The Great Resignation: Why Millions Are Ditching Traditional Employment to Bet on Themselves

Michelle Alfaro has always known that a desk job career was not a part of her long-term vision. “As a creative person, I saw more for myself,” she says.

The 24 years old had been immersed in Milwaukee’s creative arts scene while working as a full-time loans officer for a local credit union, helping customers open accounts, secure loans, and manage finances.

Things would soon change as the 2020 pandemic lockdowns came into effect and her at-office desk job became an at-home desk job. She had been in that role for three years, and the monotony was starting to show its toll. “I was pretty unhappy there, especially in my last year,” she says.

“Having the free time during the pandemic’s early days allowed me to dig deeper into myself and what I wanted for my future.” That’s when Michelle turned to her love of plants. While many took in pets to fill the pandemic void, the self-described plant mom accumulated over 200 plants in her apartment.

Little did she know that nurturing her new hobby would soon cultivate a whole new career path and, well, life direction.

Michelle Alfaro in front of a window in her apartment, surrounded by plants
Michelle Alfaro in her apartment with a few selections from her 200+ plant collection.

When Mag Rodriguez, a friend of Michelle’s and a marketer at a local Milwaukee tech accelerator at the time, saw her collection, he saw a business opportunity. “You should just start selling plants,” Mag joked.

Two weeks later, the joke was germinating into a seedling of reality. 

The duo ordered a small number of plants and drew up plans to host a pop-up at a local food truck park to sell them. It was an instantaneous sell-out hit. So they announced another one, where they sold 300 plants before they even got to put them on display.

“When we saw the love and support at our first few pop-ups, that affirmed everything for us,” Michelle remembers. With a new flourishing side hustle, both Mag and Michelle left their jobs in hopes of turning a new leaf on their career. 

Seven months later, in April 2021, they opened the doors to their permanent storefront in Bronzeville, Milwaukee.

Michelle Alfaro (middle, standing) and Mag Rodriguez (middle, on phone) pose with other Maranta Plant Shop employees
Michelle Alfaro (middle, standing) and Mag Rodriguez (middle, on phone) pose with other Maranta Plant Shop employees on the business’ one-year anniversary in November 2021.

The Big Quit

Mag and Michelle were not the only ones quitting their jobs at the time. The same April Maranta Plant Shop opened its doors, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in a single month, breaking an all-time record. Economists called it the “Great Resignation.” 

Except Americans were just getting started. In July 2021, even more people handed in a resignation notice—4.3 million to be exact. In September, quitters set yet another record. And again in November. With each passing month, the Great Resignation was outpacing itself into the Great-er Resignation.

A graphic of an older woman with her eyes blocked out, and a spiking graph in the background
The number of people quitting their jobs in the United States has been registering new highs since Spring 2020. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Big Resignation. The Big Quit. The Great Revolt. The Great Reshuffle. The Big Formation. Though the trend comes in many monikers, it points to a singular observation: there is a seismic shift happening in the workforce right now and it’s not slowing down.

The high-level statistics merely trace what’s unfolding on the ground: Now Hiring signs speckle storefronts on our streets and job boards on our screens. Job openings were—and still are—sky-high. Employers, from global conglomerates to local coffee shops, are struggling to find workers despite offering higher wages. The trend has spilled over into our supply chains too, with hiring bottlenecks partly to blame for empty grocery shelves and higher prices for everyday essentials.

By now, it’s clear these numbers are not unique to a single industry or a temporary circumstance. This labor force shake-up points to deeper forces at play, and according to the current zeitgeist, it may be due to the grappling tension between labor and a workforce that desperately wants to hit the reset button.

An image of a person walking in front of an empty storefront
A familiar sight across North American cities: ‘Now Hiring’ signs decorate Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighborhood. Drew Iriah.

Revisiting our relationship with labor

Beyond storefronts and job boards, the Big Resignation has also infiltrated our day-to-day discourse. People aren’t just leaving their jobs—they won’t stop talking about it.

TikTok tags like #iquit and #greatresignation are popular topics on the app, garnering 456 million and 82.8 million views respectively. In one video, brand strategist Tiffany Knighten is smiling and dancing to the camera. “I did it,” she writes, referencing her resignation. “My mental health welcoming me back after leaving c*rporate america,” the caption reads as Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” plays triumphantly in the background.

