Generation Resignation: why millennials are quitting the rat race to follow their dreams

·7-min read
 (Getty Images/Tetra images RF)
(Getty Images/Tetra images RF)

Thinking of handing in your notice this week? You’re not alone. Last week, the New York Times reported a record rise in workers voluntarily leaving their posts for newer pastures, and a global survey of 30,000 workers by Microsoft finds that 41 per cent are considering quitting or changing professions. “I Quit” text messages between fed-up employees and bad bosses have gone viral on the Reddit forum Antiwork, and the #quitmyjob has amassed nearly 200 million views on TikTok. Economists are calling this wave of quitters the “Great Resignation”.

Traditionally, January is the season to say “see ya!” — there’s something about the potent combination of too much time to think over Christmas and the crushing misery of returning to desks for the new year that propels people into their line manager’s office wafting a resignation letter. But this time, quitting looks a little different. Covid has been an unlikely catalyst: people have been working differently, reassessing what they want — and realising that it isn’t a 9-9 at a shiny desk in the City.

“In the past 18 months I’ve definitely seen more clients thinking about leaving their jobs,” says careers coach Alice Stapleton. “And interestingly, most of them don’t have other jobs lined up to go to. The pandemic has made people reassess their priorities, and many are feeling overworked, undervalued and burnt out. Then add to the mix the fact that a lot of people managed to save money during the lockdowns, or moved back home to their parents, and suddenly that dream of leaving your job and working for yourself becomes a reality.” At the beginning of the pandemic, there were fears of mass lay-offs; now, it looks like many people have voluntarily given their roles up for something new.

And it’s millennials leading the way. A survey by Employment Hero found that people aged 25-34 are the most fed up with work, with 77 per cent looking to change roles within the next year. Furthermore, the free time afforded by the pandemic has clearly sparked an entrepreneurial streak in many young people, with government-backed Start Up Loans among 25- to 40-year-olds accounting for 58 per cent of total applications this year.

 (Desiree Asomuyide)
(Desiree Asomuyide)

East Londoner Krisha Kotak, 30, quit her job in PR in 2020 to start the loungewear brand Tula + Tye. “I did the whole banana bread and yoga thing in lockdown but then I got bored,” she says. “I was trying to buy a nice tracksuit to work from home in and it was either sustainable designer clothes that were super expensive or fast fashion and really cheap — there was nothing in between.” In three months Kotak taught herself how to build a website, used family contacts who worked in textiles and set up her own eco-friendly clothing label. “I had always struggled with the 9-5 and now I love being able to wake up at 10 or work until midnight if I want to.”

Desiree Asomuyide, 28, also from east London, had her lightbulb moment while pregnant during the pandemic. “Someone bought me some alphabet flashcards at my baby shower and not a single letter represented black or brown children,” she says. “The craziness of 2020 made me think ‘If not now, then when?’ I quit my job as a fashion stylist and started my brand Little Omo with £1,000 in savings. I wanted to create educational resources for children of all cultures and races. Orders have been through the roof and now I run the company full-time and have hired an amazing team of women.”

 (Pr handout:)
(Pr handout:)

“I think the millennial generation are prioritising their wellbeing like no other group before,” says Stapleton. “Many joined the workforce in the financial crisis and then dealt with the instability of Brexit. The concept of a secure job for life, or saving up for a house deposit feels quite remote for many of them so they’re more willing to take risks.” But it’s not just the YOLO generation who are calling it quits. Richard Masters, 48, from Stockwell, gave up a 26-year career in banking to retrain as a psychotherapist. “For years I had fallen into the trap of thinking ‘I earn more, so I’ll spend more’,” he explains. “The pandemic made me realise I wanted to simplify my life. I remember being sat at home, with my head in my hands, realising all I was really doing was helping the world’s super-wealthy pay less tax. I handed in my notice the next day and enrolled in a part-time psychotherapy course. We sold our house and bought somewhere smaller, but I feel happier than I’ve ever been.”

For some, the pandemic was a chance to rediscover old passions. Mabel Sorrentino, 30, an architect from west London, used her free time on furlough to pick up her childhood love of drawing. In April 2021, she handed in her notice to do illustration full-time. “I still worry about paying bills every month, but it’s much more exciting.”

 (Krisha Kotak)
(Krisha Kotak)

This mass departure is happening at all levels of work and in all industries — more than a quarter of firms surveyed last month said a lack of staff was affecting their ability to operate, with some companies offering signing bonuses of up to £10,000 to attract recruits. A study by the Harvey Nash Group found that eight in 10 digital leaders report that, post-pandemic, new life priorities among staff are making retention difficult. Yet only 38 per cent of companies have redesigned their structure to make themselves attractive to staff in the new hybrid working world.

“Every organisation I work with has been facing this problem,” says, consultant and former EMEA boss at Twitter. “Bosses can’t just say ‘I want everyone back in the office.’ I was consulting at a big bank the other day and a guy stood up, he was in his mid-thirties, and said, ‘I’ve realised I can do the best work I’ve ever done and still give my kids a bath every night. I’m not going back to the way it was and if I can’t do that here I’ll go somewhere else’. We’re seeing a huge shift in the job market. Wages have been stagnant for decades and companies have been demanding more, and offering less. Until recently the power has been very much in employers’ hands. The pandemic has flipped that on its head.”

 (Mabel Sorrentino)
(Mabel Sorrentino)

So what should employers do to retain their staff? “I think companies will be doing a lot of soul searching in the coming months,” says Annie Auerbach, author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life and founder of Starling trends agency. “We need a culture of rest and truly flexible working. You can’t just say ‘here’s a load more shares or a load more money’, that’s not why people are leaving. It’s about giving people autonomy over their time.”

So if you are thinking of quitting, how can you make sure you’re not one of the 23 per cent of people who regret leaving their last job? “I advise my clients to mull it over for at least two months to make sure you’re not just saying ‘shove it’ on a whim or to feed your ego,” says Stapleton. “It’s natural to have itchy feet. Try to examine why your motivation is gone. Could you reshape your current role to make you feel more fulfilled?”

But if you’ve made up your mind, there are ways to exit with grace (and a good reference). “If it’s definitely what you want then don’t burn any bridges,” says Stapleton. “Offer constructive feedback as to why you want to move on. Go through the formal steps with politeness and maturity. Then celebrate with your friends in private.” Not on TikTok.

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