People changed their jobs, their cities and their lives, ushering in one of the greatest reshufflings in the history of the U.S. labor force. And yet 40 percent of workers are thinking about leaving their jobs within the next six months, a recent global survey found.
Twelve months later, the magnitude of those decisions is sinking in. Job openings are shrinking and economic anxiety persists over what’s next. The long-term effects of the coronavirus are still not fully understood, as an estimated 4 million people are missing from the workforce, according to the Brookings Institution. Either the labor market has not fully healed, or this is the new normal.
Eight Americans who quit jobs last year shared their stories with The Washington Post. They spoke about liberation and autonomy, of self-sacrifice and caretaking, and of their bounty of house cats.
Brian Atkinson, “Kodaq” 32
Old Job: Teacher | New Job: Radio and podcast host
The special education teacher turned urban lifestyle podcast and radio host wants people to know quitting will not make your work life easier. “I’ve worked probably 10 to 100 times harder doing it for myself than I did as a teacher.”
Kodaq, as he is known professionally, had been preparing to leave his job at an Atlanta public elementary school in 2020, before the pandemic hit. But when stay-at-home orders were issued in March, it gave him the room to build out his podcast without giving up his day job. He lived frugally, staying with his mom and cutting back on spending.
By early 2021, Kodaq often found himself rushing between his remote classroom to the recording studio. Juggling the two became too much. He cashed out some cryptocurrency investments at a time prices were peaking, and quit teaching that March. Over the next year, he trawled news and social media for conversation material, outfitted his studio with better lighting, met with clients and linked up with the person who’d become his co-host.
This past February, the first ratings arrived for his radio show. They exceeded expectations, coming in first in the 7 p.m. to midnight time slot, beating out more established hip-hop stations in his area. To commemorate his winning gamble and new career, he got his first tattoo, the word “Legacy,” on his right forearm.
The entrepreneurial grind has its own challenges, with days packed with emails, calls, interviews and recordings. But he feels more fulfilled now. “What I want people to know is it’s not the easier route, but it’s the better route,” he said. “And none of this is going to work if you don’t.”
Old job: Maintenance technician | New Job: Content creator
There are months when content creator Mercury Stardust has no idea where the money will come from. “We think, have we reached the end of our tether?”
Stardust left her job as a home maintenance technician in August 2021, after supervisors at the property management company told her to stop making TikToks. The videos served as home repair guides, specifically for LGBTQ people who were hesitant to call maintenance professionals.
Since calling it quits, Stardust has expanded her “Trans Handy Ma’am” brand to sponsorships and speaking engagements, and now counts 2 million TikTok followers. She sees her online platform as a means to stamp out stigma and teach people new skills.
But feeding the content machine has its own drawbacks. “My mental health has been at an all-time low,” she said. Keeping up with an online audience, a crucial part of boosting engagement and shaping an online personality, also exposes creators to unrelenting criticism and the casual hostility that shadows much of the social web. “It’s hard to ignore the haters when it’s part of your job to listen to your audience,” she said. But she is adapting, using a separate phone for social media, seeing a therapist and performing a weekly burlesque show to keep her grounded and close to her community.
Old Job: Service adviser | New Job: Caretaker for his wife
Randall and his wife have lost nearly half their income since he left his job as a service adviser at a local car dealership. But he says he’s a lot less stressed in his new role as caretaker.
Randall resigned in October 2021 to care for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. She’d undergone back surgery that year, but took an unexpectedly long time to recover. After she was released from the hospital, it didn’t make financial sense for the family to hire an in-home nurse because it would wipe out Randall’s paycheck and still not provide all the care she needed.
“I really didn’t have much of a choice.”
— Danny Randall
They still have health insurance through her remote job as a digital archivist. And they have generous family support on both sides. His wife’s aunt paid for the construction of a ramp and covered porch at their home, making it easier for his wife to maneuver her wheelchair. The aunt also gives Randall what she calls “walking around money,” for things like gas.
“We are not getting on like before,” said Randall, whose income used to cover home repairs, like the bathroom they are hoping to fix up. “But all the bills are paid and we are not hanging on by a thread,” he said.
Old Job: Nurse | New Job: Retired
“I don’t like to say I quit. I escaped,” Forkner said of her December retirement after a 30-year nursing career. Still, it wasn’t easy to leave her patients and colleagues. She renewed her license in July, not wanting to give up on a profession she loves and worked hard for. While she puts the odds of returning to a chaotic hospital setting at “very, very slim,” a clinic or a pharmacy might do.
Forkner worked mostly as an OR nurse at M Health Fairview St. John’s Hospital. In October 2020, during the turbulent first year of the pandemic, Fairview Health made dramatic cuts to its hospital and clinic operations. She said chronic understaffing prevented her and her team from properly caring for their patients and she found the last several years demoralizing. In September, when 15,000 Minnesota nurses staged a three-day strike to protest understaffing and overwork, Forkner walked the picket line every day.
The woman who once clocked 25,000 steps before the end of a hospital shift keeps active by walking every day. Florida sunsets also are on her mind. She and her husband, who has 10 months to go before his own retirement, have sold their Minnesota home and are house hunting on the Gulf Coast.
