Menotti Minutillo, a 37-year-old from Long Island, considered Twitter one of his favorite places to work. He was employed in the engineering department there from 2012 to 2016, a period of explosive growth for the tech company. There was a sense that the company was a part of something big; it called to him. The work was meaningful, the money was good and stable, he liked his boss, and there were opportunities for growth. After a stint at Uber, he returned to Twitter in 2020 as a product manager. Critically for Minutillo, he believed in the company’s core values: “Communicate fearlessly to build trust,” was one. “I very much enjoyed my time there,” he said. But last November, Minutillo was one of more than 3,700 people abruptly laid off after Elon Musk acquired the company and became chief executive.
“Companies are in the business of making money, ultimately, despite whatever values they talk about, or the big mission of the company,” Minutillo told me. He had spent much of his career feeling anxious about taking time off and had regularly put in 12 hours a day through the pandemic, but now, he decided, “I need to approach my job with more boundaries.”
Before Twitter, Minutillo had worked in Goldman Sachs’s tech division from 2007 to 2012. Finance had been a hotbed for a certain kind of lucrative “dream job,” but even then, the firm regularly cut the “bottom” 1% to 5% of employees each year as a practice; during the Great Recession, the cuts seemed nonstop. Working in finance during that period “prepared me for some of the worst of what can happen in a career,” Minutillo said. “I was steeled to the idea that nothing is guaranteed.”
Even so, his memories of Twitter as a special place led him back to the company. He wasn’t wide-eyed about corporate interests, yet he was unsettled by how “deep and unfeeling” the social media platform’s recent cuts were. The company paid only one month of severance to employees, who said they were promised three months as well as other payouts; a number of legal actions were initiated against Twitter related to the layoffs. Then in February, the company laid off product manager Esther Crawford, an “Elon Musk loyalist” who just a few months earlier had proudly tweeted a photo of herself resting in a sleeping bag on the office floor to meet deadlines.
As business for tech companies has slowed down in recent months, companies such as Twitter, Alphabet (which owns Google), Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp), and Microsoft, have laid off more than 120,000 people industrywide. (Meta plans to cut even more jobs following its November layoffs.) These were companies that consistently ranked highly in polls of best places to work; they offered the highest salaries, the best benefits, and a level of stability and opportunity that wasn’t available to most workers. As the wealth gap widened and the American middle class increasingly struggled, young people saw jobs like these as a path to securing a comfortable life. These also came with ample prestige. Getting into Google was harder than getting into Harvard. These were dream jobs.
Working at Meta, people had the sense that they had made it, said Maria Jiang, 38, who was recently laid off as a product marketing leader at the company. “You’re working at this company that so many people want to work for, and you have all these great benefits and great pay. But I don’t think your identity should be so closely linked to your employer,” she told me. “Maybe that’s why people feel so lost when it’s taken away from them.” In that vacuum, “Everyone’s saying, ‘I want to secure a stable job,’ but no such thing exists.”
This is the third time Jiang has been laid off in her 15-year career; the previous cuts happened in 2008 and 2020. Jiang still believes, optimistically, there’s something she is “meant to do.” “That is what jobs should be — something that you can pour your heart and soul into. But it’s rare, and most of us don’t know what that is.”
The recent layoffs came as a shock to some younger tech employees, who were reminded that workers’ interests come second to those of the company and its shareholders, and that anyone’s job security is vulnerable to the endless boom-and-bust cycles of the economy. Some people quickly found work again, but the deeper impact of the layoffs is shifting the social perception of how prestigious these jobs are now. Multiple economic traumas have seeded skepticism about how much to expect from any job. Demoralized workers in idealized jobs across industries — tech, finance, medicine, and law — are rightfully interrogating the concept of the dream job, of placing work on a pedestal.
Work plays a central role in the American dream — which at its core promotes the belief that you can labor your way toward your fullest potential — but people’s hard-held faith in this concept faces existential challenges. If workers are drawing firm boundaries around their personal time, if they are demanding flexibility so that they can rebalance their priorities outside of their jobs, this is why. Millions of workers were laid off in 2020, and many more continue to lose employment today in anticipation of an economic downturn, due to no fault of their own. From childhood, Americans are encouraged to imagine the ideal job, to take on large sums of student debt just to stand a chance in the workforce, and to then dedicate the bulk of their time, energy, and ambition to their employers. But now even illustrious jobs are no longer secure.
