As the pandemic deepened, Sam, 32, from York, began to realise that maybe he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher.
It wasn’t just that Zoom lessons with six-year-olds were a nightmare, or that the headteacher had quit, or that his school had barely enough money to afford pens. It was that his friends who had started teaching at the same time as him were now swimming quite gracefully – while he was sinking to the bottom.
‘Teaching was a huge emotional effort,’ he says. ‘You have to be this huge ball of energy to propel 30 children. You have to work out how everyone is feeling and how to get them to a place where they can learn. At the end of the day, I’d just feel exhausted.’ At night, he would remember stray comments from children and feel terrible guilt that he’d missed something important. His wife, meanwhile, was pregnant with their first child, and he couldn’t imagine how he would cope with fatherhood. ‘People would ask me how I was and I would say: “I just don’t know any more.”’
In the end, Sam did what 41% of the global workforce purportedly considered doing during the pandemic – and millions actually did. He jumped. Like a lot of people, he got into making sourdough during the first lockdown. While scanning for teaching jobs online, he saw an opening advertised at a local bakery. And he thought: why not?
Now, he’s in a world of 4am starts, lugging 25kg bags of flour up three flights of stairs and batch-prepping croissants. He has taken a pay cut of about £5,000 and said goodbye to his teacher’s pension and those long summer holidays. But he’s happy about it. So are his wife and child. ‘The perks of teaching are very attractive,’ he says. ‘But I just couldn’t find a way to end my days, let alone my weeks, let alone my terms, feeling very good about it. On the other hand, when I see a rack of loaves I’ve just baked…I do feel good about myself.’
Sam is one tiny part of the Great Resignation – a worldwide phenomenon that saw workers leave their jobs in record numbers during the coronavirus pandemic. His questions of meaning, purpose, satisfaction and dignity are common to all professions and all classes. In the US, 48 million people quit their jobs in 2021 alone. In Britain, too, we are resigning in record numbers – there were over one million open job vacancies in July 2021, with barely a sector left unaffected by the mass shift in working patterns and expectations, plus the increasingly frictionless process of moving jobs in the digital age.
‘The Great Resignation is a very real thing,’ says Brooke Curtis of RotaCloud, a software company that tracks vacancies across sectors. ‘A lot of people have re-evaluated what they want from their career over the past couple of years and made changes as a result of it.’ Indeed, the whole culture of work seems to have shifted. Hustling feels a little bit 2010s. Beyoncé, of ‘I’m a survivor / I’m gonna work harder’ fame, is now singing about the crushing realities of the nine-to-five: ‘I just fell in love / And I just quit my job / I’m gonna find a new drive / Damn, they work me so damn hard’.
The #antiwork movement has spread from Reddit to TikTok, where it has inspired more than 80 million videos detailing the crushing indignities and impossible demands of being a Gen Z wage slave. A common ambition, it seems, is to become the stay-at-home partner of someone extremely rich.
A Better Way Of Living
So, some of us want an easier life; some of us want a more meaningful life. But the truth is most of us want some highly individualised mixture of the two. ‘One of the things that happened with the pandemic is that people really had time to think about their motivations, values and priorities,’ explains workplace psychologist Ian MacRae. ‘It’s what people like me have been telling them to do forever: take the time to think about where you might be able to make the most impact. But it never really happened because no one ever really had the chance to do it.’ Once people saw that, no, you don’t have to spend three hours a day on an overcrowded commuter train – and actually, the entire way we organise everything can change overnight – well, they began to question their underlying assumptions about work. In this light, it’s not so surprising that, with the cost-of-living crisis worsening, workers in a whole range of sectors are now feeling emboldened to take industrial action. ‘It’s caused a labour crisis,’ says MacRae. ‘It’s really shifted power towards workers and away from employers.’ The very term Great Resignation now carries an implicit warning to employers: treat your workers better or face the consequences.
Rob Briner, of the School of Business Management, says that it would be surprising if the upheavals of the pandemic didn’t make us question these relations. ‘Say you’ve been asking to work flexibly for years and your employer has always said no. Then the pandemic arrives and you do start working flexibly and it’s completely fine. Well, then you might legitimately ask: “Do these people know what they’re doing? Are they really in charge? Why should they decide how and where I work?”’
