Economy | NPR

Workers are changing jobs and getting raises, and still struggling financially

It should be good news for Americans: a new poll shows almost everyone is getting a raise and they're not having to stick it out in jobs they hate. But for many the financial struggle continues.

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Donna Dunn, 49, works as the office manager at a healthcare clinic in Booker, Texas. Despite getting a raise, she has struggled to pay her family's bills as prices have risen faster than her paycheck.
Donna Dunn, 49, works as the office manager at a healthcare clinic in Booker, Texas. Despite getting a raise, she has struggled to pay her family's bills as prices have risen faster than her paycheck. Donna Dunn

Debby Perta insists she is not a "job jumper."

"You couldn't do that back in my day," said Perta, 38, who had worked for one bank in Illinois for nearly a decade. "It looked bad on your resume."

During the pandemic, Perta started thinking about making a leap. She'd gone as far as she could go at her company. She had family in Arizona and she thought her teenage son would like it there. Also, she'd been hearing about the country's hot job market, teeming with new opportunities.

Perta quickly landed a job managing a bank branch in Phoenix, told her coworkers "good-bye" and moved west.

"This was not the norm for me," she said. "But it seems to be what people are doing now, right?"

Yes, it is what many people are doing, with 38% of Americans changing jobs in just the last couple of years, according to a new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. More than half of the changers were younger workers – Gen Z and Millenials, like Perta.

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At the end of 2021, the rate of people quitting their jobs hit the highest level ever seen on government records going back to 2000, and that rate has remained at an historic high this year.

There is a name economists have for all of the churn we've seen in the job market: Dynamism.

The Great Recession taught workers to stay put, but now they're "so freaking dynamic"

Dynamism can be defined as change, advancement and a restless entrepreneurial spirit, said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute.

Ever since the Great Recession and the mass layoffs of 2008, workers grew security-oriented, hanging onto jobs and staying put, Shierholz said.

"But now we are so freaking dynamic," she said. "And that is a good thing."

If people are switching jobs, then they're very likely taking a job that's a better match for them and that means the economy runs better, she said.

"That's also very, very good for workers," she said.

There is a dark side to all the dynamism. The constant hiring and training and also picking up slack for unfilled jobs, can be exhausting for both employers and workers.

Staffing shortages meant that Perta, with her Master's degree, years of experience and manager title, spent most days filling in as a teller at the bank. Also pay became an issue. To help make ends meet in her new expensive city, Perta made Doordash deliveries on the weekends.

So, just six months into one new job, Perta started looking for a new, new job. Pretty quickly, she got one at a large financial institution that came with a raise. Now, Perta feels happy and challenged, and she's getting paid more.

Keeping an eye on the prices of Hot Pockets, even after getting a raise

The NPR Marist poll also found that 61% of U,S, workers have gotten a raise in the last year. But that doesn't necessarily mean all people's financial situations have gotten better.

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Take Donna Dunn, 49, of Booker, Texas.

"We're really in the middle of nowhere," she said of her town, where she is the office manager of a healthcare clinic.

Dunn gets a 3% cost of living raise every year, but the actual cost of living has been rising a lot faster than that. Recent data shows inflation is running nearly three times that rate, at 8.3%.

When people see their wages go up, but prices are rising faster, economists call it 'the money illusion.' Paychecks might look bigger, but it's an illusion. Simple math shows you are getting paid less.

In fact, if you adjust for inflation, U.S. workers have gotten one of the biggest pay cuts on record over the last year.

This was not surprising to Dunn, who has has five kids, a tight budget and has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of food prices.

"I used to be able to get a dozen eggs for $2.69. That exact same dozen eggs just today was $4.89," she said. "The large boxes of Hot pockets, the 36 count box, used to be $8.99. Now that same exact box–and it only has 24 in it–is $13.90."

To try and deal with the rising prices, Dunn made swaps: pork instead of beef, PB&J instead of deli sandwiches and no more eating out. Even then, her family food bill went from around $700 a month to more than $1,600 and Donna was drowning. She's reluctantly choosing which bills to pay, and not pay.