The American fascination with “good jobs” as we understand them today goes back to the 1930s with the passing of the New Deal (this period is also when “the American dream” was coined, in the 1931 book The Epic of America). Unions advocated for a national pension system that wasn’t linked to employment, resulting in Social Security, but were not able to win universal healthcare, according to Vox’s Anna North. More employers began offering health insurance instead of pay raises during a period of high inflation in World War II. As a result, “For some, the American job became a one-stop shop where they could get many, if not all, their needs met — all on a (relatively) reasonable schedule,” North writes.
Employers added other perks. Hallmark opened one of the country’s first workplace cafeterias in 1923, and launched the “Crown Room” cafeteria in 1956, which the New York Times characterized as “the heart of the company, with cakes for employee birthdays, World Series parties and gift-wrapping demonstrations.” A 1938 article in Nation’s Business said that what (young, white, male) workers sought was simple: “good jobs with a large corporation, with regular cash pay days.” Growing class distinctions only made white-collar work more desirable.
By the 1970s, some large companies were offering benefits for daycare, nursing home care, auto and home insurance, and contributing to education costs, according to Personnel Journal. By the 2010s, Big Tech companies were offering high salaries, comprehensive benefits, and perks like free food, on-site healthcare, and travel stipends, as low-wage workers endured a federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 per hour and jobs that didn’t offer basic benefits.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, defines good jobs as ones that offer workers a living wage, predictability and security around their schedule, and the potential for a career in which the employee can earn more money in the future. Yet it has become harder to climb the ladder in many industries as mid-level positions have been eliminated by technologies that make them more efficient. Salaried employees are given “phony managerial titles” that come with a small bump in salary, but are then expected to work more than 40 hours a week with no overtime pay, he said. Companies dangle the promise of promotion, but especially in the service industries, promotions are difficult. “The ladders have been purposely broken” for greater profitability and efficiency, Lichtenstein said.
Meanwhile, lower-paid service jobs continue to make up many of the openings available today, though the total share of workers in unions, which can bargain for better compensation and working conditions, hit a record low of 10.1% in 2022. Employers cut corners with tactics like just-in-time scheduling (a cost-cutting practice in which workers must be available to work a shift that can be canceled at the last minute without pay) and by creating part-time and contract positions that don’t offer benefits. Lichtenstein said some companies actually depend on high turnover rates so they don’t have to pay severance or improve working conditions — it’s more efficient for people to just quit. Companies might dramatically cut worker hours, give awkward shifts, reassign them to different locations, or, more recently, require them to return to the office full time so they quit and are therefore not eligible for government unemployment benefits. “This saves companies money because they are taxed in terms of how many workers they lay off,” Lichtenstein said.
People came to rely on employment for all their needs, but no employer promised stable employment. The Congressional Budget Office said a stagnant economy could lead to a surge in unemployment this year. Lichtenstein believes that improving conditions for workers will require “removing all of these so-called benefits that in America are now attached to the job — whether it’s retirement, healthcare — and make them a state function. Then, if you lose your job, it’s bad, but you don’t lose as much.”
“I just don’t see the dream job happening in the setup that we have, where companies can let go of so many people for short-term profits.”
“There is no dream job,” even in an industry as lucrative as tech, said Logan, a 26-year-old recruiter who has been laid off twice in three years, most recently from Amazon. “I just don’t see the dream job happening in the setup that we have, where companies can let go of so many people for short-term profits.”
Logan, who asked not to be identified by his full name due to company rules about speaking to the media, said his professional life has been defined by ruthlessness and precarity since he graduated from college in 2018. He had hoped to be a journalist, but all of the magazines in the part of Florida he lived in were closing, so he decided to go into recruiting — maybe he could help other people find their dream jobs, he thought. After he left his first recruiting job in 2019, which paid $35,000, the company sued him, claiming he violated a noncompete agreement (which he denies). In 2020, he was laid off from his second job when the pandemic began and the company’s revenue evaporated. With no emergency fund, no backup plan, debt from college, and a car payment, Logan got by on unemployment benefits until he landed his third job at a small, family-run company that didn’t offer healthcare benefits.
As friends talked about seeking jobs that gave them purpose, Logan made a simple resolution: to make as much money as possible and not work a job that would jeopardize his health. When he received an offer at Amazon in March 2022, he expected things to finally take a turn for the better.
“For so many, the reasons why working for Big Tech is a dream job are stability — that’s the main reason I joined — and prestige,” Logan said. Amazon offered Logan twice his previous annual salary; including bonuses, he was earning more than $100,000 by his mid-20s. “Mental health, dental, vision, whatever I needed was absolutely 100% covered. None of my prescriptions cost anything,” he said. “It was incredible.”
