The Atlantic Daily: The ‘Big Quit’ Tells a Bigger Economic Story

Americans are still resigning at unprecedented rates. This is a moment of fascinating decentralization, one of our writers argues.

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Empty cubicles
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The Great Resignation is more than just the sum of its quits, my colleague Derek Thompson argues. The pandemic is restructuring the economy, and forcing fundamental changes in the way that Americans think about work.

I caught up with Derek this afternoon to discuss his recent reporting on the topic—and where we may be headed from here.

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Who is doing all this quitting and why?

Derek Thompson: Low-income workers, especially. The “quits rate” in leisure and hospitality is the highest of all sectors. Nearly one in 14 workers in restaurants, hotels, and bars quit in August. They’re quitting because there are zillions of job openings in this space, and many Americans rightly assume they can leave their job and find a better-paying one in days—or hours.

Caroline: The Great Resignation, you argue, is ushering in “a centrifugal moment in American economic history.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Derek: This is a moment of fascinating decentralization. A couple of years ago, I wrote that the U.S. economy lost its mojo. I said that we had less quitting, less moving, and less entrepreneurship than in the 20th century. But now that’s reversed. We’re moving out of jobs, out of companies, out of old neighborhoods at high rates.

Caroline: Those all sound like good signs for the economy, no?

Derek: I am 100 percent pro-mojo. Gimme an economy with more quits, more migration, and more entrepreneurship. It will be better for workers, better for families, better for productivity, and better for technological development and innovation.

Caroline: You’ve covered the future of work for a long time now. What surprises you about this moment?

Derek: I’m very interested in “workism”—the idea that work is the centerpiece of many Americans’ lives and the heart of U.S. economic policy. Today, I see some cracks in workism. Some people are spending more time with their family rather than rushing back to work. Politicians are thinking about extending new benefits to families that might reduce the amount they have to work to afford essentials.

Caroline: The winter holidays are rapidly approaching. Supply chains are snarled. Job listings are up. Do you have any practical advice for Americans attempting to navigate all this economic change over the next few months?

Derek: Buy your Christmas gifts now. I’m Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah growing up, so I’m used to a holiday beginning and the best present arriving eight days later. We should all cultivate some Hanukkah-esque patience when it comes to Christmas-gift delivery if we order popular toys too late.

Senator Joe Manchin
Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty

The news in three sentences:

(1) Senate Republicans blocked the new voting-rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. (2) The White House unveiled its plan for a kid-vaccine rollout, should one be approved. (3) The FDA authorized J&J and Moderna boosters, as well as mix-and-matchnext up, the CDC.

Today’s Atlantic-approved activity:

A sweeping new book completely rewrites human history—replacing it with an account that is “not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring,” William Deresiewicz observes.

A break from the news:

To study volcanoes is to stand before beauty—and danger.


Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.