During the pandemic, women have exited the labor force at twice the rate of men; their participation in the paid labor force is now the lowest it has been in more than 30 years
They call it “the Great Resignation”. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September. The analytics firm Visier puts it in even starker terms, reporting that one in four workers quit in the past year. Job separations initiated by employees – quits – have exceeded pre-pandemic highs for six straight months. After the insecurity of the pandemic and the mass layoffs in hard-hit industries, many had predicted that the Covid crisis would yield more job retention and sterner worker competition as people sought stability in an uncertain time. Instead, employees are showing themselves more willing than ever to quit or change their jobs. The result has been a labor shortage, as employers struggle to find people to work and wages have finally been forced up. In an unexpected twist, the dawn of the post-pandemic era has brought with it a surprising moment of labor power.
Most popular explanations for the Great Resignation focus on the shifting sentiments of workers. “The pandemic was sort of a nationwide awakening during a very stressful time,” Anthony Klotz, a psychologist at Texas A&M who coined the term “Great Resignation”, told NPR. “Most people were reflecting on their lives at the same time that work was causing them burnout, or they were really enjoying working from home.”
But while the introspection occasioned by quarantine may have led some workers to reassess their priorities and willingly change their lives, such an explanation for the sudden disappearance of so many people from the job market might be better explained by material factors.
The fact of the matter is that when we speak of the Great Resignation, we are really referring to a great resignation of women. During the pandemic, women have exited the labor force at twice the rate that men have; their participation in the paid labor force is now the lowest it has been in more than 30 years. About one-third of all mothers in the workforce have scaled back or left their jobs since March 2020. That labor shortage? It’s being felt most acutely in sectors like hospitality, retail and healthcare – industries where women make up a majority of workers.
When we speak of the Great Resignation, we are really referring to a great resignation of women.
Why are women leaving the workforce at such a disproportionate rate? It’s not because they have been on personal journeys of soul-searching and self-discovery. It’s because they have nowhere to put their kids. Schools were closed for much of two straight school years; many still face interruptions, quarantines and closures. And for the parents of even younger kids, daycare centers, already unaffordably expensive and in dramatically short supply before the pandemic, closed in record numbers over the past year. Now, costs have been driven even higher; waiting lists can stretch for months.
It might be more accurate, then, to say that as far as working mothers are concerned, the Great Resignation doesn’t reflect women leaving the workforce. It reflects them being forced out.
The pandemic made women’s exit from the labor force rapid and highly visible. But the loss of female workers is nothing new. Women’s workforce participation rate has been declining steadily since the 2008 financial crisis. The pandemic merely accelerated an already alarming trend. Childcare – along with its generational inverse, elder care – have always been among the primary culprits. American disinvestment in the care economy has waged a war of attrition on women’s employment, with women forced to chose between jobs where they are paid too little and childcare solutions that cost too much. The result has been a massive loss of talent, creativity and human potential from the paid economy. When care is not invested in, women are not prioritized – and that means that half of the nation’s minds risk being exiled to the domestic sphere.
Women are forced to chose between jobs where they are paid too little, and childcare solutions that cost too much.
The economic impact of women’s expulsion from paid work is being felt acutely now, as the service and healthcare sectors struggle to find workers. But the moral impact has been felt for decades. The first time the first woman sat down and calculated that sending her kids to daycare would cost more than she could earn at her job, the nation was already in crisis. The loss of women from the paid workforce – a trend not seen on anything like the same scale in countries with sane and responsible investments in their care infrastructure – makes the US economy less competitive, and makes families less prosperous, leading to worse outcomes for households over the long term. And it also makes women less equal, less powerful and often less challenged and fulfilled in their individual lives – a great loss unto itself.
The trend of women leaving the workforce to care for their children has often been explained as a matter of women’s personal choices. But to the women facing the stark financial reality that they can’t afford both their own professional ambitions and to meet the needs of their kids, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice at all. It feels like their options have been narrowed so much that the choice has been made for them.
Maybe commentators have become blind to women’s needs, or accustomed to ignoring them.
With so much of the labor shortage being driven by women’s forced exit from paid work, why has the “Great Resignation” been spoken of as a shift in sentiment and attitudes, rather than as a response to women’s caregiving responsibilities? Maybe one reason is that commentators have become blind to women’s needs, or accustomed to ignoring them. That might explain why major economic shifts have been explained with theories about gender-neutral emotions – rather than gender-specific material realities.
But to be fair, not all of the labor shortage can be explained by the childcare crisis pushing women out of the workforce. No doubt there are, in fact, many workers reassessing their priorities and demanding more from their employers – as well they should. But workers who are quitting their jobs for other reasons have the power and flexibility to do so because of a labor shortage caused in part by a mass forced exit of women from the workforce. It’s a reality that casts the victories of rising wages and employer concessions in a more complex light. This moment of worker power – a social good – has been in part subsidized by the expulsion of mothers from the workforce – a generational tragedy.