A STRANGE THING is happening in corporate America right now.
The job market is booming, and companies are offering bonuses and salary increases to find and keep good people. Yet experienced workers are leaving their jobs in droves. The Labor Department reported that a record number of Americans have recently quit their jobs, part of what pundits are calling “the Great Resignation.”
I’m one of them. After 30 years leading global communications and public relations programs for multi-billion-dollar technology companies, I’m stepping down as PR chief for a large financial technology corporation. Next up: I’m driving to Colorado to spend a month with my son. I don’t have anything lined up other than hiking, flyfishing, fall foliage watching and working on the novel I’ve been trying to get to for months.
What’s going on?
Experts say the global pandemic is causing people across all walks of life to reassess what’s important in their lives and careers. Personally, I suspect there’s more at work here than a health crisis. I think a lot of people are just plain burned out.
In the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-09, more Americans than ever before went to work for large companies. When the global financial system is melting down and other firms are laying off, there’s security in riding the back of a corporate leviathan. Big companies also have the leverage to negotiate richer medical plans and benefit packages on behalf of their employees. For anyone with a family, those benefits are gold at times of uncertainty.
Fast forward to 2021 and things look a lot different, both for employers and their workers. Whatever fat was on the bones of the corporate leviathans is long gone. Over the past decade, big public companies have methodically pruned their operations to lean perfection. They’re now desperately searching for new revenue opportunities to bring those savings to the bottom line and meet relentless shareholder expectations.
Workers, too, are in a different situation. Many have used the past decade to scrub up their own personal balance sheets. Debt is down, cash balances are up and, with the stock market setting fresh records, those who invested regularly during the economic downturn are sitting on sizable 401(k)s and brokerage accounts.
Now, with the job market on fire, workers are in the driver’s seat. They have more luxury to pick and choose where, how and when they want to work. Many are making career choices based on lifestyle, not just financial necessity.
Let’s face it: While the past decade-plus of belt-tightening has been good for corporate balance sheets, it’s been rough on the typical large company employee. Workloads and job purviews have steadily grown. Laptops, smartphones and lightning-fast internet connections have blurred the lines between work and home. When I started in the corporate world, work ended when you drove away from the office at the end of the day. Today, our homes have become our workplaces. There’s no escape, no driving away.
The pandemic has only accelerated these trends. I’ve put in more hours working remotely over the past 18 months than I used to in the days when I was making those horrid 45-minute commutes to the office. As for vacations—forget it. Even if we could go somewhere during the pandemic, who has the time? Every year, I’ve left unused vacation and personal time on the table. There’s simply too much to do and no one else to do it.
And it isn’t just vacation days that we’re missing out on. Also missing is the time needed to pursue personal passions and interests.
One of my passions is writing fiction. When I started working in the corporate world, I was able to consistently carve out an hour or two of writing time each morning before heading off to work. But as I moved up the corporate ladder and began managing a global team, those early morning writing sessions fell away. I still got up at the same godawful early hour, but by 7 a.m. I was online dealing with all the issues that come with a large global organization.
All of this comes with the territory, and I’m not complaining. I am forever grateful to the companies where I’ve worked for the opportunities that they’ve given me to learn and grow, while also allowing me to raise my kids and enjoy a good standard of living.
But it wears on you after a while. And then suddenly you’re in the middle of a once-in-a-generation pandemic. You’re seeing people on respirators, and you become keenly aware of life’s fragility. The close proximity of death and illness has a way of doing that.
Is it any wonder so many workers, especially older ones, are opting to leave pressure-cooker jobs for something else?
I believe we are witnessing a bit of generational awakening today. On the way to accumulating the greatest wealth ever amassed by a generation in American history, baby boomers and Gen Xers are seeing the toll that their work-above-everything-else mindset has created in terms of their mental health, not to mention in the health of the planet.
They are choosing differently. They’re downsizing, cutting back, choosing different work situations—whatever they can to get their time and schedules back.
