working on the frontlines," Dowling says.
At the same time, companies are still struggling to attract and retain employees — a pattern that had undoubtedly caused a lot of headaches for HR departments throughout the U.S., but has also opened the door for job-seekers to take advantage of new opportunities that might have been out of reach before the pandemic.
"More employers have opened up their aperture in order to meet the yawning talent gap that they're facing," Dowling adds. "They're prioritizing skills over educational background or previous job experience, which is creating more opportunities across sectors for job-seekers."
Some industries are losing talent faster than others: More than 60% of workers who quit jobs in the consumer/retail and finance/insurance fields either switched industries or quit the workforce entirely, compared to 54% of workers in health care and education who made such a switch.
Of the people who quit without a new job in hand, close to half (47%) chose to return to the workforce — but only 29% went back to a traditional, full-time job, the report notes. These percentages come from a March McKinsey & Co. survey of 600 U.S. workers who voluntarily left a job without another one lined up.
The remaining 18% of people either found a new role with reduced hours through temporary, gig or part-time work or decided to start their own business.
"People aren't tolerating toxic bosses and toxic cultures anymore, because they can leave and find other ways to make money without being in a negative situation," Dowling says. "There are more opportunities for work now than ever before with our increased connectivity."
More people are choosing to be their own boss: Over the course of the pandemic, new business applications grew by more than 30%, with almost 5.4 million new applications in 2021 alone, the White House said in an April press release.
It's not just about escaping a toxic work environment, either. Such non-traditional pursuits also fulfill people's growing desire for flexibility. The freedom to work from anywhere, or choose your own hours, has become the most sought-after benefit during the pandemic — so much so that people value flexibility as much as a 10% pay raise, according to research from the WFH Research Project.
Even with a possible recession on the horizon, Dowling expects that people will continue to quit and change jobs at elevated rates in the months ahead.
Much of the trend has been powered by a "drastic" change in social norms around quitting. "For a long time, you didn't leave a job unless you had another one lined up — that's what everyone was taught and what people did," she says. "But that has changed so dramatically over the last 18 months. … Now, people's attitude is, 'I'm confident that when I want to work, there will be something for me.'"
Instead of lamenting the ongoing labor shortage, companies need to look at the shifting economic landscape in the U.S. as an opportunity to reshape how we work and build a better model, Dowling says.
"It's everything from embedding flexibility in our credo to re-assessing how we value our employees and provide them with the resources they need to do their job … all employers have the capacity to make these meaningful changes," she adds. "But we have to start taking action, as opposed to sitting back and hoping that things are going to return to a 'pre-pandemic norm' — because all signs point to the fact that they won't."
Correction: McKinsey surveyed 13,382 global workers for its report on quitting and hiring trends. The firm corrected its information after an earlier version of this article had been published.