Americans Are Overworked And Over Work
“As I've gotten older, work is definitely [still] really important, but I think I've started to see it less as my identity.”
Tiffany Chen had always wanted to be a clothing designer. When she was an undergraduate studying fashion at New York City’s Parsons School of Design, she dreamed of having her own clothing line. “I was like, ‘Oh, it'd be nice to have my own line someday and sell out Barneys,’” she said on a recent Tuesday morning over coffee at Mah-Ze-Dahr bakery in Greenwich Village. “[But] now that we saw what happened with Barneys, maybe it was a good thing it didn't work out that way.”
The path seemed simple enough: She would work for someone and gain the necessary knowledge and experience. But over time, her passion diminished. “It’s a lot of work to [start a clothing line] all on your own, and it’s very hard to enter the industry on your own as well,” she said. She’s a first-generation Taiwanese American who was raised to believe that hard work and making your own way are “admirable.” Though her parents wholeheartedly backed her dreams, they expected her to be able to take care of herself financially. “They were very much of the mindset [that] once you’re an adult, we’re not going to support you anymore,” she told me. “You’re kind of on your own. I agree with them. I think that’s the way it should be.”
“Less money does come with its own stresses, but I would rather deal with those than the stresses of the previous work environment.”
Chen, who is 30, worked in the fashion industry for more than a decade, but the long hours and the questionable ethics of the work clashed with her personal ideals. Working for a company that created cheap attire and emphasized ever-changing style trends became unsustainable. “I care a lot about the current ongoing climate and environmental crisis, and I definitely believe fashion has [played] a huge part in that,” she told me. “For budget reasons and ease, we would choose the cheapest materials possible in order to produce the garments.” So she quit this past May. She now brings in between $30,000 to $40,000 a year as a freelance photographer, which she said is close to what she earned when she began her career in fashion. It’s not much, but it’s “survivable,” she told me. She still lives alone, in the same apartment, and is much more conscious of her spending now. She’s bought health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and cooks with friends instead of going out. “Less money does come with its own stresses, but I would rather deal with those than the stresses of the previous work environment,” she told me.
And she’s not the only person who feels this way. In a mass exit dubbed the “Great Resignation” by psychologist Anthony Klotz, nearly 4 million people left jobs this past June, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Another 4 million left in July, the fourth consecutive month of such high departure rates. In August, 4.3 million people left their jobs, a record number, according to CNBC. Labor economist Julia Pollak, who works for ZipRecruiter, told me that in normal times, “there are typically 3.5 million people quitting a job any month … That’s a substantially higher number, and employers are really feeling it.” Karin Kimbrough, chief economist at LinkedIn, told me in a recent interview that the “social contract [of] work is being rewritten,” and the balance of power that exists between employer and employee “is shifting towards the worker.”
Her team has seen people leave one job in favor of something better — they’ve deemed this time of “unprecedented” change the “Great Reshuffle.” “We can see when people change from Job A to Job B, and what we're seeing is that these transition rates are well above the prepandemic levels,” she said. According to Kimbrough, there are several industries in flux because of worker shortages, including healthcare, transportation, and logistics, which can encompass “everything from truck drivers to warehouse inventory to the people managing supply chains, which we know are, by the way, a big deal because supply chains are bottled up.”
Even the way we talk about labor as a culture has changed. We’ve gone from readily adopting the phrase “Beyoncé also has 24 hours in a day” to “I don’t dream of labor.” Naomi Osaka’s and Simone Biles’ decisions to withdraw from the French Open and the individual all-around finals at the Olympics, respectively, are prime examples of how younger generations are prioritizing their health over their careers. We are inching closer and closer to new ways of thinking about labor, from reframing how we talk about “laziness” to advocating for the four-day workweek, which suggests this may only be the beginning of a much-needed societal shift.
This past August, 4.3 million people left their jobs, a record number, according to CNBC.
With so many American workers imagining a new relationship to their careers, I set out to talk to people who either had already quit or were planning to quit their jobs. Hundreds of responses to a BuzzFeed News callout flooded in. The common theme among respondents was that they had all reached a tipping point where the job that they had became much more emotionally and, sometimes, physically taxing. Some people I spoke to quit their jobs entirely while others opted for freelance work so they could exert more control over their lives.
