“[Employees] don’t want to return to backbreaking or boring, low wage, sh-t jobs,” Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, tells TIME. “Workers are burned out. They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.”
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, says that the conditions are good for workers to exert pressure on their employers. “For at least two generations, workers have been on their back heels,” he explains. “We are now seeing a labor market that is tight and prospects are becoming increasingly clear that it’s going to remain tight. It’s now going to be a workers’ market, and they’re empowered. I think they are starting to flex their collective muscle.”
There’s no single factor driving workforce behavior, economists add. It’s more of a grab bag of diffuse burdens. Wages aren’t keeping up with surging prices. Low-wage jobs often lack opportunities for career growth. A crumbling childcare industry is driving up daycare costs, making work unaffordable. Those who have remained in jobs face increasing responsibility and grueling work conditions punctuated by fears of the next variant of COVID-19. And then there’s just plain old vanilla pandemic fatigue.