In 2021, 47.4 million Americans quit their jobs. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an average of 3.95 million workers quit each month, the highest average on record. For six straight months—July through December—more than four million workers resigned from their jobs.
While many of those who quit have rejoined the workforce, millions of others have left for good. The number of job openings remains at near-record highs—10.9 million in December 2021—and employers are struggling to fill positions. It is estimated that some sectors of the economy, such as the restaurant industry, may never return to their pre-pandemic states.
What’s driving this “Great Resignation”? There are myriad reasons why workers have quit, but most lead back to COVID-19. The pandemic has impacted all areas of the labor force, from abrupt closures to remote work to new safety protocols. It has also shaped Americans’ attitudes toward work. For many workers, it has redefined what will and will not be tolerated in the workplace; for others, it has given pause to reassess career priorities.
No matter the reason, Americans are looking for new work opportunities. With research showing that millions more Americans plan to quit their jobs in 2022, a huge opportunity opens up for direct selling.
The Implications of COVID
The coronavirus remains a strong deterrent against returning to the workforce for many, especially front-line workers in the hospitality and retail sectors and older workers with health issues. Those workers displaced when the pandemic first took hold in the US have put off returning to work or left the labor force altogether.
“COVID is still part of how people are thinking about their jobs,” says Christopher Moessner, Senior Vice President and Head of Ipsos Client Thought Leadership. “It’s weighing on people’s minds. They’re concerned about public health and disease.”
Those concerns are strong due to the variant strains of COVID—Delta and Omicron—that have emerged and persisted. In a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, 22 percent of Americans said they feel they have a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 now than they did in April 2020 (6 percent); 51 percent feel the risk is the same.
“We saw a really interesting thing happen at the beginning of April 2021,” Moessner says. “People were getting a sense of excitement. They felt like their lives were improving. There were more people feeling like they were thriving than they were just coping with the situation. And then what hit? The Delta variant hit, and COVID came back roaring. People were back into the mindset of what’s happening from a coping perspective.”
Coping relates not only to worries about contracting the virus but also in dealing with the pandemic’s aftereffects. Frustration over work-from-home mandates, unsafe working conditions, shortened work hours resulting in less pay, and extended work hours leading to burnout have all led to workers quitting, as seen over the past year.
Those Workers Not Returning
The biggest hit to the US labor force has been baby boomers. According to researchers from Goldman Sachs, nearly 70 percent of the five million people who have left the labor force during the pandemic were older than fifty-five. Still more baby boomers intend to quit their jobs in the coming months.
Some of those who have left were the victims of age discrimination—furloughed when the pandemic first hit and then replaced by younger workers. However, many accelerated their retirement, benefitting from a strong stock market and rising home prices. Others decided they had a large enough nest egg to ease into their golden years.
According to the Pew Research Center, in the third quarter of 2020, nearly 30 million baby boomers retired. By the third quarter of 2021, more than half (50.3%) of the 76 million US adults ages fifty-five and older were permanently out of the workforce. And just this past November, of the 3.6 million more Americans who had left the labor force and said they did not want a job compared with those who said the same in November 2019, baby boomers accounted for 90 percent of the increase.
Those Workers Wanting to Return
Millions of women lost their jobs during the pandemic. Many had to quit to care for children or other family members, and a disproportionate number were pushed out because of business closings in the sectors women traditionally dominate. In 2020, the leisure and hospitality industry, of which 53 percent were women, had the greatest losses—two in five jobs lost. Childcare providers, where women represented 77 percent of employees, recorded 13 percent of the total jobs lost.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, it is expected to take over two years for women to return to pre-pandemic employment levels. And that may be a generous prediction. Women who left the workforce and have been unemployed for the past two years are finding it significantly difficult to find jobs.
A recent survey by ResumeBuilder.com of 1,250 women who lost their jobs or were forced to quit found that 35 percent are still unemployed. For those who have not returned to work, 33 percent say it is because of concerns about contracting COVID, and 22 percent cite childcare needs. But those women wanting to rejoin to the labor force are finding that the gap in their work history is making it harder not only to get hired, but to even secure interviews. The survey cited that 36 percent of women are actively applying for jobs but unable to find work.