Amber*, 30, lives in North Carolina, near the Outer Banks. In the last year, she has quit three restaurant jobs. (According to Department of Labor statistics, many of the employees who have quit their jobs recently worked in the food service and hospitality industries.) “I was always treated like I was disposable,” she told me during a phone call in early September. The first workplace she left was a brewery. She had worked there as a server for “about a year,” but quit because she had to wait tables outside where it was “really hot out and really miserable.” She left and later landed a new gig at a traditional dine-in restaurant, where she was under the assumption that she would be a server. But she was soon required to take on hosting and bussing duties instead, which meant making $10 an hour instead of $400 a night during the summer season. In a follow-up email, Amber told me that the establishment’s “reasoning was that they were just too short-staffed to accommodate that demand and that everyone had to pick up hosting [and] bussing duties.” So she left to work as a cashier at a juicery, where she “did a little bit of everything,” but the owner “didn’t want to pay taxes.” This put Amber in a bind because she wants to buy a house someday, which would require documents showing her current employment. “It makes it really difficult if I look like I'm on unemployment,” she said.
She feels like her labor isn’t valued and employers have sometimes explicitly said as much, she told me. “I'm constantly having the fact that I'm replaceable just being shoved in my face. If I felt like I mattered, I would care more. I would do a better job,” she said. Because of her difficulty in finding stable work, Amber said she has “lost a lot of respect” for many jobs. “I would love to work for a place I was loyal to, but I don't think that that exists anymore,” she said. For now, the future is uncertain. She’s back to waitressing again, this time at a new restaurant, and is “just taking it day by day,” she told me. “Some days I get almost scared, but for the most part I’m grateful for everything and I know it will all be fine.”
Taiece, a 27-year-old living in Pittsburgh who chose to be identified only by her first name, had been working as an assistant general manager at a craft brewery for two years. In a way, it was like a dozen different jobs in one. “I could realistically be doing anything from trying to catch a trapped bird in our warehouse to pulling weeds in preparation for a 150-person wedding,” she said. She also hired and fired people, trained new employees, orchestrated the weekly schedule, helped plan release dates and branding for new products, and managed the business’s social media.
“I'm constantly having the fact that I'm replaceable just being shoved in my face.”
The role took its toll. Staff reductions during the height of the pandemic meant the company went from a 12-person management team to a trio. Taiece was “promoted out of sheer necessity,” and her role at the company “changed several times.” She discovered that there were significant pay disparities. The person who previously held her position, she told me, made $45,000 — $10,000 more than Taiece said she was making at the time, a frustrating yet common occurrence for working-class Black women. Then, while on medical leave for two weeks due to a condition that rendered her physically unable to perform her job, the brewery hired someone to fulfill her tasks. Taiece said the new hire didn’t have adequate experience and was also hired permanently, making the same amount of money as her even though the company purportedly had no money to give Taiece a raise. “That was one of the most sickening blows I could have ever imagined,” she said. “That was the moment that I decided I was not going back to that job.”
Taiece, who studied graphic design in college, has now become a freelance graphic designer. She’s making enough to live on but did receive unemployment insurance, about $350 a week, while she was underemployed. Talking about her current work, she said, “You sell a $500 website, and then you sell a $1,200 branding suite, and you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s my rent for the month plus enough money to pay all my bills and have money left over.’”
With her freelance design and branding company “thriving,” her decision to stand on her own has been “reassuring,” she said. “I am so much happier and I feel so much freer,” she said. She described her relationship with her former workplace as toxic. “I’m not someone who cries. I'm not someone who raises my voice. I don't get angry. I don't really do the intense swinging pendulum of emotional responses to things, but I found myself being angry and lashing out at people that I care about or being so much more quick to cry or to feel vulnerable than I have ever experienced. And I realized it was because a lot of my life became centered around that place,” she said. “I needed to step away from that in order to be able to reevaluate my position in life. I expect so much less from myself, and that's OK.”
“I am so much happier and I feel so much freer.”
Eric*, a 28-year-old self-proclaimed workaholic, recently quit his job as a program manager at a tech startup in San Francisco. (Eric declined to give his last name to protect his privacy.) He understands that it’s a privilege to quit a white-collar job and said he knows he can get another job in a few months because of his network. But he’s become disillusioned with the industry and wants to “recalibrate my priorities, my lifestyle, my health, and be more present for myself.” Though his job paid $100,000 annually, it was demanding. Each week, there were 16 hours of meetings at a minimum, and because he was still working from home, office hours often bled into personal time. Though he liked his colleagues, he realized he was no longer “growing or learning” in his profession, “and the demands became too great.” Setting himself a short-term budget of $4,000 a month to cover living expenses, the jaded tech worker plans to tap into creative pursuits — “take a pottery class, painting class, learn how to play the guitar, you know, go on dates” — while unemployed. “Now I can reclaim that time for myself,” he said.
