‘The Great Resignation’ Misses the Point

Anthony Klotz, a Texas A&M University associate professor of management, spoke to Bloomberg in May about possible job-creation spikes. He warned that the Great Resignation was coming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that a record 4,000,000 Americans had quit their jobs in April, just a few weeks later. People were looking for ways to describe the phenomena unfolding before their eyes, to label it and to make sense. Klotz's catchy, off-the-cuff terminology is now available on Bloombergs pages. The name was created in a flash.
SIGN UP Subscribe to WIRED to stay informed with your favorite Ideas writers.

The United States is currently experiencing a period of profound change. This means that there are many things that we need to say. One of these is a fundamental shift in Americans' relationships with work. People are leaving their jobs, despite being from different industries and earning levels. Klotz predicted this. They are switching employers, downsizing on their career ladders, or simply taking time off from work. Some workers are stepping back from dangerous frontline jobs that were made so difficult by the pandemic. Others have reported that they are willing to forego money and status in order to be more flexible and self-determined. This collective reckoning gained momentum under various titles, including the Big Quit and the Great Reshuffle. The Great Resignation is the clear winner.

Sometimes names can feel messy and emergent. There is no single source of truth that can provide the language to describe our collective moments. Instead, naming at a scale is a count of the influences that are competing for public adoption. This includes journalists, politicians and academics as well celebrities or others with influential reach. Sometimes without much thought, the titles they choose are often part of our common reference. What we call things is important. It defines what we consider important, how we think about a movement, what we remember. It is worth looking at what a phrase such as the Great Resignation focuses on, and perhaps even more importantly, what it leaves out.

Although The Great Resignations' recent lineage can be traced back at an interview in spring, it recalls events much older. Harold James, Princeton University professor of history and international affairs and author of The War of Words, said that names are a way to make connections. Names often use analogies and metaphors from the past to help us deal with the present in both their content and form. Different names can suggest alternative ways to conceptualize an idea or event. For example, the Great Depression is widely accepted as an analogy to World War I's Great War. This was done to emphasize the seriousness of the moment, which was a delayed aftershock from World War I. It also allowed for familiarity to be used to describe something that felt new and unimaginable. Echoes of the Great Depression were applied to many economic downturns over the years, but eventually stuck for the period 2007-2009, which we now know as the Great Recession. James explains that economists and historians who used the term publicly were often trying to recall past crises and bring people back to the lessons learned from the Great Depression.

This is why the Great Resignation defines this moment as a crisis. Klotz may not have connected these past eras but the name refers to this as a period in withdrawal. It also focuses on the immediate implications for the employment market and employment status. However, focusing only on the crisis of resignation can distract from the profound change in American values that could have long-lasting consequences beyond the workplace. Quitting can be a difficult process for Americans who are unable to access social safety nets and identify themselves by their work. It is often shrouded with shame, secrecy, and emotional labor. The Great Resignation encourages individuals to face a series of questions about the act of quitting a job. What are my options? What should I do? This type of reflection is very valuable. People may be more proactive in taking stock of their work situation and identifying the necessary steps to make it better. Many people who were part of this movement describe their decisions as a result reevaluating their lives, and where they find meaning. A resignation crisis can feel like a limitation. However, it may be a metaphor for a deeper reorientation in American work life.