Millennials and gen Zs are still leaving their jobs. But are they happier?
If you were to mention “The Great Resignation” in a room full of people, you might be met with some eye rolls and maybe an under-the-breath comment about how nobody wants to work anymore (thanks for the helpful feedback, Kim K!).
Driven mostly by millennials and gen Z, “The Great Resignation” is a blanket term to describe the mass exodus of employees leaving the workplace, which started roughly a year after the Covid-19 pandemic began. It’s happening in Canada, too: a study by ADP Canada found that one-quarter of workers have changed jobs recently. But why?
For starters, millennials and gen Z may not be as lazy or entitled as you may have heard. In the same way the agricultural revolution led to the industrial revolution and then to the digital revolution, perhaps we’re just trying to find new ways to navigate and manage the ever-changing expectations of the modern working world.
So, we spoke to some recently-resigned folks to find out why they left and learn what businesses can do (if anything) to keep their employees longer.
To find a deeper meaning
Maybe we all had a bit too much time to think and reflect over the last few years, or perhaps the isolation just weighed on our collective psyche too heavily. When life gets heavy, humans naturally search for meaning and look to embrace change in a multitude of ways.
Yoni, a 27-year-old living in Portland, Oregon, quit his job in January 2022 as a product manager – a role requiring him to move across the United States – to pursue a career in psychology.
“I had got to a position and a pay grade that I wanted to get to, and I was still working for these socially good companies, but I realized I just wasn’t enjoying my day-to-day – it was idealized,” Yoni said.
Yoni expressed a sentiment that many young people are feeling – of liking the title, the paycheque, and in most cases, the company they work for, but feeling empty as they contribute to someone else’s bottom line. After moving to a new city, living alone, and working from home in a job he didn’t like – Yoni could feel his mental health start to decline.
“I slipped into my quarter-life crisis around that time and became obsessed with finding the meaning,” said Yoni. “I spiralled a bit, and I was like, I can’t keep living like this.”
Yoni always liked psychology and started taking classes online while working full-time. After working remote and travelling through Central America, he eventually quit his job to work at a children’s mental health crisis centre and now has plans to return to school to get his psychology degree. It’s a major life change – but is he happier?
“I would say yes because I was in a low place, but I don’t think my career alone will ever solely make me happy,” Yoni said. “I think this change will line me up in my future to feel happier, so when everything does come together, it will all be in a good place.”
To make more money
We get it. At the end of the day, money makes the world go round. Capitalism is an untamable beast in need of constant nourishment, and unfortunately, it’s the only economic system we have – as gross, faulty, and gruesome as it may be.
So, when the economy rebounded in 2021, many companies could actually hire back the employees they had initially laid off and then some. The scarcity-based job market that plagued the pandemic days evaporated, and there was a mindset of abundance for the first time in a while.
Around this time, Sarah, a former manager in the hospitality industry, realized she was being severely underpaid – so much so that she also joined the Great Resignation in the spring of 2022. Like many employees working through tough times, the 30-year-old made sacrifices to keep her job and thought everyone else was, too.
“The company was trying to do what it could,” Sarah said. “But it seemed like upper management did not make that same sacrifice, even though we were on a reduced schedule, and it didn’t feel great, knowing that certain people were taking the hit and others were not.”
A promotion without a pay increase was the last straw for Sarah, who said it felt like a cheap way for the company to show its appreciation while executives were flying across the country as things returned to normal.
“It was a complete 180° from thinking that we’re all in this together to realizing, oh wait, no, we are not; this is just a business,” Sarah said.
But, Sarah was able to take her brand-new title and accept a marketing position at a financial technology company, where she secured a 20% salary increase. While the significant salary increase is a bonus, she said it hasn’t influenced her to continue to jump around – a move that has become routine in the tech sector.
“For so long, I was just grateful to still be in a job, working for somebody, but that’s not the case, and it was really comforting to learn that,” Sarah said. “I have no regrets.”
Because life is too short
Completely changing careers is enough for most to grapple with. But Katy, a 29-year-old photographer and freelance graphic designer (who dabbles in just about anything creative she can get her hands on), was ready for a legitimate life upheaval – and found just what she was looking for in rural Nova Scotia.
Back in June 2022, Katy became a part of the Great Resignation. After working as a graphic designer for a year and a half, she vowed never to work the 9-5 again. Now, she finds greater fulfillment in having multiple, diverse jobs showcasing the millennial transferable skillset.
“I think this shift is very aligned with the way we feel as a generation, and I’m honestly all for it,” Katy said. “There are chances for us to make money in different pools and different ways in our lives, and it doesn’t need to be just one career anymore.”
The way Katy builds her week reflects her sunny outlook. Each day is something different, which she says maximizes her creative output while gathering inspiration from everything around her. She fills a few days of her week with freelance photography and graphic design, then leaves the rest of her week open to help with what’s needed in her community: childcare, baking, and potentially helping with farm work in the future.
While it took a global pandemic for many folks to deeply reconsider the meaning of life and work, Katy’s seemingly optimistic approach resulted from a change of perspective at an early age.
“No, it wasn’t the pandemic, but losing loved ones in my life would have affected that,” said Katy. “I’ve always had a ‘life is short’ mantra – don’t spend time earning money in something you hate, maybe spend time earning less money in something you love because you’re going to die soon.”
Some never wanted to leave in the first place
Some millennials and gen Zs have left their careers voluntarily to pursue other interests or creative endeavours, but others never wanted to leave their jobs in the first place. But Covid vaccination policies led to some very uncomfortable situations, where folks had no choice but to move on.
Andrea, a 29-year-old living in Ontario, Canada, was forced to resign from her job in the power generation industry in January 2022 after her college’s vaccination policies prevented her from finishing the last semester of her diploma.
“It caused a hiccup at my job, and then later in the fall, my work came out their own Covid policies that I wasn’t a huge fan of, so I had to leave,” Andrea said. “I started a job in a completely different industry, with really good people and a good office culture.”
Luckily for Andrea, her diploma has two levels, so she could take the lesser diploma and still graduate with something to show for her years of studying. The school’s policies have recently changed, and she’s considering going back to school. As you may have guessed, her current role in financial services has been less fulfilling than what she was studying.
“I’m good at my job, but I don’t have that much to do all of the time,” Andrea said. “I’m glued to the computer and have to be on and active from start to finish.”
Besides dropping vaccination policies, Andrea has a few ideas to encourage employees to stick around in their roles for a little bit longer – like rewarding employees who complete their work faster instead of dragging it out over the day.
“If the company estimates a certain amount of time for a project and it only takes you half the time, you should get rewarded for that,” Andrea said. “It’s tricky, maybe just more flexible time with being in the office and off-site.”
To chase the dream job
We all have something that hovers at the peripherals of our consciousness. A nagging, shapeless feeling that there’s something we should be doing instead of what we’re currently focusing on. When we’re busy, it’s all too easy to ignore these subconscious pokes and suppress them with spending bonuses, going for drinks after work, and long, chaotic commutes.
So what happens when things go silent? Sometimes, you can finally listen. Maggie, a 30-year-old former technology salesperson, is the perfect example of what can happen when you listen to that inner voice that somehow knows best. After years of working in sales, she’s completely changed careers to become a realtor – and says she knows it’s the right role for her.
“I always thought about a career in real estate, and it was always my planned next step,” Maggie said. “But I didn’t think it would happen as quickly as it did.”
Maggie was doing well in sales before the pandemic, but communication collapsed at her company once everyone started to work from home.
“It gave me the push I needed to make a change,” Maggie said. “At the time, work was super stressful, but it was a blessing because if I was still happy in sales, then I would have just stayed there longer.”
While Maggie is enjoying her new career, it wasn’t without hard work – Maggie got her real estate license when she was still working full-time. And her new role comes with many added responsibilities.
“Working in real estate is more stressful in its own way, but not the same kind of deep-rooted anxiety because it’s all you,” Maggie said.
Things have worked out pretty well for Maggie. But many of us are still trying to figure out what that little voice is telling us. So what should you do if you’re not sure?
“You just have to find something you like to do because it makes such a difference,” Maggie said. “It doesn’t feel like work to me when I’m really busy, and it can be stressful, but it’s still enjoyable and fulfilling.”
The bottom line
However you define work, if you have a career in something that brings you joy or you have the opportunity to search for one that does – you’re one of the lucky ones.
Is our unprecedented search for individual happiness because we are too privileged or more selfish than other generations? Or will the collective fulfillment of chasing our dreams create a happier society in general, catapulting our world into a better state of well-being?
Maybe, just maybe, if each and every one of us is doing something we truly enjoy, we’ll be just a little better to one another and corporations a little less greedy. Perhaps the capitalist beast could be satisfied – its hunger quelled. But until then, we’ll try to listen to our own internal voices first and pay less attention to the beast’s growling stomach.
*Some names have been changed
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