Great Resignation: Why Are So Many Workers Quitting or Striking?

U.S. workers are rethinking their relationship to work in the Covid era. Students explore why many Americans are quitting their jobs, or striking for better pay and more respect.


To The Teacher

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our world in a myriad of ways, including how people think about balancing their jobs with the rest of their lives. Since the spring of 2021, the number of Americans quitting their jobs each month has reached levels not seen in the past 20 years, culminating in September, when a record 4.36 million Americans resigned. This has led workplace experts to describe this period as “The Great Resignation.”

This lesson consists of two readings that consider how the pandemic has impacted how Americans are thinking about work-life balance. The first reading looks at reasons why many Americans are quitting their jobs or reevaluating their sense of an acceptable work-life balance after nearly two years of pandemic. The second reading explores how more workers are standing up for their rights at work - including by unionizing. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Transit worker
The pandemic has made many hard jobs even harder. Patrick Cashin / MTA NYC Transit



Reading One

The Great Resignation

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our world in a myriad of ways, including how people think about balancing their jobs with the rest of their lives. Since the spring of 2021, the number of Americans quitting their jobs each month has reached levels not seen in the last 20 years, culminating in September, when a record 4.36 million Americans resigned. This has led workplace experts to describe this period as “The Great Resignation.”

It is clear that for many people, the pandemic produced a shift in mindset about work, employment, and careerism. During the pandemic, “stay-at-home” orders enabled a subset of Americans to add flexibility into their work schedules, such as working part-time from home or calling into the office via Zoom. For many, it meant breaking normal routines and reconsidering how work fit in with family, friends, and hobbies.

Even after some pandemic lockdown mandates were lifted, many employees no longer found the idea of exhausting commutes and an overtime work schedule appealing. Employees across a wide range of occupations and industries say they are tired of being underpaid and overworked, and of not having enough time to spend with friends and family.

While many “essential workers” have not had the option to work from home, low-wage service workers are also quitting their jobs at high rates, often with the belief that they can find better positions elsewhere.

Even after federal pandemic benefits expired in September 2021, many Americans who had been laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic did not seek re-employment. To explain this phenomenon, researchers and reporters have described an expanding wave of work-related burnout. In a September article for Refinery 29, business and finance reporter Whizy Kim explains:

If the movement has a motto, it would be the word that’s been on everyone’s lips over the past 18 months: burnout. According to an Insider survey of over 1,000 American workers, 61% said they were currently “at least somewhat burned out.” An Indeed report from March found that the majority of respondents said their burnout had worsened during the pandemic, with 52% overall saying they were currently burned out. You’ve probably heard — or said yourself — the following things repeated ad nauseum: “I’m so tired. I’m so exhausted. I can’t believe we have to keep going.…

“Work burnout happened to me when I worked at a large corporation and realized that although I was putting in long hours, doing good work, and it looked good on paper — I was going nowhere,” says Alexis, 38, who works in the PR industry. “Then I saw a meme [that said] ‘if you died tomorrow, your job would be posted faster than your obituary,’ and it sucked all the joy out of everything I did.”

“Burnout happens when work consumes your mind outside of the office, yet your only opportunity for a long time is to tread water while killing yourself,” she says.

Camilla, 29, saw her health deteriorate. “For me, the burnout was serious when I relapsed badly into anorexia nervosa,” she says. She worked in health and safety in the meat industry. “It took me a year to recover to the point where I could work again, and even at that, I only work part time out of the house. Anything more, and I can easily slip back.”


Of course, many workers felt burned out even before Covid. And yet the pandemic is encouraging increasing numbers of people to rethink the extent to which their jobs should be the defining feature of their lives. In an October 2021 op-ed for the New York Times, opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about the recent rise of “anti-work” or “post-work” thinking:

In its sudden rearrangement of daily life, the pandemic might have prompted many people to entertain a wonderfully un-American new possibility — that our society is entirely too obsessed with work, that employment is not the only avenue through which to derive meaning in life and that sometimes no job is better than a bad job.

“The pandemic gave us a kind of forced separation from work and a rare critical distance from the daily grind,” Kathi Weeks, a professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University, told me. “I think what you’re seeing with people refusing to go back is a kind of yearning for freedom.”

Weeks, the author of “The Problem With Work,” is among a handful of scholars who have been pushing for a wholesale reappraisal of the role that work plays in wealthy societies. Their ideas have been dubbed “post-work” or “antiwork,” and although they share goals with other players in the labor market — among them labor unions and advocates for higher minimum wages and a stronger social safety net — these scholars are calling for something even grander than improved benefits.

They’re questioning some of the bedrock ideas in modern life, especially life in America: What if paid work is not the only worthwhile use of one’s time? What if crushing it in your career is not the only way to attain status and significance in society? What if electing to live a life that is not driven by the neuroses and obsessions of paid employment is considered a perfectly fine and reasonable way to live? ….

