Meet the grumpy stayers: People stuck in their jobs who can't leave for better gigs

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Meet the grumpy stayers: People stuck in their jobs who can't leave for better gigs
Tesson/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Some workers are "grumpy staying" in their jobs, stuck in roles that don't feel like the right fit.
  • The Great Resignation didn't deliver for all, and a cooling labor market makes the job hunt harder.
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Jose Gonzalez has a job — but he's not happy about it.

His new, more prestigious IT position hasn't been all he thought it would be. He's doing busy work all day, and he's disengaged from his team and his work. He finds going into the office even more depressing than working from home.

"There don't seem to be really good jobs out there except for the unattainable or the menial," Gonzalez said. "So yeah, I'm very grumpy lately."

He's one of the country's "grumpy stayers": workers who are reluctantly staying put in a cooling labor market. Grumpy stayers are in some ways the next iteration of quiet quitters, rattled by layoffs and fewer opportunities. They can't skate by anymore or be as vocal about their discontent — but they also don't want to stay.

Gonzalez isn't alone. Some of these workers say they hopped into "better" roles that didn't end up being what they'd signed up for. Others lament missing out on the Great Reshuffle, in which a wave of people traded up jobs until they were happy. Some see their job prospects hindered by unnecessary degree or certification requirements, while others say companies are prioritizing perks over actual career advancement.

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These factors have combined to create a situation where many workers feel stuck. The Great Resignation was supposed to help them gain more power, money, and benefits, but that hasn't worked out as planned. Now, as the labor market cools, conditions are ripe for grumpy stayers to get even grumpier.

"I'm pretty much stuck here doing this work now," Gonzalez said. "I was talking to an acquaintance of mine who's a recruiter, and he's telling me summer is the slow time. There are no jobs."

Filtered out from jobs that might make them happy

Grumpy stayers come in many forms. Some, like Gonzalez, shuffled into jobs that weren't as good a fit as they'd hoped. Others, like Elizabeth, a barista in Massachusetts, have found themselves spinning in the same role for years.

Elizabeth has been at her company for 18 years. (Insider knows her last name and employer but is withholding them for privacy reasons.) She said she'd been staying at her role out of inertia. She's been job hunting for a year, even for just a second part-time job, but to no avail.

"I can't find anything that pays more — or even what I'm making — that doesn't require me to be certified or have a degree in something that I don't," she said.

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Recently she found herself tipping over the grumpy edge. She figured she'd never be able to get a higher-paying position without spending time in a management role, so when an opportunity to move into a management position arose, she applied. But after she got passed over for the role, she started having panic attacks at work, she said. She added that at one point she almost walked out but then found herself sitting on the floor and crying instead.

Now she's on leave from work.

"It's both causing and exacerbating a lot of my problems," she said. "But at the same time, this job is how I get paid leave and mental-health care and all that good stuff. That's part of that golden-handcuffs problem."

Elizabeth is far from the only person facing this situation. Erica Groshen, a senior economics advisor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said many people who didn't change jobs have "seen a lot of their more-mobile colleagues go off and get likely to be higher paid or higher benefit, or some otherwise more attractive jobs."

In other words, grumpy stayers might be feeling left behind, with salaries lagging behind those of their peers who've departed.

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Companies' actions are also helping drive the trend. Groshen said specific degree or credential requirements were keeping capable workers from getting jobs, even at a time when firms still have plenty of job openings and an appetite to hire.

No room for improvement

A theme across grumpy stayers is that they don't want to be grumpy, but work conditions make them that way. Those interviewed by Insider said they yearned for advancement or enrichment at work — a way to convince their employers not to look externally for new hires and to instead give them more opportunities.

"Employer-provided training is one of the ways to help demand and supply match up better," Groshen said. If employers need something, she added, "they can take their staff of workers who they know and they can provide them with the skills that are needed rather than laying off those workers and seeking them on the outside market."

One worker in the energy sector in Texas described making several attempts to move up in their company or take on a different role only to be dismissed. They said they were planning to stick around for a few months, then switch careers. The only thing keeping them in their current role, they said, is the fact that it's mostly remote.

Gonzalez is facing a similar frustration. He'd love to be learning more about artificial intelligence and new technologies but has found himself relegated to helping patch up 20-year-old software.

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"Grumpiness often means feeling undervalued," Groshen said.

One solution, she said, would be for companies to engage with their grumpy stayers and lean more on their expertise to solve problems. "They probably know a lot more about flaws and how to prevent them and how to coordinate with other parts of the operations than they're given credit for," she said.

In the meantime, Gonzalez is trying to work through his frustrations in a healthy way. He said he quit smoking — his old method of dealing with stress — and "got a little rescue dog to at least give me some comic relief during the day."

"So I have the dog to walk, and I try to be Zen about it," he said. "Just like, OK, just get through this day, just one more day."

Are you a grumpy stayer, or fear you might become one? Contact this reporter at jkaplan@insider.com.

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This story was originally published in July 2023.

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