“I just want something to make me happy that will not make me sick to my stomach when I pull into the parking lot,” she said.
Old Job: Restaurant host | New Job: Bartender
Fans at Dodger Stadium love Sadri’s agave punch: tequila mixed with orange and lime juice with agave syrup. They also clamor for the rainbow special, a bright, layered concoction of Grenadine rum, pineapple and blue curaçao. The fledgling bartender loves the creativity of mixing drinks and the lively banter so intertwined with his profession. He also appreciates his company’s commitment to his growth.
“Now I have money for leisure, for my friends and family, and I’m happier now.”
— Michael Sadri
It’s a big departure from his last job as a restaurant host at an American cafe, making minimum wage but no tips. He asked his boss for more responsibility, maybe as a server. But once he realized they were not taking his career seriously, he started job hunting.
In August 2021, he landed a food runner job with his current company, which services Dodger Stadium. It was a lower-level position that had him hauling more than 50 pounds of beer up and down the stadium steps. But there were opportunities for advancement. A two-week bartending certification course was all it took to move up to mixing and serving drinks to fans.
Before quitting the restaurant, Sadri felt stuck and worried he wouldn’t be able to advance or afford to leave. The change proved better than he expected. “I’m happier now,” he said.
Old Job: Health-care coach | New Job: Software engineer
Arucan learned to code to support herself as a nomad and help her realize her dream of living out of a van, with all the freedom that brings.
Her financial situation has changed dramatically since landing a job as a software engineer at the beginning of the year. She said she doesn’t have to worry about being able to afford her everyday expenses. And she is now able to help her parents, who immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines. “I put a down payment on a car for my mom which is something I was never able to do before,” she said.
After leaving her job as a health-care coach in April 2021, Arucan lived off her savings and juggled gig work — driving for Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart — and a nanny job that provided free housing to make ends meet while she attended a 10-week coding boot camp. Growing up, Arucan devoured travel podcasts and was especially moved by stories of women who pursued their dreams only later in life.
After she quit, she longed for a steady paycheck. Cobbling together a living through part-time jobs had put her in survival mode. “I couldn’t go back to my job, and there were times that I wish that I could have because I was so desperate to have money,” Arucan said.
Now she’s saving up for a Dodge Ram Promaster — with a customized kitchen space, a desk and a nook for her border collie, Dante — to travel the country and visit as many national parks as she can.
Quit Date: September 2021
Old Job: Taco Bell shift lead | New Job: Graphic designer
“I quit my job because I’d rather be a graphic designer than make tacos all day,” said Lawens, who left his job as a shift lead at Taco Bell in September 2021.
The 22-year-old started graphic design after a friend showed him an illustration he’d made using the open-source graphics editor GIMP. When a graphic artist Lawens followed on Twitter announced that he’d bought a Tesla from his design income, he was encouraged to pursue his artistic interests professionally. He sharpened his skills by making thumbnail illustrations for his gaming YouTube channel and earned commissions from other content creators to make theirs.
Lawens said he loves the flow of creativity it takes to transform the picture in his head into something tangible. He recently won a mousepad design competition — a view from above of a small, peaceful chain of islands in cartoon vector style, resembling a video game map. The company running the contest liked it so much it asked him to create more designs.
With more flexible hours, he’s getting more quality time with his wife, who is a teacher, and with his pets. “Everything is just better. I feel more at home,” he said. When he quit his job he had two cats. Now he has four.
Quit Date: September 2021
Old Job: Compliance officer | New Job: Lead copywriter
Reid says her quality of life has improved tenfold since she quit in September 2021. She’s happier now, as a lead copywriter for an international public relations firm, where she helps top executives shape their stories online, works with a close-knit team and meets new clients the world over.
“The vibes are immaculate,” she said.
She’s earning more money and the work is closer to her own writerly, intellectual passions. Every day she’s learning something new.
Reid’s career shift began with a pursuit for higher pay and greater stability. Her old job was a strain on her mental health, with an unreceptive boss, tedious duties and a lack of teamwork that felt isolating. Reid said she has never been especially frugal, but the pandemic shutdowns and social limitations meant forgoing dinners out and travel, allowing her to save money. That gave her the flexibility to step away.
“It took longer than I expected but it worked out for the best in the end.”
— Taylor Reid
But even with a few months’ financial cushion, leaving came with risk because she didn’t have a full-time job lined up. She turned to coaching a girls soccer team at a local high school. She felt rejuvenated and filled with possibility. But as the weeks went by, anxiety set in. She started to question herself and her abilities, but she didn’t want to settle for the first job that came around. “I didn’t quit my last job just to take a new job that will make me feel the same way.”
Eventually a recruiter noticed her “open to work” status on LinkedIn and reached out, helping Reid land her current job. She had applied to more than 30 positions.
“It took longer than I expected but it worked out for the best in the end,” she said. “It was also a reminder to never let anyone make me doubt myself.”
Editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Haley Hamblin. Copy editing by Colleen Neely.