The Big Quit – and what Americans want from a job after COVID-19
COVID-19 has sparked the big departure, with large numbers of Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs. For example, in the past 18 months, around 3.6 million retirees, 2 million more than expected, and quits increased 13% from pre-pandemic levels.
This situation has led The Economist to suggest that 2022 “will be the year of the worker”. Thus, the pandemic has accelerated a reassessment of workers of what they expect from work. And that may not be a bad result.
That’s the main message of The American Workforce Index, a nationally representative October survey of 2,005 American workers – about a quarter of whom say they are looking for new jobs – conducted by think tank Populace, in partnership with YouGov.
The survey questions were based on interviews, focus groups and other research that identified 60 job attributes representing various aspects of the job, including personal considerations such as the nature of one’s job, relational such as engagement with others and organizational considerations such as work culture.
The survey used a joint choice-based method that forced individuals to make choices about issues so that they couldn’t pretend everything was important. This allows us to distinguish between individual preferences – personal opinions – and what individuals think others prefer, or perceived societal views.
This approach reveals discrepancies between what individuals personally believe and what they think others think about work, exposing the collective illusions that individuals have about others.
The index provides three snapshots of what working adults want and don’t want in their jobs.
First, individual priorities: compensation and the right benefits are at the top of the list of needs as the first and third priorities. Nestled between them is flexibility, meaning the ability to “work remotely or in a… hybrid arrangement”. These “big three desires” hold true for all demographics.
In addition, workers are both practical and determined in what they expect from work. The top 15 of the 60 job attributes are almost evenly split between practical concerns and more noble or goal-seeking concerns. For example, workers rank among the top 15 attributes “[to be] well paid ”,“ have good benefits ”and“ an easy commute to work ”, as well as“ be personally interested in my job ”and see“ work [as] more than a job; it is my vocation.
The report comments: “Employees seek employment opportunities that earn a living, but also a living. In addition, workers want a respectful and inclusive workplace, visible in personal priorities such as: “My ideas are heard and taken into account”; “My workplace treats everyone, regardless of their 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 job characteristics that conventional wisdom often considers important. For example, “the organization has an excellent reputation” ranks 42nd; “Free meals and snacks, equipment and other perks” ranks 47th; and “takes strong positions on the news” ranks 57th.
Second, collective illusions: individuals have false opinions – collective illusions – about the priorities of others, or perceived societal perceptions, regarding career and career aspirations. For example, workers want to be “trusted to choose the best way to do my job” rank 8th personally, but 29th as a perceived societal opinion. Or, they want “their ideas… listened to and considered by others” to rank 11th personally, but 37th as a perceived societal opinion.
Conversely, there are other attributes that individual workers do not rank very well and which they believe are widely desired by others. The most spectacular of these is “work … recognized as prestigious”, which is ranked by individuals as 55th out of 60 attributes but ranked in the top five priorities of others. The report says: “… workers do not realize that [many personal desires are] widely shared by others. … [Attributes] others value… are, in truth, largely deprioritized.
Third, get results: Today’s workplace has a mixed record of meeting workers’ personal preferences and expectations. Of the last 15 job attributes, 50 percent or more of workers say eight of these attributes describe their current work situation. In other words, their jobs meet the lowest ranked attributes.
None of the expectations in terms of pay, flexibility and benefits are met for the majority of workers. Additionally, 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 work priorities and overall life satisfaction, so “… being in work environments that meet one’s idealized work priorities can have benefits that extend beyond workplace.”
The pandemic has catalyzed a “big shutdown” that is changing what significant numbers of Americans expect from work. These voluntary job departures produce a version of creative destruction, whereby new approaches to the workplace can replace existing and obsolete ones. And that bodes well for workers and employers alike.
Bruno V. Manno is Senior Advisor for the Education Program of the Walton Family Foundation, which supports grant-making on issues related to educational pathways to employment and careers. The foundation provides general operational support to Populace.