Yet within a year, Logan was laid off once again when Amazon decided to let go of 10,000 employees in December, a figure that later grew to 18,000. He said the turmoil in the first years of his career led him to a simple understanding of what to expect from work: “A job that pays me extremely well, values my time, promotes me for work I do on company time, and then lets me go and enjoy the rest of my life — that’s it. It’s very transactional, and it’s how I want it to be going forward. I don’t want a spiel about how ‘We’re family,’ because at a moment’s notice, anything can be ripped away from you.”
He landed another job with a financial services company after applying to 289 openings in a month and a half. “I really do wish things were different. I wish I could have gotten out of college, found a great company, and then moved up the ladder somewhere,” Logan said. “But it’s just not the way things are."
Even those who enjoyed a relatively long period of stability in tech are questioning their relationship with work. Eric, who asked not to be identified by his real name so as not to jeopardize his severance payment, managed to stay employed at Microsoft for 22 years. When he joined as a developer in 2000, it was a dream job as far as compensation and benefits, but the company faced antitrust claims by the Department of Justice “that didn’t make [him] feel great.” Still, his salary supported his family (including multiple children), and Microsoft’s benefits covered costly therapy for his child with autism. More importantly, “I felt they weren’t going to lay me off. That was the implicit understanding — it’s just that I was the only one who understood it that way.”
“For so many, the reasons why working for Big Tech is a dream job are stability — that’s the main reason I joined — and prestige.”
Eric, who is in his 50s, was laid off this past January along with 10,000 other people. His performance wasn’t a problem — but his annual salary, bonus, and stock awards had grown close to $350,000, and he suspected he would not be a top priority for retention when he heard layoffs were planned. An invite appeared on his calendar for a 9 a.m. meeting, and when he logged on, his video and audio were disabled. “They don’t want it to be a discussion,” he said.
What troubles Eric most is that, in his view, Microsoft had a choice to lay off thousands of people or try another option, and executives chose to just let people go, upending the lives of people who spent most of their waking hours in service of the company. Days later, Microsoft went on to report nearly $34 billion in profit over the last six months, leading those who had lost their jobs and those who still had them alike to question the company’s priorities. “The people that remain don’t feel all that secure,” Eric said. “They are worried that there’s going to be another wave.”
For three years now, workers have been hanging on through a tumultuous economy — huge job losses in 2020, a swift recovery in 2021, followed by contraction in certain industries in 2022. Economists have been warning of a recession. The impact of years of instability is that many workers in conventionally good jobs across industries are miserable. Professional burnout is at record highs. One doctor who quit her residency wrote: “Practicing medicine had turned me into a version of myself that I hated: I snapped back at patients, I resented everyone around me, I once watched a dying woman sob and clocked it as an inconvenience. By the time I left, my actions felt like survival reflexes instead of conscious choices. Quite simply, I was burnt out, a casualty of a medical system that overtaxed its providers even before the pandemic.”
Finance promised high pay — the average Wall Street bonus hit a new high of $257,500 in 2021 — but recent layoffs at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley reminded financial professionals that they too were vulnerable to economic boom-and-bust cycles.
The glitz of the entertainment industry obscured problems of harassment and diversity. Athletes put their bodies and mental health on the line for organizations that hardly seemed interested in such problems. Some of the highest-ranked among them — Simone Biles, Tyrell Terry, Naomi Osaka — decided it wasn’t worth it.
Teachers are overworked and poorly paid due to funding problems. Graduate students have become a source of cheap labor for universities.
As the pandemic recedes, employers have been trying to reverse their loosened grip over employees’ headspace (“boosting engagement”) amid their resounding calls for a new way forward.
The recent cracks in Big Tech seem particularly ominous to many millennials who spent their professional lives in the shadow of the industry’s rise. When the finance, auto, and housing markets crumbled in the Great Recession, tech seemed to be propelling the country back to prosperity (the dot-com bubble burst seemed like a distant past). Apple debuted its first iPhone in 2007, catalyzing the creation of entirely new businesses. “Big Tech” was coined around 2013, and for corporate workers, this was where the opportunities could be found. The digital shift meant everything became tech: transportation, real estate, media, food delivery. Wherever money flowed, tech wanted a piece, and because tech scaled globally, that piece was huge. Millionaires and billionaires were minted. By 2020, the largest US companies by market capitalization were Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon.
This era of Big Tech was defined by the sprawl of office culture — massive campuses, free food, happy hours, on-site yoga and dry cleaning — workers’ lives could orbit around the corporation. That sheen was lost with the general disruptions of the pandemic, then the layoffs.
