People are quitting their jobs in record numbers. Companies should take note – and treat them better

·2 min read

Got an advanced degree? Twenty years of experience in your field? The ability to drop everything to respond to work emails? Great! Then you meet the qualifications for an entry-level job paying miserable wages. But you’ll need to have a gazillion interviews and write a thank-you letter after each one to have any chance of getting it, of course.

That’s an (only slightly exaggerated) reflection of what the job market has looked like for a long time. Wages have been stagnant for decades. Companies have been demanding more, and offering less: the power has been very much in employers’ hands. Now, in the US at least, the power balance may be shifting; people are quitting their jobs in record numbers. Almost 4 million Americans quit their jobs in April: the highest numbers since government record-keeping for labour turnover began in December 2000. Meanwhile, in the UK, a lot of people are seriously thinking about quitting – one study found 38% of employees are looking to change roles in the next year.

Reasons for quitting vary. Some well-paid workers are leaving their jobs because the pandemic has changed their priorities or because they are burned out. Other workers are quitting because government benefits introduced during the pandemic mean they are not forced to risk their health at a precarious job paying peanuts in order to survive. Whatever the motivation, the result is the same: the labour shortage is causing widespread disarray. American Airlines just cancelled hundreds of flights, partly because of labour shortages among some of their vendors. Restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling to find enough workers to reopen.

I am not an economist, but it seems to me that one way companies can end the labour shortage is by paying people more and treating them better. A few forward-thinking employers are trying this unusual strategy. For the most part, however, companies seem to be demanding that the government bail them out by creating conditions that give them their pool of desperate and easy-to-exploit workers back. The US’s largest lobbying group, for example, is trying to pressure the government to end unemployment benefits.

In a world that fetishises productivity, quitting has traditionally been given a bad rap. But the pandemic has made it very clear that our current model of work isn’t working, and that your job doesn’t define who you are. Lobbying groups might be able to force people to return to work, but they will have a harder time changing how people think about it.

• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist.

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