These were certainly valid questions for Christian, 37, a Frenchman working in London, who took the decision to jump not once but twice during the pandemic. First, he decided to quit the fashion company where he had worked fairly contentedly for about a decade. ‘When you don’t have your colleagues around you and you’re just at home doing raw work, you do start to think: “What is the purpose of all this?”’ he says. At first, he concluded that what he missed was the excitement of working in a start-up. So he found a position at an incubator for sustainable fashion businesses, funded by a Hong Kong-based foundation. However, pretty soon he realised that early morning Zoom meetings and late nights at the laptop just weren’t doing it for him any more. ‘I thought that I missed the start-up phase,’ he says. ‘But after a year, I was like, actually, I’m really fucking miserable. And what am I doing this for? For a billionaire family who had an investment fund. Not even for myself.’
When he quit last November, he had no fixed idea of what he wanted to do. But through conversations with his wife he realised what both of them really wanted was simply a less work-centred life. They wanted time, ease, space, community – and they found it by moving to Milan. ‘I suppose that makes us part of the Great Migration,’ he says. He is now doing odd bits of consultancy on a fraction of his former salary, which he hopes will build over time. ‘But what we’ve really gained is a feeling of being in a place with an actual community,’ he says. ‘I’ve never felt that in Paris or London. From the first week we moved here, we were invited to people’s homes for dinner, both expats and Italians. It feels like everyone knows and cares for each other. We can take a 45-minute train to Lake Como for €4 at the weekend. Life feels so… easy. Honestly, I’ve never been happier. Every morning, I wake up and pinch myself.’
The Great Divide
When Christian WhatsApps me a picture of the view from his window – a deep blue Ligurian Sea framed with bougainvillea – it’s hard not to feel a tinge of deep-seated envy. Brexit cut off this escape route for British citizens. But Christian’s dolce vita also represents an upper-tier of the Great Resignation: the sort of move that’s easier to make if you have savings, zero dependents and a partner who is fully on board. We’ve all read similar tales of computer coders remote-working from Barbados, or ex-hedge funders finding inner peace working on a lathe in Somerset.
But the pandemic has marked an improvement for many people and not just the carefree. When I speak to friends in white-collar jobs – the civil service, IT and banking – they seem significantly happier with the way things have shaken down. Working from home for some if not all of the week is simply more conducive to an easier life. Even so, there are many for whom the pandemic has made things far harder: hauliers, delivery drivers, care workers, doctors, nurses. By February of this year, around 400 staff were leaving the NHS each week. Around one in five care workers (18%) now want to leave their job, with 14% wanting to leave the sector altogether. It’s worth bearing in mind the dual meaning of resignation, too. There’s choosing to leave your job, but then there is resignation in the sense of accepting that something undesirable cannot be avoided. Example: ‘The worker resigned himself to worse pay and conditions, as the alternative seemed more frightening.’ The worsening cost-of-living crisis threatens a Great Resignation of the second kind.
Still, according to Curtis, that doesn’t seem to be happening yet. ‘Actually, if you look at the numbers, it’s getting worse,’ she says. ‘Last June, there were about 200,000 hospitality positions that needed filling. This June, we were nearly at 400,000. It’s a big problem in retail and care, too.’ Everything is being exacerbated because it’s been going on for so long, she adds. ‘When one wave of people leave, the group who remain have to do longer and longer hours. So they start to get more exhausted and think about leaving.’
And for many, the pandemic has not been so much a leap into the unknown as a push. That’s how it was for former I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! contestant Iain Lee, who found out in June 2020 that his contract on TalkRadio wasn’t going to be renewed. Instead of doing what he’d always done in the past – jump straight into the next TV or radio project, sign the next contract – he decided to enrol in a psychology course instead. Assuming he passes his exams, he will be a fully qualified counsellor by the time you read this (as well as his side gig as JACKfm’s breakfast host). ‘Honestly, I have no ambitions to work in TV any more,’ he says. ‘I have no ambitions for hosting some award-winning radio show and getting millions of listeners. I’m done with that.’
