The Great Resignation Was Fueled By Workers Who Were Fed Up With Being Broke

People overwhelmingly quit jobs due to low pay, new research shows about people who left their jobs in 2021.

Oleg Elkov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Great Resignation — the phrase used to describe the unprecedented number of people who quit their jobs last year — was about workers escaping burnout and finding more meaning in their jobs and about seeking employment in places with healthier work cultures. But above all, it was about getting more money, according to survey results released today by Pew Research Center.

Low pay and lack of opportunities for advancement (in other words, low future pay) were the top two reasons cited, with 63% of respondents saying these were major or minor reasons they quit last year.

In November, the number of people in the US who quit their jobs reached a record high of 4.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has been tracking this data for about 20 years. That figure declined slightly to 4.3 million in December. BLS data also show wages and salaries increased 4.5% last year. In Pew’s survey, younger people and people who have lower incomes were the likeliest to have quit.

“The ‘Great Resignation’ is more a story about strong demand for workers, rather than a rethink of work among higher-income workers,” writes Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at Hiring Lab, a research team at the job site Indeed. NPR’s Planet Money has recoined this period the “Great Renegotiation.”

For many, the decision to resign worked out: Over half of all survey takers said they are now earning more money and have more opportunities for advancement. Yet “there are significant differences by educational attainment,” the report states: College graduates were more likely to have increased their earnings and feel they have more opportunities to advance in their new jobs. Meanwhile, about half of people who did not complete college said they were doing better financially, but 27% said they are actually making less money in their new job, and 18% felt they have fewer opportunities.

Among the other top reasons people said they quit were feeling disrespected at work, childcare needs, and wanting more flexible hours.

The new data support other research that shows the low unemployment rate (now 3.8%) has led many workers to feel more confident to seek higher wages.

Pew’s survey results are based on responses from 965 people who said they chose to leave a job in 2021.