You’re reading Too Ambitious — a newsletter about our messy relationship with money, power and ambition. Want it in your inbox?Subscribe here. Please welcome back contributor Annie Midori Atherton.
Seven years after first reading it, I still think about a satirical headline published in The Onion: “Health Experts Recommend Standing Up At Desk, Leaving Office, Never Coming Back.” At the time, I was in the throes of my first 9-5 job as a sweaty ad account manager at a high-growth digital publisher whose only decoration was a giant screen showing the real-time data of how many people were reading various click-bait articles. I felt constantly buried in unanswered emails and small, absurd fires, and that headline (probably sent to me by some other harried employee) made me feel seen, even inspired. How glorious would that be? I mused, to walk away and make it all just – poof! – disappear. And how daunting that I’d have to wait at least four decades (until I reached retirement) to do so.
Eventually I did leave that job, without even having another one lined up. But a few months later I was back in the saddle. This time at a local nonprofit. Though I believed in the mission –
I found with no small sadness that some of the problems of my first job had followed me into my new one.
Like that there never seemed to be enough money, which caused everyone to run around in circles blaming themselves or each other for why that was. Or that I had a pesky habit of saying yes to every request, no matter how misguided I thought it to be.
What I can see in hindsight is that while the problems were definitely real, they were not, unfortunately, unique. After all, I was still in the same frenzied economy that makes it very tough for nonprofits or independent businesses to compete with huge organizations. I was still a young, people-pleasing Asian woman grappling with both external stereotypes and internalized self-doubt. My issues with boundary setting and conflict avoidance weren’t strictly “personal” nor were they solely a matter of toxic culture, but an inextricable combination of the two.
Now that we’re living through a time of record-high quitting rates, there’s a lot of discussion online about the shared fantasy of fleeing the sources of our stress. It manifests in a variety of ways, from declarations that we’re in an “age of anti-ambition” to the ambient notion that “no one wants to work anymore.”
Clearly, the temptation to “just quit” is as common as it is seductive. What’s much murkier is what is to do next, after gallantly walking out (or slamming shut the laptop with zeal).
For the would-be quitter, the fear lurking just underneath the fantasy is, What if the next thing isn’t better? What if I’m still stressed or bored or disrespected? What if there is, in fact, no escape?
But that’s too dark to think about, so instead we keep the dream of escape alive, following Instagram accounts of glamorously nomadic freelancers and sharing memes about sending a permanent Out of Office. Even if we never really do it, the dream that we could serves a certain psychological function.
I think the truth is dark, though. Given our thin social safety net, which tethers us to employers for basic needs like health insurance and retirement savings, our fears around quitting are not unfounded. But dark is not the same thing as hopeless, and I think that for us to have real hope we have to resist the temptation to flutter towards the idea of “something better out there” like flies to a light.
In terms of “what to do next,” there are a few options many seem to aspire to. The first is to get a different job, but with better pay, greater potential, and (hopefully) nicer people. This would reflect the reasons that one study found motivated most people to quit in the past year.
To be sure, I think money is a legitimate motivator as moving may be the best or even only way to raise one’s income. Wage stagnation has been a huge problem for decades, and perhaps one of the only good things to come out of the pandemic has been that some employers finally feel sufficient pressure to raise pay.
Outside of salary, though, it’s very tough to predict how supportive a work culture will be during interviews, especially when the company is putting on its best face and you’re preoccupied with selling yourself. Some 63% of job seekers reportedly called work-life balance a top priority when picking a new job, but what prospective employer would say in an interview, “No, we don’t value work-life balance”? That might explain why many people find themselves disappointed with their new roles. In a 2022 survey of more than 2,500 people, The Muse found that nearly three-quarters of respondents had experienced “Shift Shock” – “that feeling when you start a new job and realize, with either surprise or regret, that the position or company is very different from what you were led to believe.”
Other people seek better benefits. Yet according to one survey, “fewer than half of workers who quit a job last year (42%) say they now have better benefits, such as health insurance and paid time off, while a similar share (36%) says it’s about the same.” A fifth think their current benefits are worse.
That our hopes are so unaligned with reality so much of the time implies a pretty widespread case of “grass is greener” syndrome. While many people do fare better off at their new jobs, it’s far from a guaranteed or universal fix. That’s not to say there aren’t wise and appropriate times to quit a job, but that excessively romanticizing the notion of quitting may come with risks.
Empowering as it may feel, leaving any one job is not an escape from our broader economy and culture.
If we have trouble setting boundaries, we’ll still have trouble setting boundaries (and no, I don’t think that makes it a solely individual or personality-based problem, I just think it means it might come up again). If our new coworkers exude some racist or sexist tendencies, it’s probably because we live in a racist and sexist society.
Concrete hurdles like the total lack of federal paid family leave, as well as subtle norms that encourage women to do three times as much unpaid caregiving at home, are larger than any one role, company, or industry.
So while we can still seek greener pastures, we might want to be clear-eyed about how much societal change (perhaps in tandem with personal introspection) may need to be done to feel substantively better about work as a whole.
