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Monica Chavez of Long Beach, California was out of work for four months at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.
When she started a new contract job at a digital media company, she witnessed a staff layoff within weeks. This summer, word spread that there would likely be a second round of layoffs in less than a year. That’s when she knew it was time to go.
She was fortunate enough to not be in a desperate situation financially if she got laid off. But psychologically, she didn’t want to go through it. So she left.
Chavez took a job as a boutique assistant at a luxury retailer, returning to an industry she had exited years before.
She’s just one of the millions of workers who emerged from the first year of the pandemic with new clarity about what they wanted their careers to look like. The “great resignation,” an event in which a large number of people leave their jobs, is sometimes billed as an option for the most affluent of workers who can walk away from a job and take time to figure out what to do next.
But it’s still possible to make a satisfying career change without having tons of cash in the bank.
What Is the Great Resignation?
The great resignation is a mass exodus of people quitting their jobs now that the pandemic is waning. We know this is happening now because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics measures how many people quit their jobs each month.
When the recession caused by the pandemic took place in February through April of 2020, the rate of people quitting their jobs dropped from about 2% to 1.6%. That quit rate returned to pre-pandemic levels over the course of summer and fall 2020, but this year, we’ve seen a notable increase in people quitting their jobs.
This August, the quit rate reached 2.9%—the highest the Bureau of Labor Stastics has ever recorded—when 4.3 million people quit their jobs.
Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M, coined the term “great resignation,” and has attributed this increase in quitting to four things:
- A backlog of people who didn’t quit their jobs during the pandemic, but are doing so now. This shows no sign of slowing down: A March 2021 survey from Microsoft found 40% of the global workforce has considered leaving their employer this year.
- Worker burnout. More than half of American workers feel exhausted and unproductive at work, according to a March 2021 survey from job search platform Indeed.
- “Pandemic epiphanies.” The Covid-19 pandemic was a world-changing event that made people realize they want a career or lifestyle change.
- Fear that remote work opportunities will end, and a desire to retain that flexibility.
“The aspects of work that were commonplace, like commuting and in-person meetings, were thrown by the wayside during the lockdown,” says Stephen Dwyer, senior vice president and chief legal and operating officer at the American Staffing Association. “Others found themselves completely out of work with no idea when the lockdowns or restrictions would lift. So it caused a lot of introspection on the part of employers and employees alike.”
Dr. Lori Fishman, a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, started seeing her patients virtually in spring of 2020. But as the pandemic dragged on, she became anxious about how she would return to in-person appointments. Her daughter had gone back to school, but she worried she wouldn’t have the flexibility to manage if her school returned to remote learning during a Covid exposure event. And as a single mom, she didn’t have anyone to lean on for childcare.
At first, she wasn’t sure what to do about her situation, but she knew she needed a change. “I was burned out,” Fishman says. “It’s so important in a helping profession that you take care of yourself and you don’t get to that point because it’s impossible to help other people if you’re struggling.”
The length of time we spent in various forms of lockdown contributed to the staying power of the great resignation, because it provided ample opportunity for workers to consider their current working environment and how they might want to change it, says Lindsey Bell, chief investment strategist at Ally Bank who has been monitoring the personal financial impact of the phenomenon.
And though the rubber band may snap back for some workers who will lose flexibility as physical spaces reopen, the trend of employers catering to workers who want to do things like work remotely will continue for several years to come, Dwyer says.
“The traditional way of working has evolved, and we now know that we can do it in new ways. And we now know that workers really want to do it in new ways,” he says. Employers who aren’t responsive to workers’ preferred ways of doing business—or which can’t adapt as easily due to the nature of the work—may face waves of workers seeking a brighter outlook elsewhere.
Thinking About Leaving Your Job? 3 Things To Consider First
1. Figure Out What’s Not Working
Bell says the first step to considering a potential career change is to think about what you don’t like about your current role. The elements that make you restless may be worth discussing with your manager about adjusting, whether they be job duties, schedule or professional development opportunities.
