Laura* had been a fully employed member of the workforce since 1985, and at her most recent job as an office administrator since 1999. In August of 2020, however, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and with no other job lined up — or even a plan to find one — she made the decision to quit.
"For 21 years, I had been commuting 90 minutes each way to my job," Laura tells Refinery29 "This was eating away at what little personal time I had." She had long contemplated making a change — perhaps moving or reducing her hours — but it wasn't until the pandemic hit, and she was furloughed for two months in the spring of 2020 that she actually committed to acting on her feelings. "I finally had the opportunity and the luxury of time to reevaluate my priorities, spend time with my family and with myself," she says. "My partner and I really enjoyed being home together, spending time with each other and my daughter."
At the start of the pandemic, countless workers around the country were in a similar position, and while temporarily losing your job can be stressful and dire, for some — particularly those with a certain amount of economic privilege — it can provide an epiphany. Like Laura, Olivia was furloughed from her job in digital content at the end of March 2020. After three months, she was asked to return to work in June. "Being out of the business for that amount of time — which I know is a lot shorter than some furloughed folk have experienced — really made me realize what was important to me," she says, "and opened my eyes to just how unhappy I was." By September, without a backup plan in place, Olivia had also quit.
Last October, Dr. Erin Cech, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, surveyed college-educated workers in the U.S. for her forthcoming book The Trouble with Passion: How the Search for Fulfilling Work Fosters Inequality. She specifically asked survey participants — all of whom were employed — whether they had lost their jobs or were furloughed as a result of COVID, and the results were surprising. "There's this sentiment that people who go through employment instability are automatically going to become more economically rational and that they're going to prioritize finding a job and salary," she explains. "But, what I found is people who encounter this kind of employment instability as a result of COVID are actually more likely to value passion and value work-family balance in a job."
Of course, it isn't just those who were furloughed who chose to leave their jobs without another lined up in the last year. As the world changed due to the pandemic, so did the way we work. While some companies adjusted to allow employees more flexibility, others took advantage of the illusion of constant availability that working from home created and tried to maintain productivity and profitability, even with fewer resources and reduced headcounts. Dan left his job as a credit analyst in August 2020 in part because the highly bureaucratic job felt "meaningless," but also because the worsening economic environment had made the job even more stressful. Dan was already in pursuit of a career change and was working on another degree in order to make the switch, but he had originally intended to wait to quit until he found another job in his new field. The pandemic made his day-to-day work and working conditions intolerable. "With everything going on, including serious orthopedic problems exacerbated by the lockdown and management's unreasonable attitude, I reached my breaking point before finding another job," he shares. "Also, once there was a crisis and we started talking about essential workers, it made me feel even more fundamentally embarrassed to be part of an organization where about 40 people got paid six-figures each just to hop through bureaucratic hoops and write empty words in an expensive Midtown office, while people with actually necessary jobs couldn't pay their rent."
For Grace, who worked in television production before quitting in July 2020, the pandemic also intensified workplace issues. For several months, she had been expected to work more hours without additional pay. "The office had been a pretty toxic place up to the pandemic — I was harassed by another member of staff for my first four months on the team without any recourse by HR, my supervisor, or his boss — so I had been aiming to get out for a while, but, obviously, the 11.5-hour days and minimal pay were big contributing factors to quitting," she says. "Plus, the only reason I was allowed to start working from home was that, as I was told at 5:30 p.m. on March 18: 'You may have been exposed to COVID-19 and we don’t want you getting anyone else sick.'"
Rielle, who quit her job at a media charity in December 2020, had a similar experience. As her team worked to adapt to the changes caused by COVID-19, her role steadily expanded and demands became difficult to keep up with. "The crazy workload started to snowball for me. My boss was super-impressed by how much we were getting noticed by the community and kept bringing up his expectations, and they became unreasonable. He started becoming very rude during meetings, especially when his deliverables weren't being met. This caused a lot of anxiety for me," Rielle says. "I felt like I couldn't escape from work or say no to additional tasks that were falling on my plate, because I didn't have an excuse. I was just home. It didn't help that, because of the pandemic and my toxic boss, all my workmates were also always on edge about everything. Working remotely has definitely hindered my team from bonding and creating relationships that help in collaboration, too."
According to Cech, the pandemic has acted as a "destabilizing moment" in most people's lives, which has prompted or even required us to stop and think about the things that we most value in society. "There is a vein of cultural evaluation that says: 'Get as much money as you can; get as much economic success and prestige as you can.' But, there are all these other countervailing cultural perspectives, like: 'Love your work even if it doesn't make as much money' and 'Prioritize time with your family and friends,'" she explains. "So we're seeing this moment where the pandemic has allowed some people to step back and ask themselves, What do I really value? What's really important to me? How do I align my decision-making with that?" However, she also says it's important to point out the huge caveat in all of this: a financial safety net.
Every person I spoke with about quitting their job acknowledged that privilege played a huge role in their ability to do so. Some had partners or other family members who could support them during their time off, while others dipped into savings or retirement funds. Even those who had to rethink their spending habits and tighten their budgets had enough of a cushion to get by without bringing in a steady paycheck. Brisa, who just put in her two weeks notice and plans to spend her time off taking care of herself and dealing with a chronic illness, says that one of the main reasons she was able to quit was because she still lives with her parents. "I've had so many complicated feelings about having the privilege to leave my job," she says. "At the same time, I don't have the privilege of living in a healthy body. I didn't have the privilege of working somewhere that was willing to make the necessary adjustments for me. All these details made a difference. Ultimately, my body's limitations and the stress of the role outweighed the experience I was getting and any other positives of the job."
