Understanding Young Worker Motivations During the Great Resignation

Posted June 7, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Black young woman holds a box of items from an office.

More than 47 mil­lion work­ers vol­un­tar­i­ly quit their jobs in 2021, accord­ing to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics. This phe­nom­e­non, often referred to as the Great Res­ig­na­tion, is the sub­ject of a new study from the Shift Project.

The study and result­ing report, Why Are Young Work­ers Leav­ing Their Jobs?, explores why ser­vice sec­tor work­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly those between the ages of 18 and 24 — quit their jobs dur­ing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pri­or report­ing on the Great Res­ig­na­tion had relied on labor mar­ket data and lim­it­ed anec­do­tal evi­dence. This new research, fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, took a dif­fer­ent approach. It engaged near­ly 3,000 young work­ers and tracked sev­er­al telling fac­tors, includ­ing their rea­sons for quit­ting a job and their sat­is­fac­tion at each job.

When researchers mined data to learn why younger work­ers were leav­ing their jobs, they dis­cov­ered a trend toward employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties with bet­ter pay, ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions.

Moti­va­tions for Quit­ting Work

Why Are Young Work­ers Leav­ing Their Jobs? makes sev­er­al key con­clu­sions about what hap­pened to young work­ers dur­ing the Great Res­ig­na­tion. The report found that:

  • Young work­ers with low­er wages were more like­ly to quit their jobs; 67% of work­ers earn­ing min­i­mum wage left their jobs com­pared to only 17% of work­ers mak­ing at least $25 an hour.
  • Young work­ers who quit dur­ing this peri­od found bet­ter jobs with high­er wages and more sta­ble sched­ules — and often with­in the ser­vice sector.
  • Young work­ers were in demand — and bet­ter able to seek out jobs that fit their per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al goals — thanks to a more com­pet­i­tive labor market.

The tight labor mar­ket ben­e­fit­ed young work­ers, giv­ing them more bar­gain­ing pow­er and allow­ing them to achieve upward job mobil­i­ty,” says the report’s co-author, Kris­ten Harknett, who serves as pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cis­co. As a result, employ­ers now have to seri­ous­ly con­sid­er offer­ing more com­pet­i­tive wages and ben­e­fits, along with sta­ble and pre­dictable sched­ules, to attract and retain young workers.”

A Focus on Ser­vice Sec­tor Jobs

Many young peo­ple gain their first work expe­ri­ence in the ser­vice sec­tor, which accounts for 35% of all U.S. jobs occu­pied by those younger than age 25. In places like restau­rants, gro­cery stores and retail shops, these young work­ers receive low wages and few fringe ben­e­fits. Often­times, they must also con­tend with errat­ic work sched­ules that change with lit­tle notice.

Against this back­drop, it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that young work­ers have rep­re­sent­ed the largest demo­graph­ic of employ­ees quit­ting their jobs in the ser­vice sec­tor since 2021, accord­ing to Why Are Young Work­ers Leav­ing Their Jobs?. Between spring 2020 and spring 2022, 51% of young ser­vice sec­tor work­ers quit their job at least once — a rate that far exceeds the 25% quit rate for ser­vice sec­tor staff ages 25 and older.

The find­ings from the report pro­vide impor­tant insights on how young ser­vice sec­tor work­ers ben­e­fit­ed from a tight labor mar­ket, secur­ing jobs with high­er wages and sched­ules that sup­port their edu­ca­tion and career goals,” says Rani­ta Jain, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foundation.

Read about the chal­lenges fac­ing young ser­vice sec­tor workers

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