As of November 2021, 29 percent of the women in the survey are unsure whether they will ever return to work again, 10 percent have left the workforce permanently, and 39 percent hope to return to work in the next six months. For those considering a return, 49 percent would come back to work if there were remote work opportunities; 42 percent said they would return if work hours were more flexible.
Research has also found that while most women who lost jobs during the pandemic are planning to return to work, they are reassessing their career choices. According to a MetLife survey of 2,000 US workers conducted in September 2021, 56 percent of women have considered a career change.
Those Workers in Transition
As for America’s youngest working generations, millennials and Gen Z, they quit their jobs in record numbers in 2021 but had every intention of returning to the workforce—if they have not already—and then possibly quitting again.
These two cohorts are alike in that they want more flexibility, better pay, better working conditions, as well as company alignment with their values and support for their social and environmental causes. If companies do not meet their needs, these generations will keep quitting, transitioning between jobs until they find a fit.
In December, The Harris Poll conducted a study for CareerArc that revealed 23 percent of Americans plan to quit their jobs in 2022. The top five reasons for quitting were:
Wanting better working conditions
Feeling burnt out
Wanting higher pay
Wanting to switch careers
Wanting to start a business
The study showed that younger employees (ages 18–34) are more than twice as likely to say they will resign than older workers are. And that aligns with what most studies on these two groups have found: that they are driven by passion and purpose, and they will try many jobs until they figure out what is most important to them and what company best fits with their needs and values.
What Does It Mean for Direct Selling?
So, what does all this mean for direct selling? Millions of Americans have quit their jobs or are planning to quit in the coming year. This gives direct selling companies the opportunity to showcase the value of their business opportunities. Direct selling ticks off almost every box workers have identified for what will make them happy and productive in the workplace—and these are not reactionary benefits to meet the times but long-standing elements of the direct selling model.
A new survey by financial firm Jefferies asked young Americans (ages 22 to 35) who had quit their jobs what former bosses could have done to persuade them to stay. Thirty-two percent said they would have stayed if offered a four-day week. The study also showed that 80 percent of respondents support a four-day workweek. While Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) introduced legislation to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 from the current forty-hour model to thirty-two hours, one of direct selling’s greatest draws has always been the flexibility in the number of hours entrepreneurs can put into their businesses.
That flexibility translates to a better work–life balance, which both millennials and Gen Z demand. Because entrepreneurs set their own hours, direct selling gives them time to recharge and time to spend with their family and friends. And since direct selling businesses are home-based businesses, workers can choose to work from wherever they want. This ability to work from home also meets two criteria of today’s workers: the desire for remote work and one of the most requested changes in light of COVID, better and safer working conditions.
Millennials and Generation Z also want collaboration in the workplace. They were taught to work in teams, and they are looking for opportunities to partner with others. Gen Z is also more open to mentoring opportunities, which they see as supportive of both their personal and professional lives. Both collaboration and mentoring are hallmarks of direct selling’s business model, which fosters a relationship between a business owner and newcomer, which then develops into a community-wide support system for team members.
Another want for today’s workers is authenticity. They need to feel connected to the company they are working for and the products they are selling. Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, have grown up with the ability to instantly communicate with family and friends through social media. They want to be able to tell authentic stories to the people they know, and they want to share those stories through the mediums and platforms that matter most to them. Once that authenticity is gained, they don’t want to lose that trust. Direct selling is not simply about making money; it is about connecting with others on products that will change lives and with companies that are actively trying to help make the world a better place for all.
Direct Selling vs. Gig Work
Of course, direct selling has competition for the millions of workers out there looking for work, the greatest being gig work, where opportunities exist to ride-share, rent homes, deliver food, or offer freelance skills. However, as Moessner points out, there is a distinct difference between direct selling and gig work, and it has to do with time and the types of people seeking work opportunities.
“I would say the gig economy is for those who have a very specific set of things they want to accomplish: ‘How do I use my time to do two and three jobs and how do I make the most money in a certain amount of amount of time?’” says Moessner. “Whereas, with direct selling, people are looking at a long-term opportunity, and not just a moment in time. They’re looking to create a long-term relationship with the products and with the companies. And that relationship goes back to the idea of authenticity and trust.”