If money is the only thing lacking, Bell says it’s time to ask for a raise. “Make sure leaving is the best thing for you. Ask for that promotion if you think you’re underpaid,” she says. (If they don’t respond well, it may be an indicator to explore the hot hiring market.)
If professional development is where you’re feeling some drag, Dwyer says there are opportunities, from apprenticeships to virtual training programs, to help you advance or prepare to transition careers.
Fishman took a three-month leave of absence in spring 2021 to consider her next step. “I spent that time trying to come up with a plan on how I was going to support myself without a salary.”
She had been working at the hospital since 2008, and says, “I never thought it would be possible” to leave and support herself. “It’s probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done was to leave that job because it was so secure.”
2. Weigh Your Trade-Offs
Both women had to consider the trade-offs of making a career change.
Vanessa King, vice president and financial advisor at Ancora, says to review everything you might be leaving on the table in your current role, from benefits to structure. Some of those benefits, like paid health care, may be expensive if you start a business or have a gap between jobs.
Another element to think about, especially for younger workers, is saving for retirement, King says. If you’ve had access to a retirement account through work, you’ll need to manage those investments once you depart. You’ll need to plan to save on your own, and calculate how this change will impact your plans for your later years.
There’s no single way to calculate those trade-offs. For Chavez, moving to a retail job meant not earning as much, but gaining benefits like paid vacation and opportunities to earn bonuses.
“The schedule is unpredictable and you have to stand a lot, but it does feel more stable than what I was doing before, and I know at least I’m building experience in something,” she says.
3. Get Support if Necessary
The more complex your personal situation is, the more buy-in you may need to seek from members of your household.
If your family members are on board with your plans to change jobs but financial obligations are holding you back, Bell recommends looking at ways to reduce those.
That doesn’t necessarily mean paying off your mortgage in full before putting in your two weeks notice, but rather investigating refinancing your mortgage, or asking creditors to reduce your interest rates. You might not be able to reduce costs in every potential category, but doing so in a few key ones could add up to make you more comfortable with the changes ahead.
The buy-in you need to move forward may be emotional, rather than financial confirmation.
Fishman says her daughter has noticed positive changes since she first told her she’d be changing her career path to focus on her private practice and a wellness consulting program. “I drop her off and pick her up from school every day. She doesn’t take the bus. If she needs to be somewhere, I’m there,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I’m much less stressed. I think it’s just been a much better environment.”
If You’re Sure it’s Time to Quit
The old-school advice not to quit a job until you have your next role lined up isn’t today’s burned-out reality. If you need a mental break between jobs, here’s how to prepare.
1. Plan Your Transition Period
Bell stressed the importance of having a plan for your time post-job if you’re sure you’re ready to quit. “The worst thing you can do is sit on the couch wasting time. Visit family, travel, get educated in the career you want to pursue, whatever it is,” she says. “But don’t waste time.”
Taking on a part-time or temporary role could help you try a new career on for size.
Dwyer says that temporary or temp-to-hire roles allow you to try out a position and can act as a bridge to a permanent job if you’re switching roles or industries, rather than committing to a full-time permanent job immediately.
2. Make Sure Your Money Will Last
Be conservative in estimating how long it may take you to find your next opportunity.
Bell notes it typically takes five months to find a job. “Conservatively, you need six months of money for living expenses.” If you’re striking out on your own, Bell says to plan for 12 months of expenses. We often think of those essential expenses in terms of rent, groceries and utilities. But they could include child care, gasoline, pet food or school supplies.
Fishman still pays graduate student loans each month, and she’s not saving for retirement right now. But not traveling or going out during the pandemic helped her save much of the extra money she made in her private practice during those locked-down months.
Those reduced expenses have helped make up for those that have gone up, like her electricity bill from working at home. “I kind of accepted the fact that I would have to take a loss this year,” she says.
She’s confident next year will be easier.
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