He first had the idea in 2018 when a suicidal listener called his phone-in show and told him he had taken a drugs overdose live on air. Lee, who has been open about his own drug dependency and mental health issues in the past, kept the caller talking for 30 minutes – enough time for paramedics to locate him and give him the medical treatment that ultimately saved his life. ‘It was a very real situation where this guy could have died and he chose to phone me,’ Lee says. ‘And I found that very humbling. I came away from it thinking, “Well, that went okay. But what if I actually knew what I was doing and what I was saying to him? Would that have been a different experience for both of us?” So I guess that was the seed for me thinking, “I want to do more than this vacuous bollocks that I’m currently doing.”’
He had become increasingly disillusioned with both the station he was working for and with TV and radio in general. Once the panic and depression had settled after his contract wasn’t renewed, he began to think of it as a gift. But the transition has proved more difficult than he thought. His entire career had been based on filling silence; now he has to learn to shut up. He has had to listen to highly uncomfortable, highly specific criticism each week. ‘The first ever hour of counselling that I did was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Much more terrifying than live TV or standing in front of 5,000 people at the Albert Hall,’ he says. ‘But now, I’m close to being a qualified counsellor. I want to qualify. I want to do it as a job.’ In a sense, the difficulty is the point.
Risking It All
Sam, the teacher-turned-baker, freely admits that he made his move without necessarily thinking through all the consequences. Taking a 20% pay cut when inflation is pushing 10% and you’ve just had a baby hasn’t been easy. Bakeries boomed during the pandemic as people were looking for affordable local luxuries; it remains to be seen whether the nation’s artisanal pastry habits will survive the cost-of-living crisis. However, that impulsive decision still feels to him like the right one.
‘The pandemic was this real moment of internal reflection,’ he says. ‘What do I want? How do I want to live? What do I want to feel, day to day? And how does my job interact with that? But this new cost-of-living crisis feels more external. It’s more like: what decisions are we going to make as a community, as a nation, as a group of people.’
What he realised was that he had a very old-fashioned need to make something. And baking – which, in essence, hasn’t really changed substantively for hundreds of years – provided that. ‘You know when you have a moment and something clicks? I realised I need to have a product. That’s what I did today. It was good. And the next day it will be a bit better. And the next day it will be better again. I never had that sense of forward movement from any of my other jobs. As a teacher, I just felt inept.’
You might be thinking: who’d be a teacher? Well, Guy, 34, a former journalistic colleague of mine from east London. This time a couple of years ago, he was fixing celebrity interviews for a weekly magazine, occasionally hopping on all-expenses trips to Paris to sip champagne with models who’d just launched fragrances. Now he’s doing teacher training in an inner-city school. His salary drop has been vertiginous: around £50,000 to £20,000. The glamour drop? Hard to quantify.
But all that stuff can distract you. ‘I grew up quite poor in Wales and I had a very good experience at primary school,’ he says. ‘I had always thought that one day, I might become a teacher. But every time I thought that, I would be flown to Cannes to drink champagne. So when all that amazing fun stuff goes, you suddenly realise, maybe you’re not that good at this. And maybe you just don’t love it as much any more.’
During Covid he took up running, which gave him lots of time to think. And what he thought was: ‘People were dying! It sounds dramatic, but there were people who were now never going to be able to achieve what they wanted to achieve because they were dead. And I was being asked to pump out think-pieces about Meghan Markle’s blouse. It was just so abundantly clear that I didn’t give a shit.’
Now, he says, he is working harder than he ever has in his life – and is poorer than he has ever been, too. ‘But I have never been happier,’ he says. ‘I love it. It’s so fulfilling. When you finally crack something with a pupil, it’s just so uplifting.’
Somewhere out there, I hope, there is a baker who retrained as a showbiz journalist and has found similar levels of fulfilment. I turn to Iain Lee. What about other men who feel their own professional domain is ‘full of shit’ – as a counsellor, what would he advise? ‘I wouldn’t tell anyone what to do,’ he says. ‘I’d advise them to sit with their feelings and see what’s behind those feelings. Stress, anxiety, boredom? That’s what a midlife crisis is – it’s an existential crisis. It’s going: “Oh shit, I’m going to die one day. Is this really how I want to live my life?” I would explore those feelings and then explore the consequences of taking different actions.’ He pauses. ‘God, I almost sound like I know what I’m talking about.’
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