Millennials. They’re back at it again with their whining and laziness. This time, they’re daring to quit their jobs due to burnout. Don’t they understand the financial ramifications of quitting or “lying flat,” even for a brief stint? Aren’t they rather young to be burned out?
Millennials, of which I am one, and Xennials, the cohort born from the late 1970s to early 1980s, are indeed leading the charge when it comes to the Great Resignation, or the recent increase in people quitting their jobs, according to an analysis by Visier into U.S. Bureau and Labor Statistics data. More than 6 million people quit their jobs between January and August 2021, according to the BLS’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. That was a quit rate of 2.9 percent, a series high.
But this shift can’t be entirely chalked up to generational stereotypes. Rather than laziness, it seems like part of what we’re seeing is a fundamental change in how people value work.
After 18 months of pandemic uncertainty altering how we work, it makes sense we’d return to the questions of why we work and how our jobs affect our quality of life. Is there perhaps another way to earn an income that better aligns with our overall goals? Couldn’t we create a future of no longer using a career as the primary or sole basis of our identity and self-satisfaction? Shouldn’t this be a moment to consider how to work to live instead of live to work?
Granted, many recent resignations have stemmed from need as opposed to choice. For example, women are more likely to have to quit their jobs to be primary caregivers due to shuttered child care and in-person schooling during COVID. There is also a great deal of stress around returning to work amidst an ongoing pandemic, especially if you don’t have health care. Long COVID is a growing concern. Although some have quit their jobs to hop to new positions, there are undoubtedly many who’ve quit without another job lined up.
But even before the pandemic, burnout was starting to catch up to us. A 2018 Gallup study found 7 in 10 Millennials felt some sort of burnout on the job, with 28 percent reporting it as frequent or constant, whereas 21 percent of older generations reported feeling the same.
We can theorize that this burnout comes from the increasingly blurred boundaries between being on and off the clock: from being conditioned to believe that appearing “always available” is the hallmark of a promotable employee; from jobs that once required a high school diploma suddenly demanding a bachelor’s degree, forcing young people to get mired in never-before-seen levels of student loan debt; perhaps, too, from how we were brought up — being over-scheduled as young students to pad our resumes and gain acceptance to colleges.
Millennials reportedly have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide compared with our Gen X and Boomer counterparts. For example, 54 percent of Millennials perceive their mental health as excellent or good compared to 64 percent of Baby Boomers, according to a 2020 report from Blue Cross Blue Shield. The same study also found a 43 percent increase in major depression for millennials between the years of 2014 to 2018.
Quitting a job will never be a cure-all for underlying mental health issues, but taking a short-term hiatus from a large stressor and focusing on getting better can be helpful. There may well be financial repercussions of opting out of the workforce — forgoing income is a serious consideration, as is giving up employer-provided health insurance and pressing pause on investing for retirement.
Even so, it seems millions are willing to take the risk. Reducing future earnings potential to focus on mental health may sound ridiculous to some, but figuring out how to live a stable, balanced and healthy life at a young age could reap enormous rewards for the next generation — and for our workplaces.
It’s quite possible that after decades of wealth accumulation being heralded as the route to success, we can start shifting toward a better balanced life — one in which work is just a piece of who you are and ambition and career success needn’t define you nor be what gives your life meaning. This doesn’t mean we’re without ambition, only that our desire to achieve can encompass more than the traditional, work-centric milestones.