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When Existentialism Met the Economy: The Voices Behind The Great Resignation
great resignation
Work

When Existentialism Met the Economy: The Voices Behind The Great Resignation

Why they left, where they went and what it means for the future of work.
By Arielle Domb
19th Apr 2022

Trina had reached breaking point. A family support worker and a single mum, it felt as if every minute was full to the brim. Meeting after meeting; cleaning and cooking and more cleaning. It had begun to feel like there simply weren’t enough hours in the day – to work and live simultaneously. 

“I reached a point where every time I came home from the office, I was having a breakdown,” she told me over Zoom in February. “It was so exhausting. I would just sit and cry for hours and think to myself: this isn’t the life I want anymore.”

But then the pandemic happened. It was as if the world made up her mind for her – cutting off the routine that had governed her life for nine years. Staying home was no longer optional; it was mandatory. Now she had more hours to spend with her son than she had since he was a baby. Together they painted the house, went on bike rides and long walks. 

“It was just so nice having that quality time with him.” Trina reminisces. “We both even talk about it now how much we loved that time together. We never got bored. We never got fed up. We just loved the slower pace of life.”

Slowly, she remembered what life felt like again. She ordered some candle-making kits online and begun experimenting – pouring soy wax into a variety of molds. Soon she was testing out different scents – wild fig and cassis; black plum and rhubarb; sandalwood and black pepper. She was struck by a realisation: for the first time in years, she felt calm.

When the world began returning to the office, Trina decided that it was finally time to call it quits, and start selling candles full-time. She set up her own business, Lelowa Candles. “I realised that health is more money. I need to pay my bills but I can’t continue to do a job that’s ruining my well-being.”

“I realised that health is more money. I need to pay my bills but I can’t continue to do a job that’s ruining my well-being.”

Trina is one of 15 people I spoke to for this piece who quit their job during the pandemic, in what has become known as ‘the Great Resignation’. ​​While the start of the pandemic was marked by soaring unemployment and mass redundancies (redundancies reached highest levels since records began between August to October 2020 in the UK), by 2021, something different was happening in the job market. People around the world were leaving their jobs at a rate never seen before, with over 47 million voluntarily quitting their jobs within the year. In the UK, job vacancies reached an all-time high, with available positions soaring beyond one million for the first time, in July 2021. And the trend shows no sign of stopping, with half of Britain’s workers considering switching jobs, according to The Telegraph.

“There’s now a greater ability for people to fit work into their lives, instead of having lives that squeeze into their work.” says Anthony Klotz, Associate Professor of Management at Texas A&M University, and the person who coined the term ‘Great Resignation’.

So what’s behind this shift? Are we really entering an era where we can put living first, and find a way for our jobs to fit around our lives? Where we can find jobs that create, rather than deplete meaning in our lives.

47m.
Quit their jobs in 2021.
Over 1m.
Job vacancies in the UK in July 2021.

The power of connection

Most of us will spend a great proportion of our lives working (the average human will spend over thirteen years). But how often do we stop and think about why we do what we do? Money – is the obvious answer. But is it the only answer? What value does your job add to the world? If money was out of the question, would you still do it? What parts of it excite you, and which would you leave behind?

For many of us, forced to stay home during lockdowns, our minds wandered to existential questions like these. As our working lives reformulated in the virtual worlds of our laptops, we were forced to confront our jobs for what they really were – without the commutes into a city centre, the after-work drinks and the client lunches. For some, what was left behind was nearly unrecognisable. And under this new light, not everyone liked what they saw. 

“Working from home you lost that sense of camaraderie,” reflects Georgia*, who quit her job as a strategy consultant at a major accounting organisation to work for a company developing psychedelic therapies for mental health. “The main thing I had enjoyed about my last job was the community and the people I worked with. Losing that you’re just stripped back to the bare work and I realised that I didn’t really care about what I was doing.”

 “The main thing I had enjoyed about my last job was the community and the people I worked with. Losing that you’re just stripped back to the bare work and I realised that I didn’t really care about what I was doing.”

A lack of social connection was the most commonly cited reason for leaving among the people interviewed for this piece. This was particularly true for recent graduates who started a new job during the pandemic, joining a team they had never met in real life.

“The pandemic forced me down a tunnel to somewhere I never would have normally gone to,” says Andrew, who took a job at a video analytics company in panic, fearing that in the current job climate, he would not be able to find a job that better suited his interests. “The isolation that a young worker feels working from home is awful. I haven’t had meaningful connections with a single person really in nearly eight months of working for the company.”