The second option for a dissatisfied employee is to go out on your own (in other words, become self-employed as a freelancer, or launch your own business). As someone who has done both, I would say that the caution around this fantasy should be even greater. You may face wildly unpredictable income and have to solve problems you’re wholly unprepared to address, like acting as your own accountant or IT person. Sure, you’ll be able to take vacation whenever you want, but you certainly won’t get paid for it. And no matter your field, you may find your job resembling a salesperson’s as you seek enough clients or customers to support yourself. As soon as someone is paying you, their role overlaps with that of a boss. They may make unreasonable requests or send tedious emails outside of work hours, and though they can’t fire you, they can sure as hell take their business elsewhere. And so the path of “being your own boss” comes with its own set of challenges.
A third scenario is having a partner support you financially while you function as a cleaner, cook, household manager, and/or caregiver. And if your spouse is so wealthy that you can simply lay around ‘looking hot’ while someone else performs all of this labor, then I guess your job is to ‘look hot’, and that’s a job with very little security indeed, especially as you age. The contradictions of this dream coalesce in the emergence of trends like “Bimbo” TikTok, featuring women proudly striving to be financially supported by men while claiming this “escape” from the capitalist workforce as leftist in what appears to be a truly bizarre combination of satire, theoretically confused mental gymnastics, and an (admittedly effective) ploy for ever-more attention online.
*I would add that there’s a particular irony in creating content about not working, which is to say that being a TikTok influencer sounds a lot like work to me. I have to imagine these women wouldn’t go through the trouble of cultivating millions of followers if they saw the role of girlfriend or wife as sufficiently satisfying and financially safe.
Ultimately, there isn’t really a viable path for most of us that involves truly opting out of the economy. But that doesn’t mean there are no paths to progress.
At the opposite end of the “just quit” spectrum is the decision to dig into one’s job even further and try to change it from within. The past year brought a swell of mobilization from the first Amazon warehouse to unionize on Staten Island to the first Starbucks to do so in Buffalo, NY, to a wave of independent coffee shop baristas organizing nationwide.
According to a CNBC survey, 59% of U.S. workers say they support increased unionization in their own workplaces. True, this resurgence of labor is a somewhat meager blip in the decades-long erosion of worker power. But it is something.
Beyond unionization, perhaps there are ways to at least attempt to explore collective solutions to the root causes of our dissatisfaction. Maybe it looks like more affinity groups within offices, or organizations wherein people in the same field can safely commiserate and strategize about changing their industry culture.
Maybe it looks like affordable therapy so people can discuss tools for asserting themselves, or examine internalized oppression, or confront the values that make them feel compelled to earn certain incomes even if it’s making them miserable to do so.
Maybe it looks like a higher minimum wage, or stronger social safety net, or policies that give us a fighting chance at not destroying the planet?
While it may seem everyone is on the verge of throwing in the towel, studies around worker satisfaction are so varied and contradictory it’s hard to suss out how widespread the issue actually is.
One writer for The Atlantic, refuting the New York Times piece on our “anti-ambition” age, argues that the crisis is largely imagined by those who are “extremely online,” pointing to polls showing that most Americans are, in fact, satisfied with their jobs.
According to an analysis by Harvard Business Review, the idea that the pandemic spurred a Great Resignation is overblown. While it’s true that quit rates are the highest they’ve ever been, the rate of quitting has actually been steadily increasing every year for a decade. As with any sweeping question about happiness or values, the reality is probably much more nuanced than any one think piece or poll could capture.
Whatever the truth may be, it seems undeniable that the idea of “just quitting” is prevalent enough to be significant in our cultural imagination and to have an effect on at least some of our major life choices.
Like many “new” trends, though, the fantasy of giving your drab office job the metaphorical middle finger is much older than recent think pieces. Probably as old as industry itself. Perhaps the original popular symbol for office worker defiance can be found in the 1853 short story Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, which features a lowly employee who one day simply responds to all requests with the brilliantly direct phrase, “I would prefer not to” until he’s arrested and thrown in prison.
Two decades ago, the 1999 movie Office Space revived the Bartleby-esque figure in the form of a dutiful corporate cog who wakes up one day having been magically transformed into a person who doesn’t give a shit. Yet unlike his 19th century prototype, he’s rewarded for his passive defiance when he tells his superiors how little he cares, which only makes them respect him more. But true redemption doesn’t come until the end, when his entire workplace goes down in flames and he finally finds a job he enjoys as a construction worker.
For an irreverent comedy, the Office Space ending is impressively grounded. This hero does not ride off into the sunset vowing to never work again. He doesn’t turn to the dark side, Breaking Bad style. He doesn’t even start his own business. He simply becomes a hard-working employee elsewhere.
It wasn’t labor or even having to work for someone else that was slowly killing this man’s soul. It was the BS of it all (in addition to, perhaps, an unhealthy lack of fresh air and physical movement).
Though we may not all dream of becoming construction workers, maybe there’s something at least a bit poignant about the idea that a greener pasture need not be a wildly glamorous one. Maybe there’s a way we can make peace with being part of the workforce, without giving into a soulless existence. Maybe it’s not a matter of oscillating between two imagined extremes – “giving up” vs. “giving in” – but rather finding something in the middle, that’s not an all-out rejection of ambition, but a reexamination of what ambition can mean.
Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are.
Image: Kiyoshi Hijiki/Moment via GettyImages