At the start of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, the Peter Fonda character pauses his bike to take off his watch and throw it in the dirt. The gesture was a powerful symbol of freedom. Also, back then you just simply wouldn’t throw a watch away; they cost too much.
I thought of Fonda and his sidekick Dennis Hopper when I read that 56 per cent of adults under 25, and 40 per cent up to the age of 41 are thinking of throwing their watches in the dirt. They plan to leave their jobs in the next two years. Some want work with less stress; some want the option to work from home; and some want career advancement.
It’s part of the Great Resignation, often seen as something that brewed during the Covid pandemic when lockdowns could be seen as a long tutorial in different ways of thinking about things.
Easy Rider was seen as a demand by the younger generation, who had also been thinking about things differently, for freedom. I don’t have to tell you that it didn’t work out like that. Then, when the computerise-everything era came along we were told it would usher in an era of leisure: computers would do the boring stuff and we would sit around writing poetry or something. That didn’t work out either. (Curiously, I notice the old promises have been dusted off and are being deployed to help us feel good about artificial intelligence.)
What’s different in the Great Resignation is that people are voting with their jobs and that’s serious. Also, work for so many people is already precarious: moving around won’t jeopardise your job for life because what’s a job for life? And if, as the report published by Deloitte Ireland suggests, a quarter of those aged 26-41 left their jobs this year because of burnout, that situation should be of huge concern. Burnout is characterised by demotivation, a sense that nobody really cares, and that what you do isn’t going to make a difference. It’s often accompanied by demands that are experienced as overwhelming.
One can see that burnout provides a strong mental health motivation for leaving toxic jobs behind. And for some people, leaving the job isn’t just a motivation, it’s a necessity to avoid a spiral into depression.
In his Irish Times report on the survey, Mark Hilliard wrote that “nearly half of generation Z workers say they feel stressed all or most of the time”. Generation Z is made up of people aged 25 and below.
Not all stress can be put down to the job. The pandemic raised anxiety levels and so do climate change, the war in Ukraine and the threat of recession. What all this does though is raise a question of how much of yourself you want to give to the job when everything is falling apart around you. And then the lockdowns gave people time to think about what they wanted and, maybe more importantly, what they didn’t want. (Memo to social engineers: if you want people to go on doing what they’re doing and accepting what they’ve got, don’t give them time to think.) People experienced life without the debilitating commute, they got to give time to family and to a sense of freedom that had only ever been an unattainable wish. And they found that you could do this and work from your own home too.
Old assumptions were found wanting. If you discover that hard work won’t buy you a modest home, you begin to look with a jaundiced eye at the “work hard and you will prosper” mantra.
Five years before Easy Rider, a Christian Brother in my school advised us that to succeed you must “put your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel and hitch your wagon to a star”.
The response from today’s younger generation?
“Yes, but also I will take the time to look up at the stars. And I’ll choose my star.”
— Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness — a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).