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What’s fueling the Great Resignation?

More money, more meaning, less burnout has people looking for new jobs.

  • Laura Benshoff/WHYY
Pennsylvania's job openings rate shot up to 7.9% in December 2021 after hovering below 7% during much of the fall, new federal estimates show.

 Ashton Jones / WESA

Pennsylvania's job openings rate shot up to 7.9% in December 2021 after hovering below 7% during much of the fall, new federal estimates show.

From college administrator to dog walker. Legislation writer to part-time social media manager. HR specialist to entrepreneur.

In Pennsylvania and around the country, people are rethinking their relationship to work on a historic scale. Since September 2021, more than 21 million Americans quit their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. November saw a record-breaking 4.5 million people leave their jobs, including 143,000 Pennsylvanians.

It’s been dubbed the Great Resignation, but maybe the Great Job Swap is more accurate.

Federal data show that the majority of people who quit their jobs already have another one lined up. In January 2022, 4.3 million Americans quit. But that same month, only about a quarter of unemployed people identified as “job leavers,” the official term for those who are out-of-work by their own choice, not because they were fired or laid off, according to the BLS.

Surveys show people are not looking just for another job. They’re seeking a life upgrade. “Low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected at work are the top reasons why Americans quit their jobs last year,” according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Issues with child-care and a desire for more flexibility also ranked highly.

“I cannot sacrifice my mental health for money anymore,” said Scarlett Delorme, 23, who lives in Wissahickon with her fiance. She said the stress of working during the pandemic made her ditch an old career path in favor of gig work.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Scarlett DeLorme walks her dog, Winnie, in Philadelphia. She quit her office job during the pandemic to become a dog walker and hopes to pursue a career in film photography.

“I want to bring more stability to my life, because if I’m stable then I can grow,” said Justin Miles, 31, who quit his job at an international shipping company in January, to pursue a paid internship for a master’s program in instructional design, a field that involves developing and implementing digital training materials. The Fishtown resident graduates in May.

Most people who changed jobs reported getting paid more in the new one, according to the Pew survey.

Burnout was named as the top factor pushing people to make a change, according to a survey by Limeade, an employee wellness company. Defined as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” burnout leads to symptoms like exhaustion, feeling distant or cynical about one’s job, and “reduced professional efficacy,” according to the World Health Organization.

Workplace stress was a factor for Delorme. She had been working in a university’s financial aid office and going to graduate school when the pandemic started, and making decisions about who would or would not get financial support during a global pandemic and recession “felt really, really terrible.” That, combined with the stress of the pandemic, exacerbated mental health issues Delorme said were already difficult to manage, and led to mental break in June 2020.

After a short hospital stay, Delorme lived with family in Connecticut before moving to Philadelphia. During that time, she made the decision not to go work in the nonprofit world, even though she recently completed a master’s program in human rights with the intention of doing just that.

“Nonprofit work is a lot of unpaid labor, and I just can’t do it,” said DeLorme. And she worries it would trigger another break, after she fought so hard to get through her last one.

Delorme now makes money walking dogs through the app Rover. She does not think she will go back to an office, but is looking into starting her own business, maybe in photography.

Health also played a role in Miles’ changes. Like many people, he experienced back pain during the pandemic.  He blamed “a terrible, old ladies’ rocking chair that I got from a thrift store” that he ended up using way more than before while spending time at home.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Justin Miles goes to Forin Cafe in Fishtown to study every Friday. He quit his job in logistics to go back to school during the pandemic.

And also like many people, Miles turned to YouTube videos by Adriene Mishler, dubbed “The Reigning Queen of Pandemic Yoga” by the New York Times, for relief. YouTube led to outdoor yoga classes in Penn Treaty Park.

Feeling better physically and mentally opened the floodgates to other goals. “I just started to think about what I have to do to make the healthiest version of myself,” Miles said. He wanted time for hobbies. He wanted to make enough to buy a house.

His bachelor’s degree in public relations from Bloomsburg University had led to a series of repetitive customer service jobs, “just monotonous work,” he said. But Miles had kept in touch with an advisor at the university, who pushed him to think about instructional design, a field that involves developing and implementing digital training materials.

He enrolled and sped through a master’s program in Instructional Design and Information Technology in one year.

Looking back, he said at the time he could not see the path that led him to make a big choice. “You can only connect the dots when you’re past them,” he said.

Miles has already started interviewing for jobs once he graduates.

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