Her employer offered raises to help with inflation, but the money wasn't enough. More than a third of those polled said their finances had gotten worse in the last year and an increasing number report falling behind on bills.

Dunn has found some workarounds. Actually, she's grown them in her vegetable garden and on her mom's farm.

"I'm on a trade system with one of the other farmers," she said. "She has chickens and brings me the eggs and I give her tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers."

One way around the money illusion? Don't use money.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You've heard about the great resignation or the big quit? Well, some of those people quit for good. Others have simply swapped jobs, and that has created a lot of churn in the economy. To find out how much, NPR teamed up with PBS NewsHour and Marist to survey workers across the U.S. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has results.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: It has been an action-packed couple of years for the job market. The NPR/Marist poll found almost 40% of workers have changed jobs in just the last couple of years. That is millions of people quitting and starting new positions every month. Economists have a word for all this churn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: Dynamism.

VANEK SMITH: Dynamism. Heidi Shierholz is president of the Economic Policy Institute. She says dynamism is turnover, change, advancement, that restless entrepreneurial spirit. And she says it's music to her ears.

SHIERHOLZ: Low dynamism was a theme in the recovery from the Great Recession.

VANEK SMITH: Shierholz says after the economic shock and mass layoffs of 2008, workers got kind of timid and security-oriented, hanging onto jobs, staying put. And now?

SHIERHOLZ: Now, we're, like, so freaking dynamic. People are switching jobs all the time. And that is a good thing. If people are switching jobs, they're very likely taking a job that's a better match for them. The economy runs better. It's also very, very good for workers.

VANEK SMITH: Workers like Debby Perta in Arizona - she is 38, and she'd worked her way up at a bank for almost a decade. But she'd gone about as far at that company as she could go. So she left, hard as it was.

DEBBY PERTA: Very hard - the last day was in tears.

VANEK SMITH: Debby found a new job as branch manager at a bank. It was a big step up in most ways.

Did you get a raise when you changed jobs?

PERTA: I actually did not get a raise when I changed jobs. I actually stayed at the same.

VANEK SMITH: But Debby was excited for her fresh start, along with millions of working Americans. Our poll found most people change jobs for more money or, like Debby, for a better opportunity.

Of course, our newfound dynamism has a dark side. It can be exhausting for workers and employers - constant hiring and training and picking up slack for unfilled jobs. That, in fact, is what happened to Debby. Even though she was hired as branch manager, staffing shortages meant she spent most of her days filling in as a teller.

PERTA: So I'm constantly getting distracted. My one full-time teller, if she called off, like, forget about it. You're really SOL then (laughter). I came in with a master's degree. I come in with experience. And I'm not being utilized to my potential.

VANEK SMITH: Also, pay became an issue. Prices were rising. And to help make ends meet, Debby had to start doing DoorDash deliveries on the weekend. So just six months into one new job, Debby started looking for a new, new job. And, pretty quickly, she got one.

PERTA: I oversee - right now, I have 15 employees. I do get to work hybrid.

VANEK SMITH: Did you get a raise?

PERTA: I did get a raise, so it's good.

VANEK SMITH: Debby is happy. She feels challenged. She's getting paid more. Economist Heidi Shierholz says this is economic dynamism at its best. Still...

SHIERHOLZ: I feel like I'm holding my breath a bit.

VANEK SMITH: Shierholz says if the economy gets worse, all this dynamism could dissolve. Companies could stop hiring, and workers could go back to valuing security over advancement and entrepreneurship - or maybe not, especially in this moment. Debby Perta says she thinks there's been a real mental shift for workers.

PERTA: I've moved from being in the company for almost 8 1/2 years to, in the last 12 months, I've had two jobs. You know, back in my day, that wasn't the norm. You don't job hop. It was bad on your resume, but not anymore. Now, if you see social media like TikToks and things, oh, don't be ashamed to job hop, you know? Know your value. And it's OK to - if you find something better, to, like, move on, right?

VANEK SMITH: For the record, Debby does not have plans to move on. She is happy where she is, at least for now.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.