Though the pandemic has clearly been a catalyst for many people to re-evaluate their relationship with labor for a variety of reasons, many of those who chose to take a break from work during this time of economic uncertainty were still concerned about how others would react to their decision. Olivia said she was "absolutely terrified" to tell anyone that she was quitting her job without something else lined up. "After a couple of weeks of tears that ultimately led up to me handing in my notice, my manager came across as quite sincere and understanding, but also told me that I would find it hard to get another job in the current climate and would be lucky to find something that suited my skill set," she says. "This was something that stuck with me and did make me feel nervous and somewhat question whether I should be quitting, but I knew that I didn't want to find another job straight away." Though Olivia's colleagues were supportive and understood why she had decided to quit, there was still a noticeable shift in many of her daily conversations with them: "It went from the usual 'what are you having for tea?' to 'have you found another job yet?'"
Because our capitalist culture places such a high value on work, it's hard not to pass judgment on or be seriously concerned about someone who chooses to stop working, even if it's temporary. It simply doesn’t feel natural. According to Cech, this is partly because, for most upwardly mobile adults, there is a strong tie between who we are and what we do. This is, in part, a result of what in sociological theory is called the reflexive project of the self, which posits that we, as individuals, are projects that have to be worked on, refined, and made better. "One of the clearest instructions we’re given culturally for figuring out how to do that is to find a job that aligns with our sense of self and work at it really hard and move up the ranks," Dr. Cech explains. "So if we don't have that career or we don't have that occupation as an anchor, there are not a whole lot of other things that can fill that void." However, when people leave their jobs, which are viewed as these instruments of self-improvement, they're often freed from the pressure to constantly produce and grow. Instead, they're able to simply live.
"I have learned to relax for the first time in my life — this may seem like a throwaway line, but is actually THE most important thing I have accomplished," Laura says of her time since quitting. "As an overachiever, I never felt I was doing enough, I never sat down, I never had a moment of peace, and the first few months at home, I didn't know what to do with myself, I couldn't sit still. I have slowly learned to be a different person, to do what pleases me, to read, listen to podcasts, make art, and do other things which I enjoy." Olivia, too, began to do whatever she wanted. She started baking again, doing crafts, and sleeping better. "I absolutely loved having time to myself and actually feeling like I had time to myself," she shares. "My mental wellbeing completely skyrocketed, and I felt so happy and free." Dan feels similarly. "I like having a break to focus on myself and my health for the first time in a while," he says. "It's nice to not have to wear corporate drag every day — both physically and mentally." Rielle is catching up on cookbooks she bought in the past and never had a chance to use. Grace has been spending quality time with her aging parents. "I really like being able to make my own schedule and plan things on my own terms," she shares.
Because of everything that has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this time has come to be viewed as a sort of cultural reset. Certainly, the people to whom I spoke — as well as many others — have experienced transformations, to varying degrees, in their individual relationships with labor. Still, Cech isn't convinced it will lead to a lasting change in our collective attitude toward work. "It may cause a shift to a very limited extent in terms of these people having to educate their family members or their friends on why they're not engaged in the labor force or why they’ve stopped, and I think that will provide opportunities for reflection among the people that they are in conversation with," she says. "But I don't know that it would make a very big shift. I think the status quo understanding of who people are in terms of identifying with a career is quite deep."
And, because most everything costs money, many of those I spoke to mentioned that, despite getting financial support from elsewhere, the one thing they miss about being employed is having a steady source of income. Though they love their newfound freedom, they don't enjoy the ever-present worry about being able to cover regular expenses or emergencies. That is the reason they're all planning to eventually return to work. Olivia, in fact, recently started a new role, which is completely remote. "I feel a lot happier than I did in my last job," she shares. Dan says he'll probably start looking for something when he feels physically and mentally ready, likely within the next few months. Brisa isn't in any hurry to find something else, and when she does, she expects it to be part-time or freelance. Grace, who is currently up for a few new positions that she's hopeful will work out, has also been freelancing and taking on temp work.
Though none of them decided to permanently stop working, their time away from the workforce, reexamining priorities has prompted changes. Rielle, who is actively looking for a new job, is being more choosy. "If I've learned anything in the past year it's to be very intentional in the next career steps that I take," she shares. "I'm really pushing myself to get a job that aligns with my goals and also being very speculative about my next company's work culture. I've also learned to embrace the uncertainty, which was really hard to take."
Laura isn't planning to return to work until the fall. In order to assure that she's able to work less and live more, she's open to restructuring her assets, changing her living arrangements, and even moving away from the expensive city where she currently lives. Her mindset has been completely altered by her time off. "I have lived my entire adult life petrified about not having an income, about not being able to make ends meet, about losing what I have worked hard to achieve. What I feel has been the most profound change is that I now know there are other ways, other options — that I can make choices other than the tried and true," she says. "I finally feel confident that I can make things work no matter what happens, and that the old model of having to work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, while sacrificing everything else, is not the only model, and may in fact not be the healthiest model... I wish I had reevaluated sooner."
*Some names have been changed