For years, we were inundated with hysterical headlines about how entitled, delicate and narcissistic millennials were. And now, it’s Gen Z’s turn to get raked over the coals . ‘Work-shy’ seems to come up time and time again as an accusation. This week, it was revealed via a Deloitte survey that half of Irish Gen-Z workers were planning to leave their current job within two years. And it’s not just in Ireland . In the US, 4.4 million people, most of them under 26, quit their jobs in April alone. Experts are calling it ‘the great resignation’, as youngsters leave jobs to seek out better work-life balance and more favourable conditions.
The idea of quitting as a negative thing is a hangover from the ‘job for life’ era. Quitting — work, college, relationships — is seen as something that’s problematic. It’s flaky. Selfish. Weak. It’s the polar opposite of all the things that are deemed ‘good’ qualities in people. Consistency. Dedication. Loyalty. Never giving in. Quitters never win and winners never quit.
Well, I’m not buying it. As a serial quitter, I am here to tell you that
Gen Z, and indeed quitters of all ages, are very much onto something. Sometimes, giving in is the right choice, and hanging on in there does more harm than good.
As far back as I can remember, I have walked away from situations that didn’t work for me. Even before snowflakery was a thing, I’ve bolted, knowing I didn’t want to waste any time on people, hobbies, jobs or pursuits that didn’t at least give me something back. I’ve quit friendships and relationships that didn’t serve me, sometimes with nary a backward glance.
I like to think of it less as ‘quitting’ than making a decision, and moving on. Far from sitting tight and waiting for things to get better, I scram while I still can. To my parents’ dismay, I quit gymnastics at five years old after the instructor shouted at me a little too loudly. Ballet, harp, Irish dancing, guitar — once the going got tough, I got going.
In my teens, I accepted a live-in job in a pub in London, and left before I even did my first shift. I surveyed the sleazy boss, the broken TV, and the bloodstains on the bedroom mattress, and decided on an immediate peace-out. There was no safety net below me, and I was essentially a teenager in London without a job or place to live, but that was okay.
Later, as a twentysomething recently returned to Ireland, I got a job in a Dublin financial office, inputting codes into a computer from various faxes and letters. For what reason we did it, I am still unclear. Forty-five minutes in, I was numb with boredom. My fidgeting soon turned into full-body cringing, and we hadn’t even gotten to lunch yet. I looked over at the two lifers, who had done this exact work for decades. They had clearly hit the boredom wall long ago, and gotten through it. Of course, they were getting something out of being there — a steady pay cheque, financial stability — but it seemed like a bum deal. At lunch, one of them pulled out a lunchbox and a copy of Heat magazine, and wordlessly read it during lunch break. We hadn’t said a word to each other all day. In that moment, I vowed never to stick at something just because it was expected of me and was the ‘right’ thing to do. I never made it to the second day of that job. And I have done a few one-day stints in workplaces around Ireland.
I may also be the only person in Ireland not just to quit two PhDs, but to walk away from two degree courses in Trinity College. I’m in good company, too: Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are all, famously, college dropouts.
Do I regret it? Not one bit. Quitting freed me up to take other paths. I could have doggedly stuck it out, but it would have led me down a path I ultimately did not want to go. I had one pang of compunction one afternoon, when I logged into Facebook and saw celebratory pictures of one of my old classes, decked in their graduation finery. Yet the moment was short-lived. I’d tried the course on for size, and it didn’t work for me. That I’d tried in the first place was the important thing.
There’s something toxic about the long-standing idea that quitting is a negative thing. It can keep people in a situation or life that they don’t enjoy, or even want. And while wanting to feel valued in a workplace might sound like something that only a young idealist can bang on about, there’s a lot to be said for having that as a baseline requirement in any job you go into. It’s got nothing to do with being unreliable or impulsive, and everything to do with knowing your own worth.
Wanting to try things, to grow, to take chances and to make mistakes are the very ingredients of a life well lived. The alternative may be the stuff of valour, but it also sounds a bit unbearable.