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On the Pandemic and Career Downsizing

August 17th, 2021 · 19 comments

Earlier this summer, the Labor Department released a report that included a shocking statistic: close to 4 million people had quit or resigned in April. These numbers remained high in the spring months that followed. The business press began calling this workplace exodus the “Great Resignation.”

In my latest essay for the New Yorker, published earlier this week, I took a closer look at this trend. There are many different factors powering the Great Resignation, and it impacts many different demographics. Amidst this complexity there was one thread in particular that I pulled: highly-educated knowledge workers leaving their jobs not because the pandemic presented obstacles, but because it instead nudged them to rethink the role of work in their lives.

As I elaborate in the piece, I was able to find insight for this “career downsizing” trend in one of my favorite works of American philosophy, Thoreau’s Walden. This book is often misunderstood as an ode to simplicity and the beauty of nature. As I explain briefly in my essay, and in more detail in Digital Minimalism, it actually proposes a radical economic theory that demands that the value of existence be weighed against inanimate acquisitions — a rebalancing aided by disruption of the type Thoreau induced when he temporarily relocated to the woods outside his home town.

This trend toward career downsizing, in other words, may be explained in part by an entire class of workers being unexpectedly thrown into a “Zoom-equipped Walden Pond.”

I encourage you to read the entire essay if the topic interests you. But at the very least, as the Great Resignation either unfolds or resolves in the months ahead, this is a subplot worth monitoring.

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Addendum…

My new essay mentions my friend Brad Stulberg’s new book, The Practice of Groundedness, which I praise as follows on the book jacket: “A crucial alternative for those of us exhausted by soulless exhortations to crush it, and looking for a deeper approach to building a successful life.”

The book comes out September 7th. Click here to find out more about the book and the preorder bonuses Brad is offering those who order it early.

19 thoughts on “On the Pandemic and Career Downsizing

  1. Matt Collier says:

    Interesting point Cal. But what about other lower-level workers leaving their jobs? I’m from Australia, and during the pandemic, a large proportion of those I know in unskilled jobs simply stopped working; massive government payouts a lot more than they would earn if they chose to go to work in the first place. This is in no way sustainable and I am concerned that many young people may view it as an incentive not to work. While there are some who are leaving their jobs for the right reason as you mentioned in your post, there are also those who aren’t. Clearly more people need to read your books!

  2. John Camara says:

    There is a very strong generational correlation to all this. In the ’80’s, when the Baby Boomers realized they couldn’t be partying teenagers forever, they set about creating a life that would aspire to be ‘ ****ing epic’. Hence all the talk back in those days about endless, mindless material pursuits. ‘Blind Ambition’ was a very, very frequently discussed topic at the time. Blind Ambition, as both a credo and a gold standard for an individual’s measurement was something that, if you couldn’t accomplish it, you at least had to assert you were trying 24/7. So common it was that Madonna even named her 1990 world tour the “Blond Ambition Tour”. Baby Boomers were the dominant generation, with GenX, the minor. The new dominant generation (rising now as adults as the Boomers were rising as adults in the ’80’s) are the Millennials. This is a main trend which will run for decades ahead. Feel free to invest in it.

  3. Fiona says:

    Although this might be slightly tangential to your theme there aare also knowledge workers who are having to downsize because of the impacts of Long Covid. Currently I expect more is made of the many people being forced to leave jobs, or take reduced roles because they can’t manage the physical demands (health workers and teachers) 18 months or so after getting Covid. And that is a huge and important issue to be tackled. But also In my Long Covid support group there are also several knowledge workers (including myself) who are either still off long-term sick or quitting because their brains are still not fixed (18 months or so since getting Covid) and we can’t cope with doing cognitively complex jobs such as data analysis, writing papers etc…We are no longer who we once were and we are having to reflect on what we can do/is important etc… It might be interesting to follow this unfortunate trend…

  4. Ashley says:

    Another related trend is that more people (from Millennials to Boomers) are joining vanlife/RV life and living out of a vehicle (usually converted to live in) so they can work less (less expenses without rent and most utilities) and travel more. While the film Nomadland has shown a spotlight on the trend in a more depressing light, a lot of people (including myself) are very happy with this life and have quit careers that require you to go to work in person (or switched to things like being a traveling nurse) to do more flexible, remote work even if it results in less money.

    I would also guess that more people who stayed home with their families during the pandemic may be quitting jobs that don’t allow them to continue to stay home or switching to jobs with different hours so they can get more family time than they had before covid.

    I loved your Walden example! I loved his commentary on the economy.

  5. Thank you Cal, I was very surprised and honored to be mentioned in your article. Since stepping down, a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. My life has improved in many ways and the difference in pay isn’t as bad as I expected now that I’m saving so much in gasoline without the daily commute. I’m well on my way to the deep life I crave.

  6. This says it all! The pandemic could be seen as one opportunity that salary earners had to have a rethink of their actual purpose as to whether they were fulfilling it in their workspace or not. And this great resignation shows that most people felt they were not actually making head ways with their life purpose. Thank you Cal.

  7. AML says:

    I did my own Great Resignation in 2018. Before it was cool! 🙂
    People thought I was crazy to take a 95% pay cut to do something I actually cared about, but it’s not a big deal if you prepare well for it (savings, family support, etc).

