Workers change jobs and get raises, and still struggle financially

Workers change jobs and get raises, and still struggle financially


Donna Dunn, 49, works as an office manager at a health clinic in Booker, Texas. Despite a raise, she struggles to pay her family’s bills because prices have risen faster than her salary.

Donna Dunn


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Donna Dunn


Donna Dunn, 49, works as an office manager at a health clinic in Booker, Texas. Despite a raise, she struggles to pay her family’s bills because prices have risen faster than her salary.

Donna Dunn

Debby Perta insists she’s not a ‘job hunt’.

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

During the pandemic, Perta started thinking about taking a leap. She had gone as far as she could in her business. She had family in Arizona and she thought her teenage son would love to be there. Plus, she had heard about the country’s booming job market, brimming with new opportunities.

Perta soon landed a job managing a bank branch in Phoenix, said “goodbye” to her co-workers, and moved west.

“It wasn’t the norm for me,” she said. “But it seems that’s what people do now, doesn’t it?”

Yes, that’s what a lot of people are doing, with 38% of Americans changing jobs in the past two years alone, according to a new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. More than half of the changers were younger workers – Gen Z and Millennials, like Perta.

At the end of 2021, the rate of people leaving their jobs reached the highest level ever seen in government records dating back to 2000, and this rate has remained at an all-time high this year.

There’s a name economists have for all the turnover we’ve seen in the job market: Dynamism.

The Great Recession taught workers to stay put, but now they’re ‘so dynamic’

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

Since the Great Recession and the massive layoffs of 2008, workers have become more safety-conscious, keeping their jobs and staying put, Shierholz said.

“But now we’re so vibrant,” she said. “And this is a good thing.”

If people change jobs, they most likely take a job that suits them better and that means the economy is working better, she said.

“It’s also very, very good for workers,” she said.

There is a dark side to all this dynamism. The constant hiring and training, as well as taking over for unfilled jobs, can be exhausting for employers and workers.

Staffing shortages meant that Perta, with her master’s degree, years of experience and managerial title, spent most of her days as a teller at the bank. Salary has also become an issue. To make ends meet in its expensive new city, Perta was doing Doordash deliveries on weekends.

So, just six months after starting a new job, Perta started looking for a new job. Pretty soon, she got one at a big financial institution that came with a raise. Now Perta feels happy and challenged, and she gets paid more.

Keeping tabs on Hot Pockets prices, even after getting a raise

The NPR Marist poll also found that 61% of American workers got a raise in the past year. But this does not necessarily mean that everyone’s financial situation has improved.

Take Donna Dunn, 49, of Booker, Texas.

“We’re really in the middle of nowhere,” she said of her town, where she’s the office manager of a health clinic.

Dunn gets a 3% cost of living increase every year, but the real cost of living has gone up much faster than that. Recent data shows that inflation is nearly three times that rate, at 8.3%.

When people see their wages rise, but prices rise faster, economists call it the “money illusion.” Paychecks may seem bigger, but that’s an illusion. Simple calculations show that you are paid less.

In fact, when inflation is taken into account, American workers have suffered one of the largest wage cuts on record in the past year.

It was no surprise for Dunn, who has five children, a tight budget and has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of food prices.

“Before, I could get a dozen eggs for $2.69. That same dozen eggs was $4.89 today,” she said. “The large boxes of Hot Pockets, the 36-piece box, used to be $8.99. Now that same box, and it only has 24, is $13.90.”

To try to cope with rising prices, Dunn made trades: pork instead of beef, PB&J instead of deli sandwiches and more restaurant meals. Even then, her family food bill rose from around $700 a month to over $1,600 and Donna was drowning. She reluctantly chooses which bills to pay and which not to pay.

Her employer offered raises to fight inflation, but the money was not enough. More than a third of respondents said their finances had deteriorated over the past year and a growing number of people said they had fallen behind on their bills.

Dunn found workarounds. In fact, she grew some in her vegetable garden and on her mother’s farm.

“I’m in a swap system with one of the other farmers,” she said. “She has chickens and brings me the eggs and I give her tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers.”

A way to circumvent the illusion of money? Do not use cash.

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