118. What is the Great Resignation?: Why are Millions of People Quitting Their Jobs? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

Millions of people are quitting their jobs in the West. So many, in fact, that there are numerous articles and news reports talking about something called the Great Resignation! Why are people quitting their jobs? What are the causes of the situation? Is it as simple as some articles make it sound? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!!


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Vocabulary List

To dread (v) – to feel extremely worried or frightened about something that is going to happen or that might happen

He’s dreading taking that exam

Voluntarily (adv) – in a voluntary way (done, made, or given willingly)

If you don’t leave voluntarily then we will call security

In-depth (adj) – done carefully and in great detail

He wrote a really good in-depth report

Sceptical (adj) – doubtful that something is true or useful

Many experts remain sceptical about/of his claims

Generalisation (n) – a written or spoken statement in which you say or write that something is true all of the time when it is only true some of the time

Generalizations can be dangerous 

Oversimplification (n) – the action of describing or explaining something in such a simple way that it is no longer correct or true

The book was full of oversimplifications

White collar (adj) – relating to people who work in offices, doing work that needs mental rather than physical effort

Salaries for white collar workers are not increasing 

Blue collar (adj) – blue collar workers do work needing strength or physical skill rather than office work

This union represent thousands of blue collar workers


Are you happy in your current job? Have you ever thought about changing roles, company, or industry? Do you wake up in the morning dreading going to work? Well, if so… you’re not alone!  In fact, in Western countries workers are quitting their jobs, and it has the potential to change the world of work forever. 

People changing jobs is not unusual in itself. However, right now it is a little different. A lot of people are quitting their jobs. Perhaps a lot is understatement! According to the US Labor Department, 4.3 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in August. 4.3 million people! That is 2.9% of the entire country’s workforce. If we look at specific industries, the number of people resigning in industries like leisure and hospitality was even higher – 6.4% of Americans working in these industries quit in September. In total, 20.2 million American workers left their employers between May and September 2021. In the UK there are over 1 million job vacancies right now – jobs that used to be filled but the employees. This phenomena is not limited to the US and UK, other Western countries are also experiencing something similar. We are currently in the middle of the Great Resignation. 

The high number of workers quitting is creating challenges. Companies are struggling to hire new employees. And there are millions of jobs unfilled. Moreover, the coming months and years could see even more resignations and challenges for companies. According to some surveys, up to 50% of all employees in the US are planning on looking for a new job or career next year! What is causing the great resignation?

Before we look at the causes, I think it is important to examine some of the facts about employment changes in a little more detail. There was a really good Harvard Business Review article about it – I’ll link it here but it is a little complicated, so I will briefly summarize the points they made. By doing an in-depth analysis of 9 million employees from 4000 companies, they found some really interesting trends. For example, they found that resignation rates tend to be highest among mid-career employees. People between 30 and 45 had the greatest increase in resignation rates! They also found that industries which experienced a large increase in demand due to Covid-19, like health care and tech, were also more likely to quit their jobs compared to last year. 

It is also important to be realistic about the statistics. Around 3% of the workforce has been quitting in the US… it could be higher. 3% is not 10%, 25% or 50%. Only a small minority of workers have actually quit, but the bigger concern is people who intend to resign. Workers who think that they would like to resign are a much higher number. There are many reasons why people would like to quit their careers and get a fresh start. Some people have decided to try to find their dream job, some want to spend more time with their families, and many were unhappy with the way their companies treated them during the pandemic. Fears of Covid-19 are also probably a major factor, as is changing priorities during the pandemic. For example, many people have got used to working from home and don’t want to return to the office!

However, I am a little more sceptical than most articles you will read online or TV reports about the great resignation. While these factors and trends are important, I think we need to avoid making large generalisations about those people resigning. Perhaps fewer people are going to resign than we think, the reasons they are resigning are different from articles and reports – and we need to keep this in mind when we think about the future. 

What do I mean? Well, let me try to give a few examples! First, the pandemic, Covid-19, and the working conditions due to this situation have been heavily connected to the trend in resignations. And I’m sure it has definitely had a large influence. But is it the major factor? Well, people were already quitting their jobs in major numbers before Covid-19. There was a record number of resignations in 2019, and perhaps this trend could have continued without the pandemic. Anyone who has studied economics before probably remembers that resignations tend to increase when the economy is strong – the pre-pandemic US certainly had a relatively strong and stable economy. Are resignations a result of changes due to the pandemic, or due to the economy once again getting stronger in the last few months? 

I also think there is an oversimplification in terms of why people are quitting their jobs. Many news articles have tended to characterise the Great Resignation as a form of empowerment. They tend to think of people quitting their job for positive reasons, to do something they prefer, and create a better working world. Yet, this is definitely not the case for many people! 

Instead, there are broadly two different categories of people affected by the Great Resignation: people resigning because they want to, and people resigning because they have to. Let me explain. Most attention has been paid to professionals, often in good careers, who resign in order to change from a ‘good’ job to a ‘great’ job. They want to grow or develop their careers, or are looking for a new challenge – their current jobs aren’t terrible but they want something better. However, there is another group. People who left their jobs because they were forced to make a choice between a terrible situation and survival. These people often quit due to bad working conditions, the need to look after children during the pandemic, or because their employers did not respect them during the pandemic. 

In a nutshell, we need to be careful to not just look at the Great Resignation from the perspective of the rich and privileged professionals. Executives and highly qualified financially secured workers might be able to resign and move into a great new job, but this isn’t the situation for everyone! 

What will change in the future? Well. for white collar workers – the pandemic has given millions to work at home, not need to commute, spend more time with family, and have more flexible working hours. If companies are not willing to continue to provide these conditions, we might see more and more people quitting. On the other hand, wages for blue collar workers are rising across the west due to major job vacancies – more workers are looking to change jobs for the higher wage!

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to explain the Great Resignation. Millions of workers are resigning from their careers, or intend to look for a new job in the coming months. There are numerous, complicated reasons for this trend. Hopefully, after listening to this episode you realise it is not as simple as some articles like to portray. We need to be careful not to just see the Great Resignation through the eyes of the rich and privileged. And, if any of you feel encouraged to quit your job as part of the Great Resignation – be careful!! We must be thoughtful when thinking about these issues – because while some people may find their dream jobs, others may be disappointed with the reality. 

Why do you think more people are planning to resign their jobs? How about you? Are you thinking of changing your career soon? What is your dream job? 


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