Quitting your job is now a political act

A man walks his dog at the Praia da Luz beach, Portugal, June 5, 2020.
A man walks his dog at the Praia da Luz beach, Portugal, June 5, 2020.
Image: Reuters/Rafael Marchante
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Even the lightest skimmer of headlines has probably heard by now about the Great Resignation. Workers are leaving their jobs, or at the very least eying the exits, spurred by a combination of factors including but not limited to pandemic-related burnout, existential life reevaluations (aka “the YOLO economy”), lack of decent pay, and a refusal to tolerate unsafe and/or hostile working conditions.

A historically tight labor market means that workers also have more confidence to take a leap, trusting that they’ll be able to land another job even if they don’t have one lined up yet. The trend encompasses workers across the socioeconomic spectrum, from low-paid restaurant and retail workers to nurses, lawyers, and software engineers.

Of late the popular discourse seems to have taken another turn, in which quitting one’s 9-to-5 is not only an individual decision but a call to revolution. The white-collar workers affiliated with this subset of the Great Resignation aren’t leaving their jobs to accept another company’s offer. Rather, they’re turning to freelancing and gigs, or deciding to take a break from work altogether—framing their decision as a choice to stop playing a game that there’s no way to win.

“Career was my identity. Now I realize it’s all a capitalist scam,” a reader tells Anne Helen Petersen in the latest edition of her Culture Study newsletter, fittingly titled “From Burnout to Radicalization.”

Ditching the rat race

Petersen, the author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, is among the most prominent voices leading the conversation about how the world of white-collar work has failed to deliver what was once its fundamental promise: Put in time and effort, and you’ll be rewarded with a dependably prosperous middle-class existence. In the 21st century, even the privileged workers of the knowledge economy have discovered that how hard they work is often entirely unrelated to how much they get paid and whether they will be laid off at a moment’s notice.

Career skeptics don’t deny that most people need a way to pay their bills, as journalist Charlie Warzel observes in his recent newsletter. They object not to the principle of exchanging labor for money but to the idea of making jobs central to their lives and identity, and devoting themselves single-mindedly to the project of professional ambition. “What’s profound about the career rejectionists is that their guiding questions are simple,” Warzel writes. “What if work didn’t make you feel awful? What would life be like if we didn’t live to work?” (Warzel and Petersen, who are romantic partners, have co-authored a forthcoming book on remote work.)

Meanwhile, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport, whose book Deep Work is a kind of bible for productivity hounds, admits in a recent article for the New Yorker to being drawn to the idea of what he calls career downshifting or downsizing, as he observes people around him “voluntarily reducing their work hours to emphasize other aspects of life.”

Newport draws a parallel between Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist treatise Walden and the trend of knowledge workers questioning whether being tethered to a laptop, and responding to a colleague’s passive-aggressive emails until late into the night, is truly a worthwhile way to pass their limited time on Earth. “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” Thoreau wrote in 1854. Newport suggests that the pandemic has forced white-collar workers to reflect on what their work lives were costing them.

Who can afford to quit their job?

As Newport, Petersen, Warzel, and just about everyone else commenting on or participating in the Great Resignation is quick to note, there is privilege involved in being able to quit your job or dramatically cut back on work. Yes, people contemplating such a move can try to plan ahead by lowering expenses and building up a financial cushion. But not everyone makes enough money to sock away savings, or has costs that can be substantially trimmed.

It’s also true that someone who has a partner with a good income and health insurance, or the option of living rent-free with their parents for a spell, will be in a much better position to quit their job than a person without family members who can offer financial support. (Partners with jobs and moving in with one’s parents were both frequently mentioned answers in a recent Twitter thread asking people about how they can afford to quit.)

None of which is to suggest that the people who can afford to quit their jobs ought to stay at them and be miserable instead. There certainly are situations in which people may simply decide to quit in order to preserve their mental and emotional wellbeing, regardless of the economic consequences.

Where things get tricky is the idea of quitting as a decision that doubles as a way of taking a stand against hustle culture or corporate America. The people pursuing that path are most likely able to do so precisely because they (or their loved ones) have benefited from the current system. And if people quitting their jobs are planning to leave the world of full-time work only for a few months, or to make money by freelancing for similar corporations, it’s hard to buy the idea that quitting is really sticking it to The Man.

Is the personal political?

It makes sense that quitting one’s job might feel like a form of activism. After all, many of the problems people have with work—wage inequality; discrimination; toiling away on nights and weekends without overtime pay—are inherently political. The question is whether individual white-collar workers quitting their jobs could add up to a bigger paradigm shift.

On one hand, it’s possible that if enough workers quit their jobs, then some companies, fearful of losing talented employees, will be forced to improve working conditions. This effect is already playing out at some restaurants, with employers grudgingly increasing pay and giving workers more scheduling flexibility. On the other hand, some employers would presumably be quite happy to cut back on costs by relying on contractors and freelancers, who lack the protections and benefits afforded to employees.

In the big picture, unionizing and collective action may be a more productive path than quitting, for people looking to take power back and set new standards for contemporary work culture. Those who are motivated to quit because of what they see as systemic flaws in the world of work can also make a difference by pushing for local or national policy changes that will lead to better working conditions for people across class lines.

In the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that the individualistic pursuit of success—even by women and others who have been traditionally marginalized in the workplace—isn’t the same as working for the collective good. The converse is also true: Quitting one’s job or downshifting isn’t going to have a broader impact unless it’s coupled with other forms of activism.

Of course this doesn’t detract from the fact that quitting can still absolutely be worth doing—whether because it feels personally radical, or necessary, or really damn good.