The False Promise of the ‘Great Resignation’

In my dreams, Google begs me to come back. Human resources tells me that they have the perfect software-engineering role and that I alone can do it. Even though it’s been three years since I quit—frustrated by sexual harassment, an excruciating HR investigation, and being discouraged from applying for a promotion, which led to a reduction in pay—I always accept their offer, flooded with joy and relief. I clip my holographic badge back on to my belt loop; I clutch my corporate MacBook to my chest. Reunited with my colleagues, I throw myself back into debugging, ecstatic that my life has a clear purpose again.

I always wake up disappointed. Even though I’m glad I left Google, after which I worked at Facebook briefly before exiting tech in mid-2021, moving on was complicated. Like many workers who were part of the so-called Great Resignation, I walked away because of burnout worsened by the pandemic, along with a heightened sense that life is short. Quitting seemed like the path to taking control of my mental and physical well-being. But it was not the panacea I’d anticipated.

As a culture, we’ve come a long way in identifying the bad parts of all-consuming jobs, but saying goodbye still often comes with an enormous sense of grief. I’ve never felt more alive than when doing intense work in an intimate environment. Even after nearly two years of reflection, I still can’t decide if that euphoria is bad for me, incompatible with a healthy life, or if labor is, in fact, sacred. Talking with fellow quitters about what we lost when leaving, I found that there’s a fundamental tension between doing projects that thrill us and being able to shut our laptops, disconnect, and sleep through the night. We hoped that career switches would solve the problem, but we’ll probably be struggling with it our whole lives.  

[Derek Thompson: Three myths of the Great Resignation]

I arrived at Google in 2015, right after college, and immediately fell in love with the full-throttle pace. My team combatted misinformation, and our bosses warned us that our mistakes could kill people. When democracy seemed to be melting down outside our office tower, I believed I had the power to help.

This shared mission, plus the considerable perks that tethered me to the office, made relationships there fierce and visceral. At 5 p.m. each day, I filed into a conference room with the other young engineers for “Capybara Abs” time. We rolled around on the carpet, doing crunches and planks. It smelled like sweat and old socks, and it felt like home.

For all the perks, the job took a toll. After I reported sexual harassment, I was unable to sleep soundly for weeks on end. My lower-back pain became so severe that I couldn’t sit down at my desk—I had to code standing up, for hours at a time. I showed up at the on-site health clinic and broke down crying. The nurse practitioner prescribed muscle relaxants and tramadol, an opioid painkiller, and urged me to quit. Before I did, I bawled like a child on my sofa every night for weeks, saying, “I don’t want to go.” My next role, at Facebook, had similar drawbacks but few of the upsides. (In addition to back problems, I started getting crushing migraines.)

When I gave my notice at Facebook in 2021, indefinitely leaving tech, I had every reason to celebrate: I’d recently sold a book and had the financial resources to write full-time, a childhood fantasy. Before long my pain disappeared, further vindicating my decision to depart my grueling job.

I didn’t realize it yet, but I was part of the Great Resignation. In 2021, a record 48 million Americans left their jobs, followed by more than 51 million Americans in 2022. The news coverage was triumphant, featuring headlines and subheadings such as “Everyone Is Quitting Their Job. Great!,” while “QuitTok” videos portrayed even more elation—one featured a Taco Bell worker who cannonballed into a sink to celebrate his last shift before becoming a full-time video-game streamer.

My experience turned out to be less straightforwardly positive. Passion for my new endeavors didn’t erase the loss I felt about my old prestigious job. Once I got over the initial exhaustion, I ached for what I’d abandoned: my deep bond with my manager, whom I viewed almost as a parent; the promotion ladder that, for years, gave shape to my future; my self-image as a hard-core woman engineer making it in a male-dominated field. Dead set on moving forward, I threw myself into new ventures until I felt the twinge in my spine return. My old health issues had come back to haunt me.

Libby Vincent, a Scottish woman based in London, also had confusing feelings after departing an intense job. She spent her 20s running nightclubs, then climbed her way up the ladder at Just Eat Takeaway, a global tech conglomerate that owns food-delivery services such as Grubhub. Burned out by the pandemic, she quit in 2021, one month before her 40th birthday. But free from the constraints of her role, she found that relaxing was harder, not easier. “Everything I did, I felt it wasn’t the thing I should be doing,” she told me. She struggled to read. During yoga, she daydreamed about her old responsibilities. Seeing her company grow without her was excruciating. “It’s like seeing an ex do really well.”

The expectation to feel happy and calm once freed from the corporate albatross weighed on Vincent. At Christmas, three different people gave her copies of Glennon Doyle’s self-help book, Untamed. “They advised me to ‘stop trying to live up to other people’s expectations’”—an unwanted judgment.

