Is America becoming less work-obsessed?

The shifting priorities of millennials are changing how they look at jobs.

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Key takeaways

  • Millennials are fueling the Great Resignation.
  • Looking for more meaningful work, they're starting their own businesses, consulting, or pursuing passion projects.
  • The pandemic is causing workers to reevaluate their priorities, focus on their health and families, and reject older generations' habits.

Although Mitch Kristjanson, 36, had always been interested in graphic design, his family wanted him to stick with business. He bounced around in business-focused project manager roles, but "was never really happy," admits the Seattle, Washington man.

After switching jobs every 2 years to get closer to his dream role of being a creative director, a major tech company offered him a contract in its advertising department in 2018. Before he knew it, he was a full-time creative program manager. Then the pandemic hit. "We started working from home, and my workload went through the roof." Kristjanson's 40-hour workweeks became 60 to 70 hours long. "I had never felt unhealthier."

So he quit his job and devoted himself to a longtime hobby. "It felt like the perfect opportunity to put together both things I love: creative branding and making skincare products," he says. 

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Within a couple months of launching Magic Moth skincare, it was picked up by a major retailer and the business took off. "Being a team of 1 is no walk in the park, but I am gaining my happiness back."

Kristjanson's story is part of a larger movement of millennials shunning traditional work life and leaving jobs that don't make them happy. While they're not the only ones (Gallup reported 48% of US employees were actively job searching or watching for job opportunities in summer 2021), millennials are a driving force behind the Great Resignation.

Millennials' different priorities

"The No. 1 thing millennials want from an employer is caring about their employees' well-being," says Ben Wigert, PhD, Gallup's director of research and strategy, workplace management. "They want opportunities to learn and grow; a great manager who is a coach; interesting, purposeful work; and advancement." Even though these were important to all generations, Wigert says these are "almost required" for millennials.

In fact, from March to October 2021, 15% of working millennials reported leaving a job, compared with 8% of Gen X and 5% of baby boomers, says Wigert. Turnover for all of 2021 was even higher, with 23% for millennials, 12% for Gen X, and 8% for boomers.

A chief reason for the high quit rate? Classic generation gap. "Millennials have grown up watching their parents be workaholics," says Wigert. "They think, 'I saw that you never stopped working, and that's not what I want to do.'"

Indeed, earlier generations tended to view work—and company loyalty—much differently, says Meredith Stoddard, vice president of life experiences at Fidelity. "Older generations had the idea of doing what's expected of you,'" she explains. "One of the wonderful things about millennials is that they think, 'I'm gonna do me.' For many, freedom to be themselves is core to their values."

A work-life balance is at the forefront for them. "It's no longer about long hours, but the ability to have flexibility," she explains. "People are moving away from superficial measures of value."

The COVID-19 effect

This wake-up call came from the pandemic, says Stoddard. "COVID has made people stop and think, 'Is this what life is all about? Am I living my best life?'"

Wigert echoes this: "During the pandemic, people are sitting around rethinking their working lives."

It was certainly the case for Chauniqua Major-Louis, 32, who became "a proud member of the Great Resignation club" in April 2021, after working as a full-time publicist in Orlando, Florida, for 12 years. "PR agency life is challenging enough, but adding a pandemic, social injustice issues, and working from home weighed heavily on me," she says.

She remembers working late one night, crying. "I was exhausted, depressed," she says. "I told my husband, 'I don't know if I can do all of this anymore.'" He suggested she take a few days to think things over. "During my reflection, I realized my family is the most important thing to me, and health is a top priority. It took the pandemic to show me that," she says. 

Major-Louis wasn't alone with these feelings. According to Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report, employees under age 40 experienced more stress and anger, lower employee engagement, and lower well-being than older workers.

Now, though, Major-Louis is at ease. She chose to invest more time in growing her side popcorn business, Major's Project Pop, and eventually, go out on her own, creating a small PR firm, Whatever's Good. "I decided that time spent with my husband, family, and clients that do meaningful work would lead to a more fulfilling life." Despite today's "crazy" world, she wakes up filled with peace and joy.

As Major-Louis proves, it's not that millennials don't want to work; it's that they are prioritizing community, family, and health, says bestselling author, leadership expert, and trained futurist Jacob Morgan. "While those things have always been somewhat important, because of our previous obsession with work, they took a bit of a back seat." The pandemic, he explains, has helped people realize how crucial they are.

That's what happened to Alyssa Loring Tirella, 36, who was laid off as a marketing director at a real-estate start-up in the summer of 2021. "Instead of jumping back into a full-time position, I decided to spend more time with my kids, work fewer hours, and consult," she says.

Tirella, whose kids are ages 4 and 1, had spent years "chasing the corporate ladder—looking at titles and promotions," she recalls. "I'm not in that mindset anymore. Now I care more about whether my work is valuable to the organization."

"I don't know that I will ever go back," says the mom, who's based in Woburn, Massachusetts. "The pandemic has made me think more about how I'm spending my time. At this point, being able to schedule my meetings so that I can pick up my daughter and take her to dance class is important to me."

To be sure, consulting can mean taking a pay cut, at least initially, and not everyone can swing that. Tirella admits that having a working partner helps, as does having childcare support from her kids' grandparents. Still, she believes that anyone can become a freelance consultant with some planning.

Continued reevaluation

During the pandemic, people had more choices than just full-time work, partly because of government subsidies, says Morgan. "But we have to imagine 2 to 5 years down the road when all of this goes away and, hopefully, COVID is behind us," he explains. "Is this going to have the long-term impact of making Americans less obsessed with work, or are we just less obsessed with work now because of the unique climate that we're in?"

It seems as if the Great Resignation will continue. Almost half of working millennials say they're looking to change roles in the year ahead, with stress levels, flexibility, and "finding a job that better aligns with my personal values" cited as the top reasons, besides money, according to the Fidelity Investments "2022 Financial Resolutions Study."

But is it sustainable?

Magic Moth's Kristjanson has savings from his old tech job, but he has also picked up freelance work. "My income from the skincare products is not enough to support me long term, so I have taken on a few clients on the side, doing graphic design and creative direction," says Kristjanson. For the moment, though, he's satisfied with his new life.

"I think our generation has had an awakening. We don't have to do what we're supposed to do—we don't want to. It's about bending and breaking conventions."

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