@tiffknighten Here’s your sign to quit your toxic job #thegreatresignation #millennialsoftiktok #millenialtok ♬ Crowd Cheers – Johnny Buchanan

Another user, @corporatequitter, originally went viral for announcing her discontent with—and resignation from—her corporate job. She boasts 28.5k followers and has been featured in the New York Times, Good Morning America, NBC, and the New York Post. Today, she has her own podcast and helps her followers “ditch the 9-5.”

On Reddit, a similar story is unfolding with r/antiwork, one of the platform’s fastest growing subreddits. Its membership jumped from 180,000 in October 2020 to 1.7 million in January 2022. It has become a place where those disillusioned with conventional employment go to commiserate, share terrible boss stories, or celebrate handing in that resignation notice. 

A graphic of another graph, overlayed with a cartoon crazy cat
Membership of r/antiwork has grown exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic. Subreddit Stats.

“I don’t want to work, I just want to live,” one user by the name of newscott20 writes in r/antiwork. “Now obviously I don’t mean in the literal sense of no ‘work’ at all, but rather by conventional societal standards in which I have to plunge myself into lengthy, underpaid days with judgemental managers that hold the perspective I exist purely to serve their needs, merely as a ‘cog in the machine’ I guess,” they add.

Anti-work or anti-employment?

For people like Reddit user newscott20, the anti-work movement is not about foregoing hard work, but rather about redefining how we work. There’s an increasing desire from workers to reclaim their time, their passions, and their freedoms.

Attitudes are changing and so are our expectations. In decades past, people seemed to quit less and often clung to dead-end jobs all in the name of comfort and stability. But people seem to be done with sticking it out. Long gone are the days of traditional 20th-century labor, where workers stayed in one job for decades strung along by the prospect of getting their very own engraved plaque.

As workers hunkered down over the pandemic, they began to introspect, eventually realizing that certain aspects of work didn’t work for them anymore. The long commutes, stuffy wardrobe, time away from family, and rigid work hours suddenly seemed excessive and unnecessary. The needs for increased flexibility, trust, and autonomy have suddenly gone from wishlist items to must-have criteria.

image of a graphic with an exploding head and various other cartoon items
Workers everywhere are having a reckoning over their relationship with work. They are increasingly disillusioned with aspects of the 9 to 5, like hierarchical structures and inflexible hours.

Mag and Michelle, Maranta Plant Shop’s co-founders, are all too familiar with that corporate discontent. “The standard job market in Milauwake didn’t give me big opportunities for impact or creativity,” says Mag. “That’s what drove me out of the corporate environment in pursuit of full-time entrepreneurship.”

At first glance, the Big Resignation could be easily mistaken for anti-work laziness. But we think this quitting phenomenon is an expression of hope and transformation. It’s not an anti-work movement, but an anti-employment revolution. It’s an entrepreneurial awakening. Workers are quitting to do better and think bigger. They’re still looking to contribute to our economy, just in a different way.

It’s not an anti-work movement, but an anti-employment revolution. It’s an entrepreneurial awakening. Workers are quitting to do better and think bigger. They’re still looking to contribute to our economy, just in a different way.

The Big Start

Quitting is just half the story. 

As resignations hit a two-decade record-high in 2021, the U.S. saw a whopping 5.4 million new business applications for the same time period. Through September 2021, there were 1.4 million new registered businesses, the most of any year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And most recently, December 2021 saw the highest new business applications of any other December on record.

graphic of a graph showing the spike of new business application
New business applications have been on the rise since the pandemic, and December 2021 was the highest of any other December on record. United States Census Bureau.

Given the timing, this new business surge might explain the discrepancy between the hot job market and labor shortages we’re witnessing at the moment. The rise in startups may very well be the result of our current entrepreneurial awakening.

Google search data sure seems to support this hypothesis, too. According to Google’s 2021 Year-In-Search, searches for ‘how to start a business’ surpassed those on ‘how to get a job’ in 2021. The world seemed to seek new entrepreneurship opportunities during a tumultuous year (interestingly, the world’s searches for affirmations in 2021 topped any prior year and that has got me wondering if people have been manifesting entrepreneurship for themselves…).

Searches for ‘how to start a business’ surpassed those on ‘how to get a job’ in 2021.

Behind every new business start is an entrepreneurship choosing to ‘opting out’—not of work, but of limiting standards and rigid expectations. Workers are no longer willing to build their life around their work. Work now has to accommodate life, and entrepreneurship, despite its hardships and uncertainties, is a great way to achieve that. 

At the onset of the pandemic, resignation rates dipped to their lowest levels in a decade. The pandemic’s uncertainty left fear and doubt in the air, with businesses stalling and layoffs happening. It’s not lost on us that only a few months later so many would opt to take on a new venture during such unpredictable times. The call for independence seemed—and continues—to drown out the doubts the past two years.

