The Big Quit — and what Americans want from a job after COVID-19

COVID-19 triggered the big quit, with large numbers of Americans voluntarily leaving jobs. For example, over the past 18 months, around 3.6 million retired, 2 million more than expected, and resignations are up 13 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

This situation led The Economist to suggest that 2022 “will be the year of the worker.” So, the pandemic has hastened a workers’ reappraisal of what they want from work. And that may not be a bad outcome.

That’s the primary message of The American Workforce Index, a nationally representative October survey of 2,005 working Americans — around a quarter of whom report they’re looking for new employment — conducted by the think tank Populace, in partnership with YouGov.

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Survey questions were based on interviews, focus groups and other research that identified 60 job attributes representing various aspects of work, including personal considerations such as the nature of one’s work, relational considerations such as engagement with others, and organizational considerations such as work culture. 

The survey used a choice-based-conjoint method that forced individuals to make choices on issues so that they couldn’t claim everything is important. This allows us to distinguish between individual preferences — personal opinions — and what individuals think others prefer, or perceived societal opinions.

This approach reveals gaps between what individuals personally believe and what they think others believe about work, exposing collective illusions that individuals hold about others. 

The index provides three insights into what working adults want and don’t want in their jobs.

First, individual priorities: Compensation and good benefits are at the top of the want list as first and third priorities. Nestled between them is flexibility — i.e., being able to “work remotely or in a hybrid … arrangement.” These “big three wants” are true for all demographic groups.

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Moreover, workers are both practical and purposeful in what they want from work. The top-ranked 15 of the 60 work attributes are nearly evenly divided between practical concerns and loftier or purpose-seeking concerns. For example, workers rank in the top 15 attributes “[to be] well compensated,” “have good benefits,” and “an easy commute to work,” as well as “being personally interested in my work” and seeing “work [as] more than a job; it’s my calling.”

The report comments: “Employees are looking for job opportunities that make a living, but also a life.” Additionally, workers want a respectful and inclusive workplace, visible in personal priorities such as: “My ideas are listened to and considered”; “My workplace treats everyone, regardless of background, with the same basic level of respect”; and “No one receives preferential treatment at work based on factors other than performance.”

Finally, workers rank low on the 60 attributes job features that conventional wisdom often sees as significant. For example, “the organization has a prominent reputation” ranks 42nd; “free meals and snacks, gear and other perks” ranks 47th; and “takes strong positions on current events” ranks 57th. 

Second, collective illusions: Individuals have wrong opinions — collective illusions — about others’ priorities, or perceived societal perceptions, regarding work and career aspirations. For example, workers want to be “trusted to choose how to best do my work” ranked 8th personally, though 29th as a perceived societal opinion. Or, they want “their ideas … listened to and considered by others” ranked 11th personally, but 37th as a perceived societal opinion.     

Conversely, there are other attributes that individual workers don’t rank highly that they believe are widely desired by others. The most dramatic of these is “a job … recognized as prestigious,” which is ranked by individuals as 55th out of 60 attributes but ranked as a top five priority of others. The report says, “… workers do not realize that [many personal desires are] widely shared by others. … [Attributes] others value … are, in truth, widely deprioritized.”

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Third, delivering results: The current workplace has a mixed record on meeting workers’ personal preferences and expectations. Of the bottom 15 job attributes, 50 percent or more of workers report that eight of these attributes describe their current work situation. In other words, their jobs are delivering on the lowest ranked attributes.

None of the expectations regarding compensation, flexibility and benefits is being met for a majority of workers. Moreover, for each of the top 15 priorities, workers consistently underestimate the extent to which other workers are achieving those priorities.    

The report also finds a relationship between workers achieving their personal job priorities and overall life satisfaction, so “… being in work environments that meet one’s idealized job priorities may have benefits that extend beyond the workplace.”

The pandemic has catalyzed a “big quit” that’s altering what a significant number of Americans want from work. These voluntary job departures are producing a version of creative destruction, whereby new workplace approaches can replace existing, obsolete ones. And that bodes well for both workers and employers.

Bruno V. Manno is a senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program, which supports grant-making on issues associated with education pathways to jobs and careers. The foundation provides general operating support to Populace.