  8. TOM EUESDEN says:

    Hello Cal! A quick question about bi-modal work?

    I have heard people say that 4 hours is approximately the maximum amount for deep work per day, but then also the bimodal philosophy argues that you can possibly spend days in a state of deep work…..I don’t quite get this. How is 4 hours the max, if you are spending “days” in a state of deep work.

    I know this isn’t an exact science but I find this a bit confusing. I am a musician and when I am mixing, recording or writing songs, I know that I have sometimes spent 10+ hours a day in periods of high focus, so where does that 4hrs a day max thing even come from? Cheers

    (by the way if anyone who knows the answer to this wants to chime in please go ahead) 🙂

    1. Kenia says:

      I think it comes down to different *types* of Deep Work: there’s Flow, then there’s Deliberate Practice. The latter is the one that is (generally) limited to 4 hours/day, because it’s so difficult and requires concerted focus AND *effort* to learn something new that’s complicated and/or difficult. Whereas Flow is purely a state of focus that’s much easier than Deliberate Practice. In a Flow state, one tends to be in a “just right” comfort zone in terms of mental effort.

      1. Tom Euesden says:

        brilliant answer, thanks!!! I guess this explains why I get be very productive on some projects (When I get in an excitable, flow state) and very slow on other projects which are more “deliberate practice”.

        I much prefer the flow state kind of deep work, although I could can see the massive benefits in doing both types

    2. Boris J says:

      I don’t think a 10hr flow state is sustainable in the long term. I’ve experienced that as well, but the longer you do that, the longer the recovery period after. So doing 20hrs in 2 days is possible, but then you probably need a week to recover and doing 4hrs a day afterwards after those 2 days isn’t possible (at least for me)

  9. Chris says:

    Something to consider: people like your friend are making it impossible for Asheville natives and/or lower income workers to be able to afford to live anywhere near Asheville. It’s the same as what’s happened with Austin and plenty of other formally cool towns with residents across the socioeconomic spectrum.
    There’s a reason no one says, “this place got so much better once a lot of wealthy Californians moved here.”

    http://thebluebanner.net/pandemic-driving-unprecedented-influx-of-relocations-to-asheville/

  10. Kenia says:

    There are many knowledge worker quitting, but then there’s many out there secretly working two full-time remote jobs! Crazy!
    WSJ article (pay wall) about this phenomenon: https://www.wsj.com/articles/these-people-who-work-from-home-have-a-secret-they-have-two-jobs-11628866529

  11. Myles Walsh says:

    Great article, Cal.
    I talk to my kids about being thoughtful about how they spend their money. The better they are at managing their spending and carefully investing, the more freedom they should have in choosing meaningful work as the main criteria, as opposed to high pay. It’s important to step back and look at the rules of the big game we are thrown into.

  12. Fonz says:

    Hey Cal, is it possible if you could organize your blog into categories? (e.g. productivity, career, deep life etc.) I often times find myself wanting to know more about your thoughts on a certain topic and just opt in to googling (e.g. “Cal Newport deep life”) but not all of your articles on a given topic has this keyword yet still related..

  13. Tyrone says:

    Your article brings up a lot of key points regarding the effects of the pandemic and the workplace for a lot of people. The shift from having to traveling to an office versus working remotely has changed the way many of us view work. The increased need for better mental health has certainly played a role in the way people determine if their job is now right for them. Although this seems to be an issue for the more educated or in better financial standings, the workplace, through the fallout of the pandemic, has been forever changed.
    Would you say that the role in being able to work remotely has made a larger impact in the job market?

  14. KR says:

    Before the pandemic I had wanted to go fully remote because I hate commuting and I dislike the office. How is it that we’re so broken we rely on *work* to be our community? Well, I should say corporate community. It was great as an intern and budding knowledge worker, my friends from my first job are still my friends today. But as a senior and lead-level worker, you do less of the stuff you joined the industry to do (programming) and more of the Kafkaesque endless meetings. Luckily thanks to you and similar people, I’ve been able to keep my schedule from getting overwhelmed (I just say No a lot).

    That said, it’s still a grind. In my case, many people got fed up with the unrelenting pace of pushing out new features, during a pandemic, when everything was working fine (our company makes billions a year, nothing needs to really be “done” anymore).

    I am one of those people that took a cut to slow down; I took leave over the summer to spend time with family since they’re home. Best thing I did this year and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can sustain it. The funny part is: I still worked, just not that much. I moonlight on the side and I kept that going, but only 2-3 hours a day. It was a pace I was much happier with.

  15. Irene says:

    I also noticed that a lot of people rethought the role of work in their life. It’s not always about quitting a job – some of them just moved their focus on more important things. Sometimes life puts us in conditions where we should decide to make some changes. It may be neither good nor bad, it may be just different.

  16. Daniel Smith says:

    most countries are experiencing an acute shortage of workers. In the US in particular, worker shortages have been widely publicized. The reason is people leaving the workforce during the pandemic and being slow to come back, or not coming back at all. Brexit obviously couldn’t have contributed to that.

    Third, Brexit doesn’t require the UK to change its immigration policy. It merely means that its immigration policy isn’t imposed upon it by a foreign power.

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