That’s where I’m at, at least. Over the past two years, I’ve lost my father and a couple of dear friends. As a cancer survivor, I’m keenly aware of the preciousness of life and the fact that my clock is ticking away. So, when my kids were out of college, I sold the big house, paid off my debts, invested and saved as best as I was able. Financially, I’m as prepared as I’m ever going to be. Why not reach for that brass ring of freedom while I can?
Tick, tick, tick. Every moment that we spend responding to emails is a moment we could be doing something else. It’s a calculus we all have to make.
As for me, I’m driving to Colorado in my new 30-foot Keystone Passport trailer. I have dreams burning a hole in my chest and I’m going after them while I still have the time and the health.
James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” is forthcoming in early 2022 from Blydyn Square Books. Check out his blog at PeaceableMan.com.
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Great article. I also left a large company a few years ago and I have not looked back. I miss the people and the amount that we accomplished year-to-year, but it certainly came at a big cost.
One other item I’d offer here as I reflect on my departure, is that the more I made the less that the money meant to me. I never had a set “number” I was aiming for before I shifted gears, but I knew in my gut I had enough when I became numb to pay raises or big bonuses.
Good luck to you in your adventures!
You’re stepping down now, but just announced a book with “losing my job” in the title… either way, I hope you catch a lot of fish!
I agree that the current work climate, at least for white collar workers, has shifted the balance of power from company to worker, although like all things this won’t last forever. My large tech firm has seen the grounds shift, particularly with our younger/newer employees who haven’t adopted (understandably) our firm’s culture as they’ve been almost entirely remote, so jumping for a larger paycheck isn’t hard to understand. But for me, thankfully, this shift to remote/hybrid working has been a godsend. I already enjoyed what I do, with this added flexibility it’s very likely I could do it even longer than I originally anticipated. I’ve been very fortunate in investments, both qualified and otherwise, so that’s not been a determinant in the decision to keep working. It’s mentally stimulating and fun, which almost puts it into the category of a hobby, albeit one with a paycheck! But not in jest, I feel strongly for those, in retail and other blue collar positions, that have not fared nearly as well from this shift in work due to the pandemic.
Ironically, it’s two sides of the same coin.
Companies are making huge earnings because they are ultra-efficient, and at the same time the stock portfolios of their employees are soaring because companies are doing so well.
I have no doubt your observations are true, things are different, some people are burned out. But while things may be more intense in the corporate world and definitely the corporate relationships was changing pre-pandemic, I’m not sure it’s all that different.
I retired in 2010, but for many years before that I brought work home regularly, I had vacation days left at year end, I took my company laptop on vacations and checked my e-mail every day, I even had conference calls in the years before zoom.
In short, for people on the move up or on the top, it was always like that.
What I think has happened, and you mentioned, is people have had enough because corporations have gone too far. I am in regular contact with retirees and employees of my old company and the general consensus ranges from its not the same company to it’s a horrible place to work. Apparently attitudes have changed and I know benefits were cut several times all unnecessarily from a financial perspective.
It’s almost like corporations don’t want anything to do with the annoyance of employees and certainly not retirees.
But the thing is, corporations are not people, so what has changed within the individuals running business and making the decisions about other people?
You nailed it, Dick. Sounds all too familiar to me. After 33 years with a company, and just after participating in a major project that will save the company over $5 million a year for at least 5 years, I was summoned to a webinar while on vacation (no surprise there) where the Corporate General Counsel told us that the company was going to “go in a different direction” and those of us on the call would be losing our jobs, fully 75% of my department, including my boss and his boss. Glad I had planned in advance and a few months later I was able to retire and enjoy volunteer work at 62. I am sure that company is whining about the lack of loyalty as people leave them for better opportunities, but it is hard to feel sorry for them.
Dick, greed and power. I think as the current pandemic has pointed out, people have become more self-centered, lack concern for others and less civil.
Sadly, you may be right which may be a generational thing.