Moessner also points out that the cost of entry between the two can be misleading. With gig work, you must have a car if you’re on a job, or you must have a house or apartment if you want to join VRBO. Obviously, those are expensive investments, and they require constant upkeep, which can end up being costly.
“There are entry costs into gig work that people don’t bake into their minds until they’re in it,” Moessner says. “I think direct selling is a little bit more honest about what it costs to start a business. There is more authenticity in terms of an opportunity.”
As for direct selling comparing to gig work, a 2021 study by Ipsos showed that overall, direct selling measures up very well against gig work in several categories, including the ability to work from home, diversifying income streams, and receiving recognition for accomplishments. (See page 22 for more.) In addition, in an October 2021 study by DSA, direct selling scored higher than gig work in income potential and trustworthiness, and Gen Z (40%) and millennials (41%) have a real excitement toward direct selling as an opportunity to make money in the next twelve months.
Challenges for Direct Selling
When the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA) Advocacy Committee completed its 2021 report on the global direct selling industry’s reputation, the findings were consistent with their expectations: misperceptions about the industry continued to be a barrier to growth and the public’s awareness of individual companies remained a challenge.
These two issues pose the greatest barriers to success for direct selling companies in this new era driven by Americans’ attitude toward work. While the industry compares well with gig work, the lack of awareness about direct selling companies and the misperceptions about the channel could mean lost opportunities.
Misperceptions: Despite the efforts of WFDSA and the national direct selling associations like the US Direct Selling Association (DSA), misperceptions about business practices continue to plague the industry. Ryan Napierski, President and CEO of Nu Skin Enterprises and Chair of WFDSA’s Advocacy Committee, believes the key to the public’s perception of direct selling lies not only in strategic messaging, but also in the behaviors and standards that take place at the company level.
“I always come back to the two sides of the same coin,” says Napierski. “One side of the coin is our narrative—how we describe ourselves, including the amazing products and services we offer, and the knowledge that these products and services are direct from trusted, authentic brand endorsers through our distributors, representatives, and affiliates.
“The other side of the coin is the behaviors and standards by which companies operate their businesses,” he continues. “How do those distributors, representatives, and affiliates behave when they are out there talking about the company and its products—and promoting the company opportunity? Are their claims overreaching or are they realistic? Are they being overly pushy or are they using attraction marketing to pull people in?”
Napierski believes that to resolve the industry’s reputational issues, each company must own the responsibility of improving its own reputations through enforcing behaviors and standards, such as those set by DSA, and then allowing the industry associations to support their work on the national and world stage.
“As we think about that work, how do we get the good news out while weeding out the bad behaviors that have created the historic stigma? And we do have to be focused on the root causes of our reputation,” says Napierski. “Reputation is the sum of one’s actions and, for direct selling, a sum of the industry’s actions over time.”
Napierski believes that focusing the direct selling story on the good that is accomplished by individual companies, and the industry as a whole, will lead to favorable awareness, which will, in turn, grow into purchase intention and empowerment intention.
Awareness: Direct selling has been in the United States for more than 150 years, but direct selling companies have never really lived and thrived in the public awareness. Most Americans can reel off a list of technology companies more easily than they can name any of the more than 1,100 direct selling companies currently estimated to be in operation.
This lack of familiarity can mostly be attributed to the industry’s business model. Direct selling companies have always put their revenue into rewarding its independent business owners rather than investing in traditional advertising. Credibility for, and awareness of, companies has come through the word-of-mouth marketing done by independent business owners.
“People are just not aware of the products we sell to help them look, feel, and live better, or the opportunity we provide for micro-entrepreneurship to a very diverse and inclusive population,” says Napierski.
In addition to the products, the public has little idea of the positive economic impact direct selling has on the economy. In the US in 2020, people from every state and territory participated in direct selling, generating $40.1 billion in retail sales. California ($5.3 billion), Texas ($4.2 billion), and Florida ($2.3 billion) led the way in direct sales.
On a global scale, the industry provides opportunities to millions of people around the globe, including some of the most impoverished economies of the world. Women who would never have had the means to start their own business in places like Africa now have the ability to create better lives for themselves and their families.
“Direct selling provides opportunities for some of the most underserved segments of our population,” says Napierski. “And that is such a positive thing.”
Telling the story of the positive impact direct selling companies have on all areas of the globe will help bring awareness of the many direct selling companies dedicated to changing lives, and the world, for the better.
Advantage, Direct Selling
There is no doubt that these are exciting times for direct selling. The long-standing traditions of its business model are appealing to workers in a post-
pandemic world, encouraging new generations of workers—and those wishing for career changes—to turn their eyes toward its business opportunities.
If the industry can share its positive story to the larger majority of the general public and beat back the misperceptions that that exist, the coming years could be very favorable for direct selling.
US Workers Quitting Jobs (2021)
3.3 million (3,306,000)
3.4 million (3,383,000)
3.6 million (3,568,000)
4.0 million (3,992,000)
3.6 million (3,630,000)
3.9 million (3,870,000)
4.0 million (4,028,000)
4.3 million (4,270,000)
4.4 million (4,362,000)
4.2 million (4,157,000)
4.5 million (4,499,000)
4.3 million (4,338,000)
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Nearly 70% of the five million people who left the labor force during the pandemic are older than fifty-five.
Source: Goldman Sachs Researchers
In a 2021 survey, the greatest gaps in respondents’ perceived value of direct selling over gig work were in the ability to work from home (62% vs. 47%), the ability to diversify income streams (55% vs. 35%) and in receiving recognition for accomplishments (48% vs. 35%).
Source: Goldman Sachs Researchers
In November, there were 3.6 million more Americans who had left the labor force and said they did not want a job compared with November 2019. Older Americans, age fifty-five and up, accounted for 90 percent of that increase.
Source: Aaron Sojourner, University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management
43% of millennials left their jobs because of burnout.
Source: Ipsos Survey of Americans
In a Jefferies survey, Americans aged 22 to 35 who had quit their jobs were asked what could have been done to persuade them to stay. Their top two responses:
- 43% who would have stayed for more money
- 32% said would have stayed if offered a 4-day week
The study also showed that 80% of respondents support a 4-day workweek.
The first year of the pandemic knocked fifty-four million women around the world out of work. Of the women who lost jobs in 2020, 90 percent exited the labor force completely.
Source: The Washington Post
In an Axios-Ipsos poll conducted this month, 22 percent of Americans feel they have a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 now than they did in April 2020 (6 percent); 51 percent feel the risk is the same.
Source: Axios-Ipsos Poll, January 2022
Globally, women lost $800 billion in income due to COVID-19.
Source: Oxfam International
Source: ResumeBuilder.com, November 2021 survey of 1,250 women who quit or were let go from their jobs during the pandemic
- 35% of women who became unemployed during the pandemic have not returned to the workforce.
- Minority, low-income, and older women are most likely to be unemployed.
- For 33%, concerns about contracting COVID have stopped them from rejoining the workforce.
- Half of unemployed women want better pay and benefits, and the ability to work remotely.
Survey: American Attitudes Toward Work
What is the strongest driver for you in terms of staying out of the workforce right now?
- Retirement (43%)
- Personal reasons (20%)
- Other* (17%)
- COVID (14%)
*Other responses included “the job wasn’t meeting my needs,” “I am tired of working from home,”
“I need to get out,” and “I need to be doing something else.”
Source: US Census Household Plus Survey Week 39, September 29–October 11, 2021
What are your primary reasons for leaving your current job?
- I believe I can get a higher salary at another job (34%)
- I feel burned out at my current job (31%)*
- I am looking to change career paths (19%)
- I can have more flexibility for things like working from home at a new job (15%)
- I believe I can have more control over my career at another job (15%)
*43% among millennials
Source: Ipsos survey of 1,023 Americans conducted July 9–11, 2021
Americans looking for work or recently started a new job:
- Gen Z (47%)
- Millennials (33%)
- Gen X (26%)
- Baby Boomers (16%)
Source: Ipsos survey of 1,023 Americans conducted July 9–11, 2021
What work benefits do you enjoy that encourage you to stay in your current job?
- Work–life balance (58%)
- Flexible work hours (56%)
- Paid time off/vacation time (55%)
- Positive work environment/culture (44%)
- Competitive pay (40%)
Source: Ipsos poll of American workers, September 2021
Survey: American Attitudes Toward Direct Selling and Gig Work
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