I've read with interest recent articles on what is being called the Great Resignation. They've filled up my Twitter feed and have been scattered across the pages of this very paper, offering statistics (4.4 million Americans quit jobs in September) and insights into reasons (burnout, a desire for better pay, remote flexibility, simple change).
Within the commentaries world, there have also been musings on why the younger generations, specifically millennials (the eldest of whom, I feel compelled to point out, are nearing 40), are to blame for placing too much importance on finding fulfilling work. Some of them, we're told, are even quitting before they have another source of income secured.
My interest, I'll admit, is personal: Three years ago, I, a millennial, quit my job without having another lined up.
I was 28 years old, an English major living the dream in the publishing world, and I was completely burned out. If I wasn't working, I was sleeping. Writing, once my favorite part of the job, was a dreaded homework assignment.
I was jumping at the sound of my e-mail and Slack notifications. I wasn't responding to friends' text messages. I counted coffee as breakfast and wine as dinner, and I cried more often than I care to admit. On paper, you might have mistaken me for the main character in a Hallmark Christmas movie. I was headed for a breakdown.
This wasn't something that hit me overnight, of course. When I initially felt the stress building, I assumed it was temporary — my office was going through a transition and I just had to make it to the other side. But months later, the dust hadn't settled, and I couldn't catch my breath. So I started searching.
I worked with a recruiter to hone my résumé and get help finding positions that would fit my experience and skills. I got interviews, I took editing and writing tests, and got close to offers a few times, but never quite made it. This, again, went on for months.
Eventually, I went from stressed to completely apathetic. I no longer knew what kind of job I was looking for. I didn't know how to care about a job at all. It was clear my mind wasn't well. It was then that I made the decision to quit regardless of employment status.
This was not a decision made lightly. I consulted with the people closest to me. I calculated how long I could live off my savings (and I had the privilege of having friends and family in the Twin Cities willing to take me in) and I made a job-hunting schedule for myself. The decision went against everything we're taught in personal finance 101 — "It's easier to get a job when you have a job"; "Employers don't like gaps in your résumé" — but I was drowning.
The second I put in my notice (which was preceded by several minutes of heart-racing anxiety), my heart nearly burst from relief. I knew I'd be OK.
Just over two months after my last day, I was hired by the Star Tribune's editorial department, where I still sit today. It's been three years, almost to the day, since I sent my resignation, and I can confidently say it was both the most terrifying, and best, decision I've ever made.
In 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It's a syndrome that has existed as long as humans have been working, but one that we're just beginning to understand. It's not just stress. According to the WHO, it's "conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
But still, when people drop "burnout" into discussions about the Great Resignation, it's often a buzzword, an all-encompassing expression for "stressed and tired." And sometimes it's used in a mocking tone: "Boomers experienced burnout, too, but we sucked it up to pay the bills."
While both uses really discount the toll burnout takes on the mind and body, the latter also insinuates that those who experience it (aka, the younger generations) are simply weak-minded or lazy.
Lazy: A favorite descriptor of millennials for years. But it's one I've never understood. Many of us entered the workforce during the Great Recession and were told by teachers, mentors and media to forget the dream job. Finding any job would be near-impossible, and once you got one you should hold onto it for dear life. So that's what we did. We got jobs and held on tight — so tight that some of us started losing sensation in our fingers. Can we really be surprised that many of us burned out?
I can easily say that I would not wish burnout even on my enemy. You become the worst version of yourself — your fuse is short, your laughs are few, and the people around you suffer, too. So to see people feeling comfortable enough to quit their jobs and try something new is a promising sign for the future.
Burnout aside, finding a job that pays you what you're worth and allows you the flexibility you need (a fulfilling job) means your mental health will improve. And the idea that a generation of adults is working on being better versions of themselves is something to celebrate.
The past few years (and much of millennials' lives) have been tumultuous to say the least, and there are no promises of calm days ahead. We've lost loved ones to a deadly virus and we've seen the criminal justice system fail our neighbors time and again. We're looking at a pretty murky future in terms of climate change and political stability. In response, our priorities, and our ideas of happiness, are changing.
This Great Resignation is a sign that we're putting those evolving ideals into action.
Maggie Kelly is an assistant commentary editor for Star Tribune Opinion and editor of the New Voices feature. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.