We were speaking over Zoom on a Monday – he’d asked to move the interview later on in the morning as he’d overslept, which he explained was common. It was hard to find the motivation to get up, put on clothes and start the day when the entirety of his job existed within the walls of his apartment. “There’s a company culture of not putting your camera on for Zoom calls, and then you get sucked into it, and don’t put yours on either. It’s horrible, because what’s already a non-human interaction becomes even less human”, he deplores.

“There’s a company culture of not putting your camera on for Zoom calls, and then you get sucked into it, and don’t put yours on either. It’s horrible, because what’s already a non-human interaction becomes even less human.”

It was something I kept hearing among the young people I spoke to, with words like “lonely” and “pointless” resurfacing. I envisioned them all alone in their bedrooms across the world, tapping away on laptops, producing virtual work for virtual teams; excel sheet after excel sheet piled into the ether. 

“Work is about people,” Andrew says. “You work because you want to meet people and exchange ideas. It’s not about achievement; it’s about interaction.” Since our interview, he’s quit his job and moved to Porto to work as a brand copywriter, a role that allows him to go into the office several days a week and collaborate with a team.

But that’s not to say that remote work always leads to a lack of connectivity. ​​“If anything I felt really connected to people,” says Ben, who was working as a freelance music teacher pre-pandemic, before taking a job in the NHS mental health service. Despite working remotely for the entirety of the pandemic, he managed to have meaningful conversations with hundreds of people over Zoom. “Even though it was the heart of lockdown, it felt like a very sociable time in a strange way. I felt this sense of connectedness to the wider community, to the wider world.”

This idea was repeated by David, who quit his job in the charity sector to become a freelance development coach. “Obviously we had a lot more face-to-face interactions before the pandemic, but what’s interesting for me is that I’ve had more meaningful conversations speaking one to one in this type of capacity than I had next to the coffee machine in the office,” he conveys. “There’s less performative behaviour.”

Slumber or toil?

For some individuals I spoke to, lockdown had given them a chance to listen to their body, and realise that before the pandemic, they were burnt out. But for others, the opposite occurred. Rather than realising how overworked they were, remote work had enabled them to fall under the radar, and do very little work at all.

This was definitely the case for Ania, who started a job at a satellite TV company, working remotely in the UK. “It was crazy the extent to which I could get away with,” she tells me from a university canteen (she has since quit the job to do a masters in Stockholm, where her parents live). “It was totally fine to sit around all day and do half an hour of work. By the end of the day I’d ask myself: what did I contribute? I’d feel annoyed at myself. But then if I’d look at my to-do list, I’d done all of the things I had to do.” 

“By the end of the day I’d ask myself: what did I contribute? I’d feel annoyed at myself. But then if I’d look at my to-do list, I’d done all of the things I had to do.”

Why do we work? In the Bible, Adam’s punishment for eating the forbidden fruit is a lifetime of labour – “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life”. Condemnation of idleness is embedded in the Torah, while Buddhism views suffering as a necessary part of life. It raises an important question: we spend a lot of our adult life complaining about work, but could we function without it? Can we exist without the challenges of labour? Or is the act of working part of being human? 

Back in 2021, Sofia was living the dream. Five months into her highly paid job as a technology associate at a multinational consultancy, she still hadn’t been put on a single job. It felt too good to be true. She was able to throw herself into a warm London summer: meeting up with friends during the week, cooking new dishes, and learning how to DJ. 

But then, something curious happened. Sofia started to feel frustrated. Placed on an offshore team, her colleagues based in India, she began to feel isolated and confused. “I felt lost in the sea of employees,” she recalls, “like I was just a number there, and I wasn’t very important to them.” She was sleeping late. Feeling restless. Finding herself unmotivated by everything.

“We spend a lot of our adult life complaining about work, but could we function without it? Can we exist without the challenges of labour? Or is the act of working part of being human?”

Her experience reminded me of the poem, The Lotus-Eaters, written by Alfred Tennyson in 1832. Playing off Homer’s epic, Ulysses and his troops arrive at the Edenic land of the lotus-eaters, and are seduced by the delicious nectar of the lotos fruit and flowers, deciding to never return home. The Biblical tale is inverted: Adam eats the forbidden fruit and is sentenced to a lifetime of labour; Ulysses’ troops are forever released from the duties of work, suspended in a drug-like bliss. “Should life all labour be?” they ask, “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil”.

