It's one of the big mysteries of our time: If a whopping 47 million people quit their jobs last year (along with 4.3 million more in January), where did they all go

What are they doing instead? Why don't they show up in the unemployment rate? And, what exactly prompted them to quit in the first place?

We have some new research now that answers a lot of these questions, and we'll explain it below. But as an entrepreneur, it's even more important to recognize the three ways you can choose to react to this entire phenomenon:

  • You can choose believe that people simply don't want to work: that the so-called Great Resignation became an excuse as much as a trend.
  • Or, you might bemoan the idea of losing some of your employees -- maybe even the best ones -- to a societal phenomenon that's difficult for to understand.
  • Finally, you could look at all of this as a tremendous opportunity--both to shore up the resolve of your most valued workers, and to recruit more top-performers who just might be thinking about quitting their jobs elsewhere.

It probably doesn't take long to realize which perspective is most likely to lead to the best results in the long-term. Fortunately, we just got some big data that might make it easier to leverage.

Previously, I've reported on the very large number of former employees who apparently quit their jobs last year in order either  to launch small businesses or try to turn side hustles into full-time occupations.

Our best back-of-the envelope guess is that this accounts for perhaps a bit below 20 percent of job-quitters: about 9.5 million people last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, out of the 47 million above.

But that still leaves 80 percent. So what motivates them, and what do they do after they've quit? These are the parts we've just learned. Pew Research, which released its latest study on the phenomenon, reached two key conclusions that I think you'll find interesting:

  • First, people quit jobs for a variety of reasons, some of which won't surprise you. The top motivations: dissatisfaction with their pay (63%), a belief that opportunities for advancement were limited (also 63%), or else, a lack of feeling respected at work (57%).
  • But, what they did afterward was a bit more surprising: More than half of employees  (53%) who left their jobs during 2021 said they took the chance to switch careers (not just jobs), and find something that promised to be more satisfying in the long run. 

As a business owner, this is where your opportunity lies. If people are switching careers, then like a good entrepreneur, you might look at this as a problem that you can solve--and frankly, solve it to the benefit of your organization.

What does this look like, in practical terms? I think there are three key things to think about:

1. Be willing to train new employees and help with career transitions.

This just seems like the application of simple math: If more than half of those 4 million or more workers per month are looking for new careers, not just new jobs, then it makes sense to build a reputation as an employer who welcomes talented career-switchers. 

2. Support people who don't want to be there.

Statistically, you probably have some employees who daydream about doing something else. Would it benefit you both if you could make it easier for them to take the risk of going to do that "something else," elsewhere? (An example: the late Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, would offer employees $1,000 to quit.) 

3. Always be recruiting.

Even in a supposedly tight labor market, we now have a never-ending parade of recruiting opportunities. So, whether you're running a three-person retail store or a 5,000-employee company, it makes sense to treat almost anyone you meet as either a potential employee, or someone who might introduce you to your next employee.

The more you can create a culture in which one of your key values is something along the lines of: "We work hard to make this a great place to work," the better you'll be in the long term.

You might well find that you have happier and more motivated employees--and that the Great Resignation becomes wholly somebody else's problem