The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

During the ‘Great Resignation,’ workers refuse to accept the unacceptable

People who are used to tolerating bad work situations are increasingly leaving their jobs and demanding better working conditions


Last week, two of my friends abruptly quit relatively new jobs on the same day. One was writing for a small publication whose editor had departed, leaving them rudderless; the other, working for a public-service call center, had had a random manager demand an explanation for why her terminal had been briefly inactive during a recent shift. So they quit.

What you have to understand is that these friends are not the type to impulsively abandon paid work. Like me, they emerged from liberal-arts educations into the mid-1990s recession. When we finally landed paying jobs, no matter how toxic or how bad a fit they were for us, we stuck them out as long as humanly possible. Finding and pursuing one’s Passion in Life was all well and good as a concept, but rent and health care don’t pay for themselves. We resigned ourselves to being bored or stressed or underpaid until something better came along.

Anecdotes, of course, aren’t data. But along with employment statistics and “Help Wanted” signs everywhere, seeing these two friends take “resignation” from a passive state-of-being to an empowered course of action simply confirms for me that U.S. workers, in the words of consulting firm Grace Ocean CEO Phillip Kane, have overwhelmingly made “a decision to no longer accept the unacceptable.”

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Since 2020, in addition to massive unemployment from pandemic-induced business shutdowns, the United States has seen a surge of voluntary job departures.

In a recent Washington Post Live webcast, Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University credited with coining the term the “Great Resignation,” attributed the departures to four main causes: a backlog of workers who wanted to resign before the pandemic but held on a bit longer; burnout, particularly among frontline workers in health care, food service and retail; “pandemic epiphanies” in which people experienced major shifts in identity and purpose that led them to pursue new careers and start their own businesses; and an aversion to returning to offices after a year or more of working remotely.

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Even the expiration of unemployment benefits and other emergency financial relief measures hasn’t generated a corresponding surge of returning workers.

We’re seeing the results of these decisions as frontline workers in health care, child care, hospitality and food service industries, pushed to the brink of human endurance, decide that the grueling hours, inadequate pay, lack of balance and abuse by employers and clientele are no longer acceptable trade-offs for their mental and physical well-being. Restaurant signs urge patrons to “be patient with those who showed up to work” because they can’t afford to lose any more workers to abusive customers.

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Even workers who are staying in their jobs are feeling newly empowered to request changes to working conditions, from remote work and flexible schedules to more basic rights and protections. A Gallup poll in early September found that labor unions have their highest approval rating since 1965.

And workers in office-centered industries, such as my friends, are making similar calculations between acceptable and unacceptable trade-offs. One reader has asked me for advice on how to handle three job changes within a matter of months. Their latest employer had refused to replace a broken chair or provide basic office supplies, changed workers’ schedules at the last minute and refused to listen to feedback. The reader, who had previously worked at the same job for 10 years, was not happy about having to job-hop, but also not willing to accept poor treatment: “I only want to work in an environment of respect and productivity, until retirement if possible," they said.

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Once upon a time, I might have urged the reader to stick it out a bit longer, find some creative workarounds, give it at least six months to show steady, reliable career progress that would appeal to prospective employers.

Now, however, I suspect employers will be willing to hire first and ask questions later. Workers get to be more choosy, and the onus is on employers to show how they make their employees feel safe, appreciated and respected.

The other day, while grocery shopping, I overheard a young new cashier complaining to co-workers about back pain from standing in the same spot all day with no movement except scanning purchases and accepting payments. She wondered aloud “how anyone does this for 20 years.”

As I thanked her for ringing up my purchases, I mentioned that having a chair to sit in, as some grocery chains provide, would surely bring relief. If her employer is smart, it’s already considering chairs along with other ways to improve working conditions. Because I guarantee that this worker, and anyone who might be hired to replace her, isn’t about to resign herself to accepting the unacceptable — and certainly not the painfully uncomfortable.

Reader query: During the coronavirus pandemic, have you left an unsatisfactory job that you might have held on to before? What was the final straw? Write me at and share your story.