Americans are quitting their jobs at rates that haven’t been seen in decades.

In what some are calling the “Take this job and shove it” economy, about 4 million people quit in April alone, near double the number who resigned a year earlier.

The exodus has been especially noticeable in the retail sector, where 649,000 workers gave their notice, the largest exodus since 2000, when record-keeping on that statistic began.

This comes as employers are desperately trying hire enough people to take advantage of the post-COVID economic boom.

Of all the changes brought on by the pandemic, a powerful trend of people quitting their jobs was not one that I saw coming. But the change in people’s relationship to work is one that could have profound effects on how we live.

One way to look at it is that labor is a market, just like any other, and markets get disrupted.

For a while back in 2020, you had to know someone if you wanted to buy a roll of toilet paper. The shelves in the supermarkets were empty.

When the suppliers caught up with the demand for the kind of toilet paper that people use in their homes, as opposed to office buildings and schools, the shortage went away.

The pandemic shook up the labor market, putting millions of people out of work and increasing the demands on millions of others. There are 9.3 million open jobs, according the U.S. Department of Labor, and some of them are going to people who are already employed.

Disruptions shake out over time, and a perceived labor shortage might just go away as people find their place in the new economy.

But another way of looking at it is what we are seeing in employment is what happens when you treat people like toilet paper. Employers are begging workers to come back at something like the old wages and working conditions, and the workers are saying, “No, thanks.”

You have to remember what kind of jobs we’re talking about. When you think of “working-class” jobs, you might picture someone at a construction site or a manufacturing plant. But in Maine, there are more retail jobs than in both of those industries combined.

Retail workers made up 15 percent of the state’s workforce before the pandemic, but took home only 9 percent of the wages.

These are hard, physical jobs that often pay less than a living wage and have unpredictable hours. When business is slow, the companies shed workers. They shouldn’t be surprised that people are not hurrying back just because it suits the employer for them to come back.

The companies have built what labor economist John Dorrer and University of Maine professor Sandy Butler called, in a recent Bangor Daily News op-ed, “a casual attachment” between employers and employees. Employers are finding that it works both ways.

“Many of these workers now have choices to make,” the two write. “More openings across the labor market create access to new opportunities at higher wages and benefit levels. The availability of job training provides workers with opportunities to gain new skills to improve their competitiveness and incomes.”

In other words, this will be good for the economy in the long run even if it’s creating chaos now.

The “take this job and shove it” phenomenon should put to rest the notion that the workforce problem is caused by a $300-a-week unemployment boost that about 10,000 Mainers are receiving, down from 99,000 on unemployment a year ago.

People who quit their jobs are not getting unemployment checks, and neither are the long-term unemployed people who are no longer counted as part of the labor force. Maine still has a lot of work to do to overcome the obstacles that keep working-age people out of work.

Maybe these resignations should be seen as a sign of hope.

People don’t quit their jobs when they are worried about the future – they cling to them, no matter how unhappy they may be.

The fact that millions of people are ready to reach out and try something different shows that they are optimistic that the future is going to be better than the past, and that is good news after a year in which so much of the news was bad.

But maybe the best way to interpret this information is to try not to interpret it too much before we see what happens.

“This is an extraordinarily unusual time,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said recently. “And we really don’t have a template or any experience of a situation like this.”

Powell said we should be humble about our ability to understand the data, which sounds like good advice.

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