The idea that it’s sometimes necessary to quit your job on ethical grounds is well-established in contemporary culture. In 2015, Greg Smith walked away from an executive-director-level role at Goldman Sachs. “To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed announcing his resignation. In 2018, Gizmodo reported that roughly a dozen Google employees were leaving the company over objections to its artificial-intelligence contract with the Pentagon. And earlier this year, actress Emma Thompson resigned from the Skydance Media’s forthcoming film Luck after the studio hired John Lasseter, a Pixar co-founder who had been accused of decades of sexual misconduct.
But the ability to quit your job on principle is, in itself, a privilege. In a country like the US, where 78% of workers live paycheck to paycheck, most people can’t afford to walk away from gainful employment, no matter what their ethical compunctions. That’s where the appeal of building up a fuck-off fund comes in.
Building up a pile of savings, as Paulette Perhach explains in the viral essay that first coined the term, means that you can afford to walk away from any number of bad situations—a toxic relationship, a nightmare roommate, an abusive boss.
This week, a wave of resignations from a new digital-media outlet called The Markup served as a reminder of yet another reason that fuck-off funds come in handy. Not only do they give you the means to stand up for yourself financially, they enable you to stand up for your principles, too.
At least five of The Markup’s seven staff writers resigned from the company in protest of the surprise ouster of its co-founder and editor-in-chief, Julia Angwin. While there are conflicting versions of the circumstances surrounding Angwin’s departure, it was immediately clear that much of the site’s editorial staff was unwilling to work at The Markup without her.
At issue was the workers’ loyalty to Angwin herself as well as concerns that her departure revealed a troubling glimpse into The Markup’s future direction and ideals. Data journalist Surya Mattu tweeted of his decision to quit, “I am so proud of the work we all have done and heartbroken that I wont see it to completion. But @JuliaAngwin is the reason I call myself a data journalist and I cant get myself to work for the organization that doesn’t see her value.” Other reporters similarly expressed their faith in Angwin; “@JuliaAngwin is the reason I joined, and her ouster is the reason I am leaving,” said Lauren Kirchner.
Another journalist who recently took a stand by leaving a job is Maya Kosoff, who in January quit as a writer for the reboot of the website Gawker after working there for just 20 days. Kosoff and a colleague, Anna Breslaw, waived a severance package that came with a non-disparagement agreement so they could speak publicly about their reasons for quitting. Those reasons centered on offensive comments allegedly made by their boss—”about everything from poor people to black writers to her acquaintance’s penis size,” as Maxwell Tani writes in The Daily Beast—and human resources’ failure to address their concerns.
Kosoff says she didn’t have much of a fuck-off fund when she quit—but she certainly wishes she had. “Obviously I had financial concerns about leaving,” she says. “I had a little bit of savings, but it wasn’t going to sustain me for very long.”
Even so, her ethical concerns won out. And she realized that in the long run, staying at a job where she had deep concerns about management practices could hurt her career—and her financial stability—even more than leaving would. “The longer I stayed there, the less I could justify working there, and the harder it might be to get a job down the line if the work I was doing there wasn’t work I wasn’t particularly proud of,” she says.
Kosoff acknowledges that there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be able to make a similar choice. “I wouldn’t blame anybody for not doing it,” she says. “I recognize the immense privilege that it takes to walk away.”
For those who are lucky enough to save up for it, however, making the decision to prioritize a fuck-off fund is a form of insurance for your future self.
The fuck-off fund’s distinction from any other kind of emergency savings is largely a psychological one. Emergency savings are what you sock away for the problems over which you have no control—a sudden layoff, expensive dental surgery, a burst pipe in the basement.
Fuck-off funds, by contrast, are about gaining the ability to exert control over your own life, and to live in accordance with your values. It can certainly be soul-crushing to work at a job you don’t like, but there’s a particular kind of pain that comes from working at a job that violates your principles.
Whether the former Markup staffers had financial cushions in place is unclear. In her own Twitter feed, Angwin noted that each reporter who had quit “cannot afford to do this.” But as Kosoff’s experience shows, there are times when people will conclude they can’t afford not to.