When I spoke with Barbara, a 61-year-old former truck driver — “off and on since 1981” — who now lives in New Mexico, she told me about how her morning started. “I was at the Grand Canyon this morning watching the sun come up,” she said. “And now I’m getting ready to go through Las Vegas and go over Hoover Dam, and then I’m gonna drive through Yosemite.” A Californian for most of her life, Barbara told me she had never been to the famed national park, but since quitting her job in May, she has been taking in the country’s natural beauty.
“My thing is, everyone should be paid a fair wage so that [they] would want to go back to work.”
She used to haul lumber from Eureka, California, to the Bay Area. Barbara told me she worked every day, usually 15 hours, traveling more than 550 miles each trip. When drivers started returning to the road after a pandemic lull — around November 2020, she recalled — the experience became much more stressful. “I literally almost got in an accident every single day because people were just crazy, and rude and obnoxious,” she said. As someone who used to wake up at 3 a.m. to start her days, she finally got fed up and decided to quit. The world of trucking was male-dominated, and she found it had become so politicized it was hard to have a conversation with anyone, she told me. “Everything became so divisive out here,” explained Barbara, who identifies as a liberal. “A lot of truck drivers are conservative, [and] I felt like I just couldn't be who I was. I couldn't say anything because I didn't want people not to like me anymore. The divide in the last four years just became worse and worse and worse, and that is another reason I decided to quit. I just felt like I couldn't be my authentic self,” she said. There were also growing concerns about supply chain issues. In a few short months, she noticed the price of lumber tick up, which would have meant fewer trips for Barbara. She ultimately decided to get out of the industry before the problem became worse.
Barbara rents out her home in Ukiah, California, which she said brings in $700 a month, and she sold her truck and trailer for an additional $80,000. She now lives in a one-bedroom casita on her brother’s land in Santa Fe for free in exchange for “a little bit of work trade” like helping him tend to the property they live on. “I ended up doing well. However, I quit everything. I quit my life,” she said. Inspired by the nomad movement after her husband died last year of pancreatic cancer, she often travels with her pets, a dog named Girl and a cat named Bella. She’s supportive of the Great Resignation. “I think it’s great,” she said. “I have a Republican brother and I have another friend that’s Republican, and they’re always complaining that the people on unemployment need to go back and work. My thing is, everyone should be paid a fair wage so that [they] would want to go back to work.”
Employers now face the challenge of figuring out how to retain talent. Some employers are attempting to lure employees back by giving them more money. For example, some warehouse employers, according to Pollak, the ZipRecruiter labor economist, have chosen to give signing bonuses. “If you're making $15 an hour, getting that signing bonus of $1,000 is equivalent to moving to a job that pays $22 an hour,” Pollak said. “[It’s] a substantial change in your compensation. This is a big deal. It's very attractive to workers, especially in these low-wage jobs.”
Kimbrough, the LinkedIn chief economist, said that white-collar and blue-collar workers are also demanding that employers meet their needs regarding flexibility. Office workers might want to choose which days to come into the office, while those whose work is physically demanding might want more control over the timing of shifts. “They want better pay, but they want work-life balance,” Kimbrough said. “That’s the number-one priority.”
Matt Sanford, 35, became a stay-at-home father in July when he decided not to return to his job as a stage supervisor at a performing arts theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a job he had held for a decade. Sanford was furloughed at the start of the pandemic. After being home with his 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, he discovered what he had been missing. “When the pandemic hit and I was pulled away from these 55-, 60-hour workweeks and got to truly know and experience my children in a very direct way that I really hadn't up until that point, this massive feeling of young fatherly responsibility — love and joy and a lot of sadness and disappointment about having missed so much of that — just really subsumed me,” he said.
Sanford’s wife has a full-time job working with students at the New Mexico School for the Deaf, but they save where they can, often cooking meals at home instead of going out to eat. It hasn’t been easy, though. “We didn’t have a lot of savings at the beginning of the pandemic,” he told me. The mortgage for their home was put in forbearance, which helped a lot, as did the federal stimulus and some assistance from their families. “We were able to establish a consistent enough savings account where we were like, ‘We’re going to be OK for 18 months before either of us really have to start making some big decisions around significantly gainful employment,’” he said.
Millions of people are reevaluating what kind of life they want to have. From working-class individuals who refuse to continue letting a 9-to-5 burn them out to white-collar workers deciding it’s time to unplug for a while, people are on a journey to rediscover who they are outside of their skills as workers. As Chen, the photographer living in New York City, put it, “I think we're kind of remixing the American Dream.”
“As I've gotten older, work is definitely [still] really important, but I think I've started to see it less as my identity,” she said. “What's really important to me is to be able to carve out the time and the space to build important things for me outside of work.”
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the people who were interviewed. ●
An earlier version of this story misstated how long Tiffany Chen worked in the fashion industry.