A quest for independence

Right before resignations started setting all-time records, Shopify had just released I Quit, a joint production with Discovery+, featuring six business owners who gave up their cushy 9-to-5s to pursue entrepreneurial goals.

image of three people sitting around a coffee table with legs crossed
I Quit featured six entrepreneurs guided by the series’ three mentors: Shopify President Harley Finkelstein; GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling; and WP Narrative_ CEO Tricia Clarke-Stone. DCL.

Though filmed pre-pandemic, the series was onto something. It captured an early look into an accelerating trend: people leaving the safety of their day job to go all in on that “someday” idea. The big “I quit” moment has always been a bit of a fantasy, but for more people than ever since 2020, the dream has become a reality.

“For a long time, the idea of starting a business was time-consuming and complicated,” says Shopify President Harley Finkelstein. “Today, technologies like commerce software and accessible logistics have helped level the playing field, removing barriers for those selling products or offering services.”

The combination of the pandemic and entrepreneurship’s now lowered barrier to entry might have been the impetus aspiring entrepreneurs needed to carry through with their newfound journey. Pre-pandemic, the creator economy was gathering steam, slowly but surely changing our definitions of how to make a living. In a way, it helped pave the runway for the Big Start and indirectly, the Big Resignation. Those who were running a side hustle were more likely to turn it into their full-time work and those who were considering independence had little to lose by leaning in.

Take Sandro Petrillo, for example, a self-described soap collector and soap-making hobbyist. Pre-pandemic, Sandro was a full-time experience designer building interactive installations for brands, music artists, and performance venues. A bout of burnout led him to take a “soap sabbatical” at the beginning of 2020—a couple of months to give his part-time soap-making passion more attention.

But when the pandemic hit, his installations were paused and returning to work wasn’t an option.

That’s when Sandro leaned into the entrepreneurial path. With extra time on his hands and fresh learnings from his soap sabbatical, he zeroed in on the hobby. Time and money-wise, there was little to lose. He launched SSSOAPS two months later with a Shopify store and an Instagram account. His first batch sold out immediately.

Sandro Petrillo pictured packaging soap in his Toronto-based studio

Sandro Petrillo in his Toronto-based studio. Ryan Gotsa.

It was shortly thereafter, in July 2020, that Sandro started thinking about turning his hobby into a full-time undertaking. He ran his numbers, double-checked his math, and made plans to get more organized in hopes of scaling. With a sustainable ramp-up and hard work, Sandro increased his production to 400 bars per week by September 2021.

Today, SSSOAPS is foraying into wholesale, doing brand partnerships, and debuting in retail stores across North America.

Unfinished business

Entrepreneurs like Patrick, Michelle, and Mag are examples of a collective movement of people reconsidering where they spend their time and energy. By taking these entrepreneurial leaps of faith, they’re inspiring a movement of others who are also having existential thoughts about their vocation.

Corporate symbols like folders, tie, and coffee cup shown in trash can on one half of illustration. Second half shows notebook with new business plan text and coffee, working from home.
Workers are saying goodbye to long commutes, stuffy wardrobe, and rigid work hours. Instead, they are answering entrepreneurship’s call for flexibility and autonomy.

Mag and Michelle chose to open their brick and mortar store in Bronzeville, a vibrant cultural and entertainment district in Milwaukee known for its Black-owned independent businesses. Since opening their doors, they’ve grown from two founders to five employees, and work with over 50 suppliers—a testament to the compounding ripple impacts of independent business. One of their employees, Zed, is another Great Resignation participant, having quit her job as a receptionist to focus on her music and hand-crafted jewelry business while working at Maranta Plant Shop part-time.

How the Great Resignation and the Great Start fully unfold is yet unwritten. Whichever way things go, we will look back to the pandemic as an inflection point in our shifting attitudes toward work. The ongoing power struggle between entrepreneurship and anti-employment sentiments will continue, and it will be telling what pay and flexibility incentives traditional employers will employ to lure workers back.

At Shopify, we think the world is better with more entrepreneurs in it. We will be rooting for independence and diligently working to make the entrepreneurship path less traveled a more accessible and equitable one.

According to Google’s all-knowing 2021’s Search-In-Review, ‘small business Saturday near me’ was a breakout search globally last year. If our searches are any indication of the actions and attitudes we hold toward entrepreneurship, we can’t wait to see how the world welcomes the Big Start cohort.