FEATURE (THE CONVERSATION) — A record share of American workers are quitting their jobs, thanks in part to a strong economy and a labor shortage.
Does that mean Americans are unhappy with where they work?
The answer would seem to be yes, according to many economists and other observers. That’s the narrative driving the Great Resignation, in which workers are simply fed up with their current jobs and demanding something better.
Survey data I’ve been collecting during the pandemic, along with social survey results from previous years, however, suggests this is far from the whole story. Rather than being motivated simply by dissatisfaction, it appears many of them are simply taking advantage of a strong economy to look around, while for others, the pandemic has prompted them to consider their options.
Are you satisfied?
The General Social Survey, a reputable national survey of American adults, has been asking workers questions about how they feel about the quality of their working life since 2002.
There are actually three key types of questions it asks that help us get at this idea: the level of dissatisfaction with current work, turnover intention and confidence in finding a new job.
Let’s start with dissatisfaction. The question is: “On the whole, how satisfied are you with the work you do – would you say you are very satisfied, moderately satisfied, a little dissatisfied or very dissatisfied?”
In 2002, about 12% of respondents said they were very dissatisfied or a little dissatisfied with their work, a figure that barely changed in subsequent surveys through 2018. In 2021, a tad over 16% said they weren’t satisfied – an increase, but not a big one. And on the flip side, a little over 83% said they were moderately or very satisfied.
This means that by and large the vast majority of Americans – at least according to this survey – express moderate to high satisfaction with their work.
Looking for a change
Turnover intention is another important indicator. The General Social Survey asks:
“Taking everything into consideration, how likely is it you will make a genuine effort to find a new job with another employer within the next year – would you say very likely, somewhat likely or not at all likely?”
My interpretation of a “very likely” response to this question is that it signals an immediate interest in leaving their present job. In 2002, about 19% said they were very likely to try to find a new job soon. Over the years, the share who said this rose and fell a little, but has remained very consistent.
Unfortunately, the survey hasn’t posed the question since 2018, so I partnered with polling company Angus Reid Global to conduct two large national surveys of American workers in November 2020 and November 2021. One of the questions I asked was the one on turnover intentions, though I extended the period of time in which they expected to look for a new job to two years.
As you might expect given the rising quit rate, the share saying they were very likely to hunt for a new position jumped. It rose to 26% in 2020 and to 29% in November 2021.
While it’s likely that my number is a bit elevated just because of the extended time horizon – two years instead of one – the increase is consistent with the Great Resignation narrative that workers are keen to find a better workplace.
But these two figures – job satisfaction and turnover – reveal an interesting paradox: A greater share of people say they are contemplating quitting than express dissatisfaction with their current job. There are several possibilities for why a worker might be happy with their job, yet eyeing a move to another company. Perhaps they’re seeking more status or reconsidering their career, or maybe they’re worried about possible layoffs.
Confidence in the job search
An additional theme in the Great Resignation narrative is that workers feel more confident about finding alternative job prospects – and that’s one reason they have been quitting in droves.
Fortunately, the General Social Survey asks that very question:
“How easy would it be for you to find a job with another employer with approximately the same income and fringe benefits as you now have – not at all easy, somewhat easy or very easy?”
Two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2018, about a quarter of respondents said finding another job would be very easy. I asked the same question in my 2021 survey and found that number had actually decreased to around 22%.
This means that worker confidence or optimism about finding a palatable alternative job has not climbed all that much, making it less likely to be a factor in driving the current wave of resignations.
What’s going on here?
While the data doesn’t show that Americans overwhelmingly love their jobs or anything like that, they do suggest most people like them enough to hold on to them.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. The data does show important differences depending on the type of job we’re talking about. For example, workers in the service sector were more dissatisfied with their jobs and much more likely to express an intent to quit than the average respondent.
But all in all, the survey data doesn’t support the common narrative that it’s a “take this job and shove it” economy, in which increasingly unhappy workers are finally sticking it to their managers.
Rather, when you dig down into the data, something different appears: A slice of workers are always considering leaving their jobs – and as the labor market looks brighter, the pent-up impulse to quit kicks in. But the shift in worker sentiment – or at least the way it has been portrayed – seems exaggerated.
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