But some people have always been more skeptical about dream jobs. In February, Ursula Parson, 35, was laid off as a quality assurance engineer at the sales platform Highspot, where she had been hired just a year ago. One morning her logins didn’t work, and an email from the CEO sat in her inbox about “difficult news.” Parson loved her work; she had worked in quality assurance engineering for nine years and earned $135,000 a year for it. But she never thought of it as a dream job. “I knew what this was: corporate success,” she said.
A colleague told her they felt betrayed by the cuts because “they trusted the company, and they expected more out of them.” Parson said she was “shocked that an adult would think that.” Believing in dream jobs is “naive,” said Parson, whose mother was a career counselor and shaped her foundation for understanding work. “I cannot imagine trusting a company to do anything but pay me my salary and benefits.”
Phoebe Gavin, a 37-year-old career and leadership coach who was recently laid off from her job as talent and development director at digital media company Vox, said, “We receive a lot of cultural programming that encourages us to expect the job to do really important, fulfilling work in our lives.” It is a problem that so many people go all in on their jobs, their careers, and their companies “and are shocked beyond belief when it doesn’t work out the way that they expected,” she said.
Gavin got her first media job in 2014 and went through her first layoff the following year. Ever since, she has saved money, deliberately maintained a network, and worked a side gig as a career coach. Companies will always prioritize themselves and their shareholders, and while there will be times when your interests align, “I need to always prioritize myself,” she told me.
“I need to always prioritize myself,” she told me.
Growing disillusionment with work has culminated in subcultures. There’s the FIRE movement (which stands for “financial independence, retire early”), whose followers are largely high-income earners who typically save more than half their earnings in the hopes of retiring early. And then, on the opposite end of the spectrum is the anti-work movement. Supporters work in low-wage jobs with few protections and encourage quitting, striking, and organizing to fight inequality and the exploitation of labor. Both movements share a fundamental goal even though they are at ideological cross purposes: to normalize freedom from all-consuming work.
In February, Robert Shelton retired from Microsoft at age 55; he had been with the company for 21 years. Two months earlier, while in a remote meeting, he sat by and watched as group messages unrelated to the discussion flew back and forth — he realized no one was paying attention. And the person leading the meeting didn’t seem to know much about the topic at hand.
“I asked myself, ‘Who would I be if I didn’t have to do the things necessary to fit into a corporate structure?’ And the answer I came back with was: I have no idea,” Shelton told me. “To be completely honest with you, it was existential.”
Shelton was raised by a single mother “on the rougher side of the DC suburbs.” He quit college and was self-taught in tech. In the 1990s, he job-hopped frequently, getting large pay raises each time, and held on through the dot-com bubble in 2000. When he retired this year — as many of his Microsoft colleagues were getting laid off — his total compensation, including bonuses and stocks, was close to $1 million. It got him the house he wanted and the car he wanted, yet there were other, nonmaterial things he desired.
Shelton was working in some capacity for 12 to 16 hours a day and found himself treating the most important people in his life like “interruptions to the daily grind.” “Big picture, if this was my last day [alive], is that how I want to say I spent my last day? And the answer was no.” He wanted to be more present without feeling the constant need to check his email. “It occurred to me that no amount of money could solve those problems.”
At Microsoft, an employee’s shares vest when they turn 55 and they’ve completed 15 years at the company, even if they leave. When Shelton reached both milestones, he decided it was time for him to move on from his dream company that left him feeling empty now. He had already seen some of his colleagues leave before turning 55; the extra money wasn’t worth it to them.
“I have the immense privilege of having enough money where I can even have this conversation with myself,” Shelton acknowledged. But the experiences in his life — decades of prioritizing work and being well compensated for it — led him to conclude that money makes life easier, but it doesn’t guarantee much else.
“Big picture, if this was my last day [alive], is that how I want to say I spent my last day? And the answer was no.”
“What I tell younger people is, do whatever you can do, within the realm of what you can stomach and isn’t against your core values, to maximize your income as early as possible,” Shelton said. “If you’re in your 20s or 30s, your focus should be about what talent or capability you have that society is willing to pay the most for.” It will give you greater flexibility later on to focus on the things you are passionate about.
Shelton had a good job. He just didn’t realize he’d come to feel so lost. So many people do. “I’ve seen people in the middle of weddings and funerals go take a call,” he said. At what point does it become all about the company? he wondered.
What a dream to wake up from, to be laboring in a life that felt like it no longer belonged to you. ●