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

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
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.

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.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
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