You can get a peek of a post-job world at /antiwork, a Reddit forum “for those who want to end work” that has gone viral in recent months, with hundreds of thousands following its subversive cause. /antiwork teems with posts from workers who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore — including many screenshots from folks saying they are telling off their managers, quitting in a rage after years of abuse.]

For young workers, changing attitudes about work prompted by the pandemic may mark a generational shift. For healthcare professionals such as nurses and others labeled as “essential workers,” being put into situations where their health and safety was at risk could lead to questions about whether it was all worthwhile. But the impetus for reappraisal has reached even among those working under more flexible and secure conditions.

Writing for the New York Times in April 2021, technology columnist Kevin Roose details how the pandemic has changed the priorities for many younger employees who are quitting sometimes lucrative careers and not looking back once, a phenomenon he calls “the YOLO economy,” after the slogan “You Only Live Once”:

Something strange is happening to the exhausted, type-A millennial workers of America. After a year spent hunched over their MacBooks, enduring back-to-back Zooms in between sourdough loaves and Peloton rides, they are flipping the carefully arranged chessboards of their lives and deciding to risk it all.

Some are abandoning cushy and stable jobs to start a new business, turn a side hustle into a full-time gig or finally work on that screenplay. Others are scoffing at their bosses’ return-to-office mandates and threatening to quit unless they’re allowed to work wherever and whenever they want….

I tweeted about it, and dozens of stories poured into my inboxes, all variations on the same basic theme: The pandemic changed my priorities, and I realized I didn’t have to live like this.

Brett Williams, 33, a lawyer in Orlando, Fla., had his YOLO epiphany during a Zoom mediation in February.

“I realized I was sitting at my kitchen counter 10 hours a day feeling miserable,” he said. “I just thought: ‘What do I have to lose? We could all die tomorrow.’”

So he quit, leaving behind a partner position and a big-firm salary to take a job at a small firm run by his next-door neighbor, and to spend more time with his wife and dog.

“I’m still a lawyer,” he said. “But I haven’t been this excited to go to work in a long time.”

Olivia Messer, a former reporter for The Daily Beast, also quit in February, after realizing that a year of covering the pandemic had left her exhausted and traumatized.

“I was so drained and depleted that I didn’t feel like I knew how to do my job anymore,” she said. So Ms. Messer, 29, announced her departure and moved from Brooklyn to Sarasota, Fla., near her parents. Since then, she has been doing freelance writing as well as pursuing hobbies like painting and kayaking.

She acknowledged that not all people could uproot themselves so easily. But she said the change had been restorative. “I have this renewed creative sense about what my life could look like, and how fulfilling it can be,” she said.

After nearly two years of the pandemic, Americans are reconsidering the place that work has in their lives. While not everyone has the freedom to quit their jobs, many are nevertheless joining in a public conversation about what is driving the “Great Resignation” and how life after the pandemic may be different than before.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what are some of the reasons Americans are quitting their jobs?
  1. Even before the pandemic, many workers complained of feeling “burned out.” To what extent do you think is this problem a new one, and to what extent is an ongoing concern? How do you think the pandemic has changed the conversation about this problem?
  1. What do you think of the stories contained in the reading about people leaving their jobs? Are these examples relatable to you?
  1. Clearly, not everyone has the same freedom to quit their jobs—especially those without savings or family support. To what extent do you think the “Great Resignation” is a phenomenon that applies to the privileged few, and to what extent is this a trend that is cutting across society more widely?
  1. Has two years of the pandemic altered the way you envision your career and your future? Do you think your feelings about the ideal balance between work, family, friends, and hobbies have changed? In what ways?


Reading Two

A Turn to Unions

For large numbers of Americans, the pandemic has been occasion to consider what they want a “new normal” at work to be.

Across a wide range of industries, including food service, healthcare, and education, workers who were praised at the start of the pandemic for being “essential” are now feeling the brunt of additional challenges and little relief as new variants of the virus continue to spread. This has encouraged more workers to demand – or hold out for – better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

For some four decades, U.S. wages have been virtually stalled. U.S. workers also have far less generous benefits that workers in other societies. Americans’ lagging pay and inferior benefits have correlated with low and decreasing levels of union membership in the U.S. over the past several decades.

But in September 2021, U.S. wages saw the biggest jump in 20 years, in what AP reporter Christopher Rugaber called “a stark illustration of the growing ability of workers to demand higher pay from companies that are desperate to fill a near-record number of available jobs.”  With more jobs available than unemployed people to fill them, “businesses have been forced to work harder to attract staff.”

Further, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of unions in improving pay and working conditions.

The past fall has witnessed notable instances of labor unrest. According to Bloomberg Law, 17,400 U.S. workers went on strike in October 2021, a wave that some dubbed “Striketober.” As of December 16, Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker shows strikes or workplace protests at 347 locations throughout the United States in 2021. Amid “The Great Resignation,” when many businesses are in dire need of employees, workers have more leverage to bargain and demand rights than is typical in the U.S. economy.

