SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
One morning, about a month ago, Gina Gill (ph) realized that her relationship with work was forever changed. She was standing in her bedroom, steaming a blouse for work.
GINA GILL: I was just looking at my steamer thinking, I don't want this life again where I'm getting up every morning, picking out an outfit, having to steam - like, just everything that goes along with it.
VANEK SMITH: Gina is 35. And for the last decade, she's been working for the federal government, for the Department of Defense. She's been making good money. She really likes working in government, likes her colleagues. But she started working from home after the COVID pandemic began, and now Gina's job was asking her to come back into the office every day, jump back into this daily routine she'd had in the before times.
GILL: I used to wake up at 4:30 so I could go to the gym before I went to work and then, you know, shower, get ready. And, you know, as a female getting ready, that can take a lot. You're doing hair, makeup, outfit.
VANEK SMITH: And standing there looking at her steamer, Gina thought, no.
GILL: I'm like, I can't do this. And I quit a month ago (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: Gina quit. She says she's still kind of surprised she actually did it.
GILL: You just don't think life happens like that - that you have a successful career, and at 35, just the thing that feels right is to quit your job.
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VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, quitting. People all over the U.S. are doing this by the millions. A record number of Americans quit their job in September, according to numbers out this morning. So why is everybody quitting? And what does it tell us about workers and about the U.S. economy?
The share of Americans quitting their jobs is measured every month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's kind of a lesser-known piece of economic data, but it has a very snappy name. It is called JOLTS, and it stands for Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Part of that report is something known as the quits rate, a.k.a. how many people quit their jobs every month. For a long time, JOLTS was, like, pretty obscure, like one of those insidery (ph) economic indicators, except for this one guy who's always talking about it and tweeting about it. And around THE INDICATOR, we actually started calling him Mr. JOLTS.
NICK BUNKER: (Laughter) Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that.
VANEK SMITH: This is Mr. JOLTS, a.k.a. Nick Bunker. He's an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.
I feel like this was like a little bit of a wonkier number for a long time, right?
BUNKER: That is correct. This was a report that me, three other people on the internet and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cared about.
VANEK SMITH: Right now, though, everybody is talking about it.
BUNKER: A colleague mentioned that someone brought this up just like at a dinner party. Like, oh, I've read something that there was 4.3 million people who quit their job.
VANEK SMITH: Nick says this makes sense to him because JOLTS gives a really important window into the economy.
BUNKER: As a quits rate hipster, the thing that drew me to it was...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
BUNKER: ...It's sort of a measure of how strong or tight the labor market is for people who already have a job. I think most of the time we talk about the labor market, we're talking about, you know, unemployment rates.
VANEK SMITH: The unemployment rate measures how many unemployed people who are looking for a job are able to find one. But JOLTS tracks employed people, looks at how many of them quit. And Nick says that number is very telling.
BUNKER: I think it is a good measure of workers' confidence in the labor market that you are quitting your job very likely because you have a new job lined up or you think you can get one very quickly. So I think it gets a sense of how...
VANEK SMITH: It's like confidence.
BUNKER: Yeah, how emboldened workers are.
VANEK SMITH: And right now, workers seem to be feeling pretty damn bold. Last month, a record 4.4 million people quit their jobs, and a lot of them don't seem to have gotten a replacement. This is especially true in certain kinds of jobs.
BUNKER: We've seen the quits rate for leisure and hospitality, restaurants, bars, hotels - it was a little bit above 4% before the pandemic, and now it's well above 6%. So that's like a 50% change.
VANEK SMITH: Wow.
BUNKER: So it's really jumped up.
VANEK SMITH: That's a large percentage of a workforce quitting every month.
VANEK SMITH: So why people are quitting is still kind of mysterious, but there are a few reasons that are showing up in the data, according to Nick. One of them, a big one, is worries about COVID. People are scared of going to work and being exposed to the virus. Another big one is child care. A lot of people, especially women, report quitting to care for children or family members. There's a lot of early retirement going on as well. And another reason is a little extra cash. So during the pandemic, a lot of people spent a lot less money than they normally do. Add in government aid and rising pay, and a lot of workers have a little nest egg, or at least like a rest egg. Take Gina Gill, our civil servant. As she was standing there in the morning steaming her blouse, she realized she had options. She'd always been a saver, and her biggest expense had always been travel. But she hadn't been traveling for a couple years, and she realized that she had a lot of money squirreled away.
GILL: I have savings enough for, I would say, a year to not work comfortably.
VANEK SMITH: A year of savings.
GILL: If I can't take that money and do what I want to with my life, why did I do that for all those years? Why did I save that money up? Why did I work so hard? It's hard to, like, grit my teeth and bear it when I don't have to.
VANEK SMITH: The extra savings made quitting possible for Gina. But of course, it wasn't why she quit. Gina quit because she had this moment to step back from her daily grind of a decade, and she didn't really love what she saw.
GILL: It's kind of like you get on a hamster wheel in your career and you're just going, going, going, but at what point do you stop making conscious choices about your career and you're just going? And it just felt like the right time to stop and make the conscious choice about my life, my career.
VANEK SMITH: We're hearing things like this all over the place. People are taking a moment, changing careers, going back to school, reevaluating their work, their lives, the culture of work in the U.S., the place of work in their lives. And I put this question to Mr. JOLTS.
It sort of feels like there's a little bit of a - like, a cultural element too. Is that something that you're seeing in the data at all?
BUNKER: Yeah, I think that is very likely a possibility, but I can't see that in data. But that also is a thing that might not show up in data. I don't know of a labor market indicator for the zeitgeist.
VANEK SMITH: But even if the reasons can't be entirely measured, the economic impact of all this quitting can. There are now more than 10 million open jobs in the U.S., and employers all over the country are saying they're desperate for workers. They're offering higher wages, bonuses, flexible working conditions. But the quits rate keeps rising and, you know, getting more famous.
I mean, how do you feel about the quits rate's sudden fame?
BUNKER: I mean, it's...
VANEK SMITH: It's like loving an indie band that's suddenly, like, headlining for Drake or something.
BUNKER: I'm very much of the school of, like, this is great. Like, everyone should like this thing.
VANEK SMITH: Everyone finally - their eyes have finally been opened.
VANEK SMITH: Still, Nick does not think this is a "Star Is Born" situation. He thinks JOLTS will be back to playing open mic nights pretty soon. He predicts the economy will start to normalize and settle down and that virus fears will subside and some of the child care issues will get resolved - and also that people will just start to really need money. After all, those rest eggs, they're not infinite. Gina Gill, for her part, is very aware of her ticking clock. She has her year of savings.
GILL: But it is kind of amazing because it's like a mid-career gap year is what I've kind of thought that it is.
VANEK SMITH: And for that year, Gina plans to savor every minute of her new daily grind.
GILL: I mean, I wake up and I do, like, a ten-minute yoga stretch. I'll go for a walk, have breakfast, go to the swimming pool. I swim laps. Come back, have lunch. And then there's, like - I've been reading a lot more, catching up on podcasts. And before I know it, you know, my boyfriend's off work and I've been busy all day.
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VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le. The show is edited by Kate Concannon, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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