Writer: Irene Huhulea
Editors: Laura Cogan, Rebecca Pohl
Illustration: Kirby Salvador
A recent Forbes article reported that two million Americans quit their jobs every month, mostly out of a sense of dissatisfaction and disempowerment. Despite a fraught economic climate and a high unemployment rate, the report suggests that there is something compelling about leaving behind a difficult situation for the promise of a better future. But how does that career shift manifest? And how are women’s professional lives affected by these decisions?
My interest in these questions is both cultural and personal. While attempting to navigate my own career decisions in recent months, I’ve spent considerable time circling these questions and reading articles about the career changes that many American women experience in their thirties. I’ve also sought out the experiences of women around me. More to the point, they sought me out. Not in the sense that they approached me to discuss their professional lives and frustrations, but rather in the sense that several of the women around me were (and are) struggling with the same questions, both big and small. I spoke with four New York women about the ways in which anxiety and dissatisfaction led them to consider leaving the job security they had come to depend on, and how, in some cases, that bold decision has shaped their careers.
I was introduced to Karen by a mutual friend. She has worked in the non-profit sector for the past eight years. For several of these years she has struggled with anxiety and unhappiness directly related to her job. She is currently in the process of making some decisions about the future of her career, explaining that she’s “not content” in her current role, mostly due to the multitude of changes that have occurred at her organization over the past two years. In recent months, the situation has become particularly acute, and as her dissatisfaction has increased, so, too, has her level of anxiety.
“Anxiety gets escalated when there are things that you don’t want to do but you have to,” she says. “I don’t want to leave on a bad note—I still have a work ethic. I still want to be present. How much am I capable of doing? How much can I motivate myself to do?” For Karen, these questions have created an atmosphere of discomfort, but they’ve also brought about a desire for change. As she discusses her history with the company, she swings between explaining her sense of responsibility toward her employer, and at the same time showing obvious disappointment with their inability to provide a comfortable working environment.
When I ask where she is in the decision-making process she doesn’t hesitate to answer: “I’m kind of one foot out the door but I’m still here.” Why? The answer might seem obvious—we all have rent to pay. Yet as the talks, it becomes clear that the anxiety she faces is not only financial but existential. By making the decision to leave, she risks heading towards an uncertain future and a reality she can’t quite envision. For now, Karen has decided to wait a little while longer, focusing on identifying what she wants before making any permanent decisions.
In a different professional field, Grace spent twelve years working at a luxury goods company before deciding to change careers completely in order to start her own business. She explains that although she attended culinary school in her spare time, she decided to stay with the company until she had time to build up her business. Her professional circumstances eventually became too much for her to handle however, and she decided to leave without having her other career fully in place. “It really just made me question the integrity of the people I worked with and that made me say: I’m not feeling fulfilled in the position I work in anymore.”
Instead of continuing to wait it out and put her dreams on hold, she cashed out her 401(k) retirement account in order to fund her new business venture as a chef. Grace explains that she used her unhappiness as motivation to move forward on her own. “I have no regrets, honestly. It’s been a little over two months … it’s weird not to have a place to go every morning at 9am. It frees you up to do the things you want to do. It really allows you to focus on yourself.”
This idea of focusing on the “self” cropped up repeatedly in my conversations. Not in the way that you might necessarily expect, as part of a pragmatic decision-making process related to finances and career advancement, but rather as a way of tackling bigger questions. The women I spoke with were not simply deciding whether to leave their current positions in order to make lateral moves within the same field. Instead, they were reconsidering their professional lives completely, thinking creatively and boldly about how to reinvent their careers, and themselves.
Allie and Kate met while working at a tech start-up, having been drawn in by the company’s entrepreneurial message and seeming operational transparency. The company culture itself, however, left something to be desired. “A lot of the individuals were great,” says Allie, but “the overall environment … was not conducive to being happy.” Kate adds that she remembers “being super stiff and not processing anything properly” as a result of the high levels of stress her job elicited.
The combination of heavy workloads and a stressful environment eventually caused both women to leave, with Kate starting her own graphic design studio and Allie changing tack completely to become a fitness trainer. For Allie, this was the result of running out of viable opportunities. “I had to leave because there really wasn’t anything else for me to do there.” Instead, she chose to pursue her passion for Gyrotonic, a form of exercise that uses fluid movements and special machines to increase flexibility and strength.
Kate’s decision to open her own studio is one that she had considered for a while. She explains that she “felt really good already once I actually made that decision to quit. Now, I can’t believe I didn’t do it earlier.” Returning to her preferred work mode was a natural move for Kate, and a decision that she says she has not regretted in the least. As expected, it diminished the overwhelming anxiety she was experiencing and allowed her to pursue a wider range of projects.
The trace of their shared anxiety is still there as Allie and Kate relay their experiences, but it seems to have been dulled by time and shifting circumstances. More importantly, they have used their experiences as the jumping-off point for a collaborative artistic project. The takeaway message is clear—no regrets.
Although not everyone is in a position to make bold decisions about their professional lives, what emerges from these conversations is that even the women who are able to make these choices face very real emotional and psychological barriers since they are effectively taking a leap into the unknown. For Karen, these barriers are one of the main reasons for the decision to stay with her current employer. “What if that idleness isn’t good for me?” she asks, highlighting the vulnerability that comes with unlimited possibility.
Most of all, these stories suggest that feeling fulfilled in our careers is becoming an increasingly important part of the frequently invoked (and nebulously defined) concept of work-life balance. The inability to see this balance play out leads to career changes designed to put things back on track. Even women who are not considering leaving their careers may face the same anxiety, and attempt to deal with it within the constraints of their existing employment.
And this raises broader questions about how we think of work in general: Have we inherited an implicit assumption that over the course of our lives we’re supposed to have only one career, only one area of expertise? And is this in fact highly unsatisfying for many working women, who, over the course of their adult lives will crave more from their work than just financial stability? I suspect that these questions are starting to make their way to the forefront of discussions about the working lives of women, since, as the previously mentioned Forbes article indicates, so many Americans are quitting their jobs without having yet figured out the next step.
As for me, I’ve learned that as with so many things in life, the process of reconsidering one’s profession is as important as the change itself. Although women’s careers are an intense subject of focus in the American cultural landscape, attention is largely paid to professional results rather than personal fulfillment. Many of us are navigating a constant negotiation between the desire to be fulfilled and the need to be employed. I was inspired to see that this can be negotiated so successfully. I think Grace put it best: “There was always that fear when I gave my notice, that I would regret my decision. I honestly have no regrets at all.”