[Derek Thompson: What quitters understand about the job market]

Wellness and self-discovery turned into expensive, exhausting work. Eventually Vincent realized that she hadn’t failed at finding balance. Instead, harried is her preferred state. “I don’t want to be outside the corporate machine. I don’t want to be teaching yoga,” she said. Vincent launched a consultancy that assists women executives transitioning into new positions. She works more now than she did in tech, but is happier than she was in her old job or while unemployed. Vincent expected self-care to be the answer, but instead she found satisfaction in a more fulfilling, equally challenging career.

Khalid Abdulqaadir had a profound relationship with his profession after nearly 20 years serving the U.S., including time in the military. He took pride in the prestige and selectiveness of his post at the National Security Agency. “I was at the tip of the spear,” Abdulqaadir told me, “on the forefront of America’s security with the most sophisticated technology and capabilities in the world.”

But the pressure also weighed on him. It was hard to take vacations or even lunch breaks, because he had to be doing “what your countrymen expect you to do.” With a top-secret security clearance, Abdulqaadir was constantly on edge: Even in the grocery-store checkout line, if strangers made small talk, he wondered if they were trying to extract classified information from him. “That takes it from being a job to being a lifestyle. It affects your family too.”

These stresses wore on Abdulqaadir until he eventually quit in 2020, eager to begin a new chapter in his professional life. He and his family moved from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Missouri, where they crammed into his aunt’s house. Pursuing his dream of starting a film-production company seemed like a welcome reprieve—the last few years of his service to the federal government had been under President Donald Trump and had overlapped with the coronavirus pandemic and the unrest following the killing of George Floyd.

But after saying goodbye, Abdulqaadir felt loss every time he turned on the news. “I was a player and now I’m out of the game. I see what’s going on all over the world. I used to be able to look at that and think ‘I’mma go in and do something about that tomorrow.’”

Eventually Abdulqaadir’s wife found full-time employment, and he and a business partner landed their first clients. When he struggled with the transition, it was magnified by the fact that the people around him assumed he was doing fine. He said that many people see him solely “as a resilient individual,” incapable of experiencing the strain of a crucial job, the loss of walking away from it, or the uncertainty that comes with starting a business. “They think I’m not having a nervous breakdown when I am. That I’m not terrified by my future, watching my kids sleep at night.”

Abdulqaadir is grateful that increased awareness of mental health—particularly through conversations led by Black men—gave him the courage to prioritize his well-being and make the change. He still struggles with knowing he’s “on the sideline” of global politics but, now that he’s immersed in entrepreneurship, has no regrets. “When you quit the job, you’re obviously going to miss everything you loved about it,” he said. “Being able to find something else you love in the same way is key.”

Just before the pandemic, Hadassah Mativetsky was promoted to management at a hardware manufacturer in rural New York. A year later, in 2021, her daughter’s day care told Mativetsky to find another placement. Nearby facilities had lengthy waiting lists. “This isn’t the city. Nannies are not a thing here,” she told me. She found babysitters on and trained them, only to have one college student after another flake at the last minute. After several months of this, Mativetsky, newly pregnant with her second child, felt forced to resign to stay home with her kids. She’s not alone: According to a 2021 survey by the consulting firm Seramount, about a third of working moms quit or scaled back their jobs—or planned to do so—during the pandemic.

[Read: What you find when you leave your job]

When I asked Mativetsky if she grieves for her old work, she seemed to fight back tears. “When it’s nice out, I still go eat outside with my old co-workers.” Despite interesting freelance assignments, she misses her colleagues and the thrill of fixing crises. “When you’re in quality assurance, everything is critical, critical, critical,” she said. “You complain about it, but you love it.”

A recent survey showed that 80 percent of Great Resignation quitters regret their decision. Though many people left for better work-life balance and mental health, only about half of respondents were satisfied with these things in their new roles. Meanwhile, employees long for their former cubicle buddies, mentors, and company cultures—which suggests that our office mates offered far more support and stability than triumphant QuitToks let on.

Giving up the office and the jobs that kept us tethered to it represents the loss of an institution that constrained us but also provided community and meaning. Moving on means  reevaluating our relationship with work—a far more arduous task than anyone warned.

Today, I log many more hours than I did at Google for an order of magnitude less money. Everything I adore about my new career pushes me to go harder, but it still has the same consequences. I write this at 10:23 p.m., exhausted, desperate to stretch out my seizing back.  Leaving tech didn’t fix my old habits. They’re right there waiting for me.

And yet I feel clarity, realizing how ingrained effort is to my identity and values. Even if it’s cringey, I love who I am when I’m focused, when I put my all into a goal. Childlike devotion blankets my body. Even in my solitary pursuits, I feel like I’m connected to something bigger: part of a long line of humans who have toiled and strived, cheered in glee, and wanted to smash in our laptops.  Maybe this is all an illusion, but it’s the one I know as well as my own face. More than any company, it feels like home.

Google did not respond to questions about the author's experiences working at the company.