Reporting for ABC News in October, business and technology reporter Catherine Thorbecke wrote:

The post-traumatic shock of a deadly pandemic that took an inordinate toll on workers who didn't have the privilege of earning a living remotely, and their families, has also been linked to the recent employee activism.

"I think workers have reached a tipping point," Tim Schlittner, the communications director of the AFL-CIO, told ABC News. "For too long they've been called essential, but treated as expendable, and workers have decided that enough is enough."

"They want a fair return on their work and they're willing to take the courageous act of a strike to win a better deal and a better life," he added. The AFL-CIO is a coalition of labor unions that collectively represents some 12.5 million workers.…

Due to working through a Covid-19 pandemic that has left more than 730,000 Americans dead, and because of the recent labor market trends, workers may be "less willing to take what they've been willing to take in the past," Colvin said, but added that these factors also increase the leverage unions have when executing a strike.

"It makes sense for workers to push to kind of share in the gains of the improving economy," he said. "But also, they have more leverage because it's harder to replace them in a tighter labor market."

The AFL-CIO's Schlittner said the pandemic also exposed some deep "imbalances of power in the economy."

"The pandemic has made clear what's important and what's not, and workers are looking at work in a new way, and demanding more of a return on their labor, and demanding things like basic respect, dignity and safety on the job," Schlittner told ABC News. "The pandemic has put on display for everyone to see how important workers are to this country, and you can't call workers essential for 18 months and then treat them like crap when they all come back on the job."


As one example of the type of unrest that has taken place in 2021, labor reporter Michael Sainato covered a nurses strike in July for the Guardian. Sainato wrote:

Last April people across America came out of quarantine each night to cheer the healthcare workers fighting to save lives at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Sixteen months on, nurses around the US are holding strikes and picket actions amid claims of deteriorating working conditions and severe understaffing issues.

“Most of us felt like we went from heroes to zeroes quickly,” said Dominique Muldoon, a nurse for more than 20 years at Saint Vincent’s hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.…

Kimberly Smith, an ICU nurse for 12 years at the Corpus Christi medical center in Texas, said unsafe staffing was a prevailing issue in new union contract negotiations but that these important issues to nurses have fallen by the wayside for the sake of profits and public relations campaigns asserting nurses are heroes for working on the frontlines during the pandemic and empty thank you events where nurses were given free hotdogs.

“I just want to be safe at work. I don’t need a hotdog. You’re telling me I’m a hero and how wonderful I am. Just make the working conditions safe. That’s all nurses want. We want to feel like we’re able to give the best care we can and have enough resources to do it,” said Smith, who added that nurses regularly skip breaks because there is no staff to relieve them. ‘‘Even before the pandemic the staffing wasn’t this bad. It’s been a horrible year. Nurses have passed away, are getting out of the profession, they’re retiring.”

Brandon Mancilla, a leader in the union of Harvard University graduate students that conducted a three-day strike in October, argues that discontent among employees extends beyond those labeled “essential,” and has led many different groups of workers to see commonalities in the workplace issues they are confronting. As the Bay State Banner reported:

Mancilla said his union feels connected to all the others that are taking action. During their three-day strike, he said, Harvard student workers held a moment of silence for a John Deere worker on strike in Illinois who was hit by a car while walking to the picket line.

“There’s a lot of political labor education happening right now, people coming to consciousness of their connections with all these different unions and workers who have similar complaints and similar grievances about the working conditions, the pay they’re having while corporations are making a killing — especially after this pandemic and everything that has gone down over the last two years,” Mancilla said.

Without a union, workers have little power to affect the conditions they face on the job—ranging from scheduling and pay, to safety concerns and staffing levels. Because of this, many have decided to come together as the pandemic wears on to have a greater voice in shaping what happens at their workplaces.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. Why do you think U.S. wages have been stalled for so long? Why do U.S. workers have much less generous benefits that workers in other developed economies?
  2. According to the reading, why are increasing numbers of workers pushing for unions or going on strike as the pandemic wears on?
  1. Dominique Muldoon, a nurse quoted in the reading, stated “Most of us felt like we went from heroes to zeroes quickly.” Do you think Muldoon’s sentiment is justified? Have you seen attitudes towards essential workers change since the early days of the pandemic? In what ways?
  1. While selected people quitting their jobs as part of “The Great Resignation” represents an individual response to pandemic burnout, those who are coming together with their coworkers to demand better conditions in their workplaces are taking collective action. What are the pros and cons of each of these approaches? What connections and what differences do you see between the people in reading one, who aim to challenge the centrality of work in their lives, and those in reading two, who are demanding better conditions on the job?


Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.


Additional news articles about unions and strikes

How the Pandemic Has Added to Labor Unrest

Unionizing at Starbucks:

Maryland Bus Drivers Strike:

Chicago Area Rail Workers Morale:

Kelloggs strike solidarity action: