When Winnie Lai joined the more than 47 million Americans who quit their jobs in 2021, she worried most about what she would tell other people; leaving a great position as an attorney felt silly. “It was really hard. I talked about it extensively in therapy,” the 37-year-old told me from her home in New York. Though she knew resigning and taking a less demanding gig was the right move for her and her family, being a lawyer was more than a job—it was a major part of her identity. Lai’s struggle isn’t singular, and it illuminates the mental adjustment that so many people taking part in the “Great Resignation” have had to make. More and more Americans are realizing that voluntarily leaving your job today isn’t always just about securing a better lifestyle; it’s also about the redefinition of self.
People have defined themselves through their labor for centuries—think of surnames such as Baker, Brewer, Potter, and Weaver that spell out a person’s profession. But Americans’ work and identities intertwine particularly tightly, thanks to the country’s industrious Puritan roots and capitalist ethos. The idea that our society is a meritocracy is also hammered into us from childhood. It’s common to believe that making our job a central component of our identity is noble, because it’s sure to lead to some great payoff. So even though the coronavirus pandemic upended people’s lives and changed their priorities, the idea that an individual’s worth is tied to their productivity remains deeply ingrained in many of us.
Being a “good employee” in the U.S. has traditionally meant being highly engaged and sometimes working much more than 40 hours a week, according to Ellen Ernst Kossek, a social scientist who studies work-life boundaries. But our new normal, she told me, made overworked Americans “wonder what they were getting for all of that.” They also discovered that hours consumed by laboring and commuting robbed them of important parts of life, such as being with family. “We just accepted what we were told we had to do [before] … You go to grad school, you graduate to a 9 to 5 if you’re lucky, but as a lawyer, more likely a 7 to 10,” Lai said. “But the pandemic was saying, You can do other things. You can do things differently.”
Working from home “fundamentally changed” Lai’s relationship with her 4-year-old daughter, who had previously preferred being with her wife because they spent more time together. Embracing her role as a parent, Lai believes, has been a worthy trade-off for quitting a career that made up so much of her self-image. Six months after resigning, Lai says she still feels some identity issues: She now does administrative work for her wife’s therapy practice, which doesn’t exactly give her the same fulfillment she had working in family court. “If you leave that professional identity for something that feels better post-pandemic, you could also struggle and feel [you] aren’t valued as much,” Kossek told me. But giving up that particular point of pride has led Lai to a sense of self that is more associated with her family.
Though the maxim goes that finding a job you love means you’ll never work a day in your life, the past two years have unearthed a counterpoint: Devotion to an employer is often a one-sided romance. “In many industries, the pandemic revealed just how transactional the workplace is,” Lauren Rivera, a sociologist who studies company personnel practices, told me over the phone. “When the jobs won’t love you back … it makes you rethink things.” In November 2020, when working extended days and teaching traumatized fourth graders turned her once-joyous job into a struggle, Rachel Eisenman quit. “I didn’t have anything left for myself and my own life,” the 29-year-old from New York told me. “I was just a teacher; it was my entire identity.” She eventually found a new position designing curricula for an educational-technology company, where she says the work problems she faces now are less immediate and she can leave them at the office when the day ends. “I saw one of my teacher friends not too long after I started this job, and she said, ‘You seem like a different person.’” Now, Eisenman said, she has the capacity to be a friend who says yes to weeknight plans, a present partner to her fiancé, and a daughter who checks in with her mom regularly. She has thoughts of her own that have nothing to do with work, and that has allowed the mental space for her to be more than a careerist.
That a job doesn’t have to be a defining feature of your personality—or even a passion—is a new mindset for many Americans. For Jenelly Suero, a 31-year-old from New York City, her priorities in what she looks for in a career have changed. She left her former job in hospital administration about two years ago because she wanted a position that offered greater flexibility. Suero now does remote data entry—a fairly boring job, she told me, but it allows her to better support her child. When she imagined becoming a working mother, she thought she’d be able to continue to do the engaging work for hospitals she enjoyed. But she has since changed the way she sees herself. “I’m a parent,” she told me by phone. “My child does come first.”
These stories demonstrate that the Great Resignation is not a complete rejection of work. For many, it’s about redefining themselves as people first instead of workers. As Americans discern that their job title isn’t the most central part of their identity, Kossek said, “smart employers will realize they need to give more space to employees to develop other parts of [themselves], and develop other parts of their lives that they’ve been sacrificing for so long.” It may be hard to imagine a shift this dramatic in this country’s labor-centric culture, but two years ago it probably seemed unimaginable that millions would quit their jobs amid a global pandemic, too. The people who have found new fulfillment outside their career remind us that tectonic change in American society begins with individuals realigning their life to reflect their deepest values.