At the beginning of the 1969 film 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. Then you simply wouldn’t throw away a watch; they cost too much.
I thought of Fonda and his sidekick Dennis Hopper when I read that 56 percent of adults under 25 and 40 percent up to 41 are considering 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 to advance their careers.
It’s part of the big departure, often seen as something 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 call for freedom by the younger generation, who had also thought differently about things. I don’t need to tell you that it didn’t turn out that way. Then, when the era of computerize-everything came, we were told that it would usher in an era of leisure: computers would do the boring and we would sit and write poetry or something. It didn’t work either. (Strangely enough, I notice that the old promises have been dusted off and are being used to help us feel good about artificial intelligence.)
What’s different about the big departure is that people are voting with their jobs and that’s serious. Work for so many people is also already insecure: moving around won’t jeopardize your job for life, because what is 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 due to burnout, that situation should be a big problem. Burnout is characterized by demotivation, a feeling that no one really cares and that