Yet the abolition of suffering comes at the price of meaning. In “a land where all things always seem’d the same” binaries cease to mean anything. “Rav[ing]” is synonymous with “mourn[ing]”; one who is “deep-asleep” is also “awake”. Without challenge, all life becomes meaningless. A “dreamful ease” is no different than a “dark death”. 

Motivated monkeys

“It’s our basic nature to be curious and self-directed” says psychologist Daniel Pink, “If at age, fourteen or forty-three, we’re passive or inert, that’s not because it’s our nature. It’s because something flipped our default setting.” For Sofia, her motivation had been inhibited by an absence of mentorship, something which had improved by the time I was speaking with her, a few months into a new role at a start-up in the fitness and nutrition sector. “I think just a focus on my progress, someone keeping track of how you’re doing; it makes you feel like you’re actually moving somewhere.”

In his bestselling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink describes a study conducted by psychology professor Harry F. Harlow in the 1940s. Harlow gathered eight monkeys, put them in cages, and devised a puzzle for them to solve. Almost immediately, the monkeys began playing with the puzzles with determination, and even, it seemed: enjoyment. The fact that they did this without any reward – food, affection, applause – baffled him.

“If at age, fourteen or forty-three, we’re passive or inert, that’s not because it’s our nature. It’s because something flipped our default setting.”

But then something even stranger happened. Harlow decided to reward the monkeys with raisins for solving the puzzles, presuming that this would encourage them to perform better. But he was shocked to find, that the opposite occured: the monkeys made more errors and were less successful in solving the puzzles.

“Introduction of food in the present experiment,” he wrote, “served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature.” Harlow named this mysterious behaviour, intrinsic motivation.

Later psychological experiments confirmed that the same was true for humans. Studies conducted by the psychology graduate Edward Deci in 1968 revealed that when money is used as an external reward for an activity, subjects lose intrinsic interest in it. Human beings, Deci wrote, have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capabilities, to explore, and to learn.”

This was certainly the case in each of the individuals I spoke to. Aged 25, Jed had been given the impressive role of creative director of a jewelry brand, yet weeks into the job, he found himself disappointed. “The role never really lived up to that. It was more of just a title,” he explained. “I was getting paid a lot of money, but I was doing absolutely nothing. It was so unfulfilling.”

After a few months, he decided to quit, and found a new role as a marketing manager for a creative agency. “I actually stepped down a pay bracket,” he added. “I wanted to be able to implement creative decisions without being held back.” In his new role, he described a sensation that flickered among individuals I spoke to: work not feeling like work anymore. “I wake up in the morning and I don’t dread going to work,” he relays. “I’m excited for it.”

These were moments of what the American-Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow: the immensely enjoyable state of being engaged in a task which is challenging (although not so much that it is impossible), goal-oriented, and intrinsically rewarding. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times,” he writes in Flow. “The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.

“The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.

Living and existing

In every interview I conducted for this piece, I ended our conversation with the same question: putting money aside, why do you work? Several people described wanting personal growth; or a creative outlet; or a connection to others. One person wanted to feel recognised; another wanted a sense of identity. But the most commonly cited reason was having an impact – leaving a mark on the world, and (in however small a way) making it a better place to live.

“There is a real tangible difference in terms of having a purpose-driven workplace,” says Jake, who quit his job at a PR agency to work for a responsible investment NGO.“ You can’t really trade in much for that.”

It was a similar feeling conveyed by Aron, who left a job in a communications agency to pursue a career in psychology. “I think there’s a big difference in existing and living,” he explains. “Existence is really for yourself, keeping yourself alive, and I think living is more about sharing with other people and helping them make the world a better place”

As media outlets are already speculating on ‘The Great Regret’, the need to reflect on why we do what we do is more important than ever.

For the individuals I spoke to, gaining a deeper understanding of themselves helped them find satisfaction in their work. Some yearned for more autonomy or creative control; for others, the experiences over the past two years made it clear that they wanted work that enabled them to connect with others, or address a social problem in the world. Getting to the core of what they truly cared about, what makes them feel energised, what makes life feel worth living, they were finding ways to feel less like they were working to live, and more like their work was helping to create meaning in their lives.

*Names have been changed.