Whitney Green’s life is a bit different now. She wakes up to the sounds of Rome: scooter engines echoing off cobblestones, the lilting chatter of café patrons collecting their morning espresso shots. In the afternoons, she goes to Italian class. Watching tourists gather at Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain, she eats homemade pasta and pistachio gelato. She’s teaching herself to play keyboard and building a website for her dream job—her own telehealth practice. It’s a far cry from her past life as a community mental-health therapist for at-risk youth in San Francisco, a job she quit in June to move to Italy with her girlfriend.
“They are saying, I love this industry, but I will not come back unless there are permanent wage increases.”[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]
Green is one of millions of Americans leaving traditional jobs this year—and choosing not to recommit to clocking in at all. It is the largest mass resignation seen in the U.S. since 2019 (pre-pandemic), and it continues to rise. In June, 3.9 million quit. It was another 3.9million in July. It was 4.3 million in August. The numbers are even more notable for young workers: in September, nearly a quarter of workers ages 20 to 34 were not considered part of the U.S. workforce—some 14 million Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who were neither working nor looking for work.
For some, it’s burnout. Others felt the time was right to focus on their side projects, as the stress of the pandemic began to ease. And for many, especially in a service sector dominated by “zillennials” (those in their late 20s on the border of Gen Z and millennial), poor treatment and low wages became unsustainable. Green represents one slice of that: she’s a 31-year-old with a master’s degree who decided to step back from earning income to take a self-imposed sabbatical and live off savings before working for herself one day. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 10.4 million jobs in the U.S. that remain unfilled, as this exodus—dubbed the Great Resignation—offers young workers time to nurse the wounds of pandemic burnout and untenable working conditions with dramatic life changes.
“This is a revolution, not a resignation,” says Ifeoma Ezimako, 23, who resides in Washington, D.C. A former hospitality worker and bartender, Ezimako was fed up with ill-tempered patrons and extra-low wages while working her last service job in March 2020; she had worked in service for five years, but enough was finally enough. She says that as customers’ behavior changed during the pandemic she was able to see the injustices in tipped work and so were her colleagues. (A common experience: being asked to pull her mask down so patrons could see her face “to decide how much to tip.”) To her, the money just wasn’t worth the stress. She quit to refocus on herself, studying for a sociology degree with her family’s support. One Fair Wage is an organization which helps employees in the service sector organize to achieve better standards. She volunteers now.
Leisure and hospitality has the lowest median industry age at 31.8. Saru Jayaraman (president of One Fair Wage) says today that approximately half of those surveyed in the service sector plan to retire within the next 12 months. Jayaraman is cautious in aligning this movement with that of white collar workers trading jobs for “funemployment.” “Maybe among white collar workers, it’s just people quietly resigning, but among service workers, they are organizing,” she says. “They are saying, I love this industry, but I will not come back unless there are permanent wage increases.” Even though many can’t afford to stop working, she says, they’ve drawn a line in the sand, thanks to the light-bulb moment of pandemic-precipitated challenges accessing unemployment assistance, worsening income inequality and newfound leverage due to staffing shortages.
Ezimako’s experience and Green’s are distinct. However, both experiences are part a larger social shift in which younger workers place more importance on their self-worth.
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For the first time ever in their professional careers, young adults can do it. Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, said that workers like Green who were employed in high-paying jobs before the pandemic have felt more secure financially after they saved less over the last 19 months. Plus, the abundance of open jobs may—counterproductively—make workers feel more confident dipping out of the workforce. Katz cautions that this is less about young workers leaving the labor market entirely, but instead about “trying out new things, and taking advantage of new opportunities and not sticking with the old bargain.”
The pivot to remote work has also made possible a level of work-life balance that those in their 20s and early 30s—the first generation where half of kids had two parents working full-time—had never imagined. That’s especially true for millennials; a 2020 Gallup poll showed 74% did not want to return full-time to offices, the highest of any age cohort. Due to the availability of childcare flexibility, millennial mothers are more likely than others to stay at home. In September, over 309,000 women left the workforce. “Childcare is a piece that people have been underestimating for a while,” says Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University. Even before the pandemic it was a crisis; now, with day care center closures and—ironically—staff shortages for these very jobs, women may have no choice but to stay home, indefinitely.
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Remote work is a great option for others. just isn’t fulfilling enough. Emma Grace Moon decided to quit her job at a marketing agency in June. She was determined to break free from the structure she felt held her back. “I felt like I could exceed my trajectory way faster if it was in my hands, rather than reporting every year, every month, with a quarterly check-in. I felt like I could be making more and also growing way faster if I just did it myself,” she says. These days, Moon—who is just 22, having skipped college—goes it alone as a consultant. She’s making three times her former income, she says from her Brooklyn apartment; her area of expertise, working with direct-to-consumer brands, was primed for pandemic-era growth. Now she can travel, and set her own schedules. It often feels like work all day.
Someone like Moon doesn’t quite fit the typical understanding of the employment market in the U.S.; as an independent worker, she’s not filling an available job listing. But with six clients and counting, she’s certainly not underemployed and doesn’t see herself shifting back to working for someone else, ever. “It’s allowed me a lot of time to think and process and make better decisions than I probably would if I had the pressure of a management team,” she says. It’s also free from the stress of relying on others to provide income. “I’ve had PTSD from past roles where I’ve seen people get fired out of the blue, or I’ve been fired before,” she says, citing the instability of startups where many white collar Gen Z and millennial workers gravitate.
Startup culture burnout is not uncommon. Cory Gabrielsen (30), a Seattle engineer, quit in April as second employee of an agricultural technology startup. The travel demands were intense; he spent 14-day stretches on site visits overseeing robotic farm equipment, with requirements he calls “pretty insane.” After two years on the job, he was ready for time off. For several months after he quit, he says he did “nothing,” recovering from burnout.
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Now, he trades option trading, runs a Twitterbot account that monitors Ethereum pricing and is interested in Web3 investments and cryptocurrency investing. And while he wouldn’t describe himself as happier now—he misses the social interaction of an office—his mood is more “neutral” day-to-day, and he looks forward to building his presence as an independent entity who can do what he wants when he wants. “I have no stress on the job compared to what I used to do,” he says. He’s not working full-time and has no concerns about money, thanks to his savings, investments and a boom time in the crypto world. “My goal is not to go back to having a boss,” he says.
Economists believe that the Great Resignation has just begun, particularly for Generation Z and millennial workers who can find ways to make income. A former colleague of Gabrielsen’s quit the same day he did and has since moved to Amsterdam. Moon and Green both say that their friends are seeking advice about how they can get out of the 9-to-5 life. Jayaraman cautions that young restaurant workers may choose to be mentally healthy over earning a living unless they make drastic changes. Young mothers who don’t have significant funding for childcare will be more focused on their families than they are the government. Whatever their motivation, though, young blue collar and white collar workers alike are finding themselves happier—and more independent. Green says that the shift has allowed her to realize her goal of having a fulfilling, balanced career. Each scoop of gelato makes it more real.
—With reporting by Mariah Espada