The Real Reason So Many People Are Quitting Their Jobs

And they probably don’t even realize it!

Mike Murray
4 min readOct 26, 2021
Designed by Freepik

We all know about the “Great Resignation”, which includes not only people in low wage service jobs, but multitudes in more highly paid blue-and-white collar jobs. Many explanations have been posited for this job exodus, including extended unemployment benefits, preference for working remotely, and people reassessing what’s important in their lives. Undeniably, the COVID pandemic has been a shock that has led people to reconsider their priorities. There may also be a belief that, “I can always find a job, when I’m ready.”, so why not take this opportunity to throw off the yoke of your current job, singing the old Johnny Paycheck refrain “Take this job and shove it!” as you march out the door.

Of course, people have many different reasons for quitting their job, and on a high level these are probably as myriad as the millions of individuals participating in the Great Resignation. Deep down, though, I believe that the primary driver for the Great Resignation is one that is shared among the majority of those who have handed in their notice. Fundamentally, it is a manifestation of an internal conflict in values. More specifically, people are quitting their jobs in droves because the values they have in their work life and their personal life are in conflict. That tension is almost always present, but the stressors of the pandemic have made this internal tension intolerable.

The real driver for the Great Resignation is a conflict in values.

In my coaching work with people in the corporate sector, I have found that most folks hold different values for their work and personal lives. A helpful way to understand this dichotomy is using a values model elucidated by Israeli psychologist Shalom Schwartz. This model, eponymously dubbed the “Schwartz Values Model” categorizes dozens of values according to the goal that they express. The model has been validated across genders, nationalities, races, and cultures. A high-level categorization of values that I use extensively is a quadrant, shown below, that characterizes values as oriented towards personal protection, personal growth, social protection, or social growth.

You can find more of the specific values included within each quadrant here.

Personal and social protective values are associated with a stress mindset and a focus on what’s wrong, or what could go wrong. Conversely, personal and social growth values emphasize a growth/success mindset in which we focus on what’s possible. Overwhelmingly, people’s values for their work life skew more towards personal and social protection compared to their personal lives. This makes complete sense, because on a very fundamental level, most of us are employed in order to obtain food and shelter. Higher order needs that employment can fulfill include self-esteem, social acceptance, and achievement. Oh sure, some of us are fortunate enough to have jobs that give us a sense of purpose and the ability to grow, but even this can be tempered by the need to first-and-foremost meet the needs of the employer. That’s why they are paying us, after all!

Notice that the values that are associated with achievement, including accomplishment, ambition, competence, education, excellence, and success, are in the personal protection quadrant. Schwartz explains that values in the left-side quadrants serve to help us cope with anxiety due to uncertainty in the social and physical world. Achievement values help us meet social expectations successfully, and thus may help us to control anxiety and affirm our sense of competence. I have found this to be both very true and highly limiting in people with whom I have worked. And because it takes one to know one, I can see the same in myself! The need to be regarded, by others and ourselves, as competent and successful keeps us tethered to a “what could go wrong” mindset in which we are never really good enough. In the workplace, that mindset grinds away at us, and it is often reinforced by colleagues and bosses.

This contrasts with growth-oriented values, such as family, friendship, happiness, health, curiosity, and empathy that have predominated as personal life values in the people with whom I have worked. Family is the most frequently mentioned growth-oriented value, and so it is no wonder that so many people feel the tension between work and their personal life.

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted our lives in innumerable ways, including loss of loved ones, loss of job, loss of connection with others, and loss of continuity with how we live our lives. It is this loss of continuity that has given people the opportunity to hit the “pause button” and reflect on what really matters in their lives. It gives their growth-oriented values, which are normally easily dominated by protection-oriented values, a greater voice. People can now hear those values cry out, “Hey, what about us?” The internal tension that was rumbling under the surface now erupts into full consciousness, and the outcome is loud and clear. “Take this job and shove it!”

If you want to learn more about your values for your work life and personal life, you can access this values spreadsheet here.