For the past few months, all we've talked about is the Great Resignation-turned-the Great Reshuffling. Labels that economists attached to labor market changes, as they observed millions of people headed for the company exit doors.

But underneath all the Great This-or-Thats is an individual mindset -- a person making a decision to quit. Why are so many people leaving? We know it's not about better pay. Researchers are coming to understand that Covid-19 has created the psychological conditions that forced people to ask big, meaning-based questions about themselves and their place in the world.

According to psychologists Adam Galinsky and Laura Kray, we're witnessing a psychological shift in people that looks an awful lot like a midlife crisis.

A midlife crisis en masse

The researchers suggest the typical ingredients leading to a (real) midlife crisis have been created by the pressures of living through a pandemic. As people hit their 40s or 50s, they begin to question who they are, what they've accomplished so far in life, and where they're headed in this next phase of life.

These are the same anxiety-inducing, identity-type questions that millions of young people have started to wonder about over these past 24 months -- ahead of their scheduled midlife crisis. To meet the needs of the Millennial and Gen-Z workforce, leaders need to understand the psychological drivers that lie beneath the Great Resignation, and to identify the real reasons why their people are leaving.

Driver No. 1: Being reminded about death

For months, people fretted about the rise in Covid-related death counts. Across the globe, people obsessively checked -- and rechecked -- the rise and fall of new cases, ICU admissions, and deaths. We heard it reported on the news every single day. Many of us had never had to think about death in this sort of way. It was forced on us, injected into our subconscious. If we didn't worry about our own health, we worried about the health of our parents and grandparents and other loved ones at greater risk.

Psychologists call this a strong case of "mortality salience." Two things happen when we're reminded about our own mortality. First, we call on our self-esteem to help us cope. And second, we think about our continued legacy. If a person under continuous mental threat of mortality salience finds themself in a job that undercuts their self-esteem and dissuades them from considering their lasting impact on the world, quitting is the inevitable next step. 

Driver No. 2: Having "if only"-type thoughts

There's a tendency to think about how our lives would be different -- better -- had we made a different decision. These are thoughts of "what might have been" if we, for instance, had decided to go away for college (instead of sticking close to home) or, as another example, had decided to not have children (instead of filling the house with our noisy offspring).

Called "counterfactual reflections," they are triggered during moments of sudden and disruptive change ... kind of like when a novel coronavirus pandemic hits. Carried out effectively, they help us give meaning to our lives by creating new paths for our future self to explore.

Right now, people in organizations are having a whole slew of if-only thoughts. Leaders need to help their people navigate these alternative realities and get them excited by "what could be" if they stick with their organization.

Driver No. 3: Experiencing foreign scenarios

Overnight, most people's daily work routines were upended. We found ourselves rolling out of bed, stumbling to the desk, and jumping into Zoom meetings with our pajamas still on (and the camera probably off). While jarring at first, what was initially a foreign and possibly unnerving experience may have been what someone needed to hit the restart button. 

People who have such experiences tend to agree more with the statement "I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am." 

Working in our pajamas wasn't just oh-so comfy. It also stirred us up inside, and made us think about some big questions: "Why do I do the work I do? Am I happy doing this type of work? Would I be happier doing something else? Why can't we wear slippers to the office?"