“The Great Resignation” — it’s not about jobs, it’s about mental health

Although 50% of Americans want a new job, that’s only one part of a bigger story. Center founder Jeffrey Cole explains the broader context.

By Jeffrey Cole

As we come out of the greatest disruption of our lifetime, half of us want to find another job, and half of those in a different industry. The toll the pandemic has taken on our lives is producing a mountain (actually, an entire mountain range) of statistics. None is more compelling than the 50% that make up what social scientists are calling “The Great Resignation.”

The last time we witnessed such a seismic shift in the employment market — with massive job openings and transitions — was in World War II when millions of soldiers went off to Europe and Asia. To fill those jobs, millions of women entered the workplace for the first time.

It should come as no surprise that we have not all come through COVID equally.

The lucky ones were able to keep working through the pandemic with adequate (or better) financial reserves in comfortable homes. Food and other necessary supplies (and entertainment) came effortlessly to the home through delivery services, especially Amazon, and the internet. Lockdown took a toll on everybody’s mental health, but some of us suffered more than others.

Millions lost their jobs or had their hours cut. Essential workers, those who had to work during COVID, did not have the luxury of working from a comfortable home. They risked getting the virus and, even worse, bringing it home to their families, especially the unwell and elderly. Those workers didn’t have financial reserves to weather the catastrophic financial losses from the last two years.

Surprising data

In the Center’s ongoing studies during the pandemic about Americans’ attitudes concerning work, our COVID Reset Project found something rather extraordinary about the 50% of Americans who want new jobs and careers: they aren’t unhappy with their current jobs.

Eighty-two percent of all workers (we can break it down by type of work and salary) say they are satisfied with their current jobs. Almost three-quarters (74%) are content both with their current work responsibilities and with their work culture.

An astonishing 58% say they are satisfied with their salary and benefits from their job. No one is ever satisfied with their pay!

Typically, the urge to change jobs comes from a natural desire to earn more money, get better benefits (health care for example), and add to one’s responsibilities. That is not the case with The Great Resignation.

It has to do with COVID’s toll. The Great Resignation is about our mental health.

Our lives came to a standstill for almost two years. That’s the downside. But we also had time to think about the world we would re-enter once it was safe (except for the essential workers who never left). During the surprise, bonus thinking time, we realized that we wanted change. Even those of us who didn’t suffer financially and accumulated savings (because we didn’t travel or go to restaurants or concerts) realized that we didn’t want our old lives back just as they were on March 15, 2020.

We shouldn’t call it “The Great Resignation.” That’s reductive of a broader phenomenon that is more important than just where we work.

We should call it “The Great Reflection.”

Never before, as an entire country, have we had this much time to reflect at the same time on our lives.

People in their 80s are asking themselves what they want to do with the time they have left. (fortunately, in the 21st century that still means a lot of time). What new adventures should they seek out? What is important?

Workers in their 20s are asking themselves, are they on the right path to bring the meaning and satisfaction they seek. Is a course correction needed? Those between the 20s and the 80s are asking if major adjustments or minor tweaking are needed.

The Great Reflection is not about economics: it is about re-imaging our lives. The pandemic has opened a massive group therapy session where all of us simultaneously looked at our lives and asked if we needed a change.

The answer is a resounding yes.

It would be easy for all of us to fall back into our pre-COVID lives. That would work financially, reputationally, and socially for many of us. If we did, it would not be a “Great Resignation,” but instead “The Modest Work Migration.” Perhaps 20% of the work force would take advantage of the best labor market in generations to get new jobs with better pay and benefits.

What we are seeing runs far deeper than that.

In the mental health questions of The COVID Reset Project, we asked people how they want to spend their time and money when things get back to normal. After previous crises (9/11, the recession of 2008), people said they wanted to make purchases: find a nicer house, a newer car, better clothes, or other material goods. It wasn’t because they needed those things, but because the purchases would make them feel better.

As we edge out of Omicron, those things rate very low (it’s practically impossible to buy a new car anyway). With few exceptions, people reported that new physical goods did not make them feel better during lockdown. Closeness to family and friends did. By seven to one, parents reported their relationships with their children (young and adult) improved during lockdown. By three to one, partners said relationships had improved.

After COVID, people want experiences, creating memories with those we love.

That is why travel is at the top of the list of things we want to do. We want to see things and share them (not through social media) to add to the value of our lives. Leisure travel — not business travel — is exploding. We want to get out of the house and our neighborhoods to go anywhere and everywhere.

Not far below travel is the desire for more education and training. Some of it is job related, but the majority is for self-actualization and personal growth.

The Great Reflection is not about economics: it is about re-imaging our lives. The pandemic has opened a massive group therapy session where all of us simultaneously looked at our lives and asked if we needed a change. The answer is a resounding yes.

Many also talk about spending more time with their extended families and friends. They expect the coming holidays, especially Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to be more important and better attended than ever (so long as they are careful not to talk politics).

It is going to take years to begin to understand the deeper ways that COVID has changed us.

My father grew up in the Great Depression and carried the baggage of that era for the rest of his life. As we move forward, we will come to recognize the baggage we are carrying from this pandemic.

Some of these huge changes focusing on quality of relationships and experiences instead of things may be short-lived. Some of us may quickly revert to our old ways.

But it is clear that The Great Resignation is just a symptom of something much larger and significant that has happened to us: The Great Reflection.

Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

April 6, 2022