Why Being a Quitter Is a Good Sign for the Economy

You only quit a job when you’re confident you can find something better. And in December, more Americans since the start of the recession felt good enough to pack up their desk and look for employment elsewhere.

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You only quit a job when you feel you can find something better. And in December, more Americans felt confident enough to pack up their desks and look for employment elsewhere than at any time since the start of the Great Recession.

Every month the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), which polls employers about the number of employees they laid off and how many up and quit.

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In December, employees who left of their own volition made up 53% of all “job separations,” totaling 2.16 million Americans. About 1.57 million were fired while 345,000 either retired, transferred, died, or became disabled. That percentage of American quitters is the highest it’s been since June 2008, suggesting that workers are feeling at least somewhat optimistic about the economy and their chances of finding employment elsewhere.

“I would hesitate to call it a strong sign of recovery,” says Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group, which analyzes BLS data. “But it is very positive.”

While there have been mild swings in the number of workers quitting their jobs over the last few years, those numbers have been gradually increasing after hitting a low of around 37% in May 2009.

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Some of the numbers in the more detailed December report aren’t as positive. Job openings were down 4.6% from November; and hiring, which was 4.7% lower than the month before, took a hit. But it also showed that employers laid off the fewest employees in the 12-year history of the JOLTS report.

The number of quitters points to worker confidence about the nation’s employment situation generally. This comes as a surprise given the fact that the White House and Congress were locked in a battle over the “fiscal cliff” that same month. Most analysts figured that those weeks of fruitless negotiations over the federal budget would have a negative effect on consumer behavior. And it did bring down consumer confidence numbers from November to December, according to ConvergEx Group. But Americans’ optimistic views of the overall employment picture seem unswayed.

“Deep down, it appears that Americans know that the employment situation is getting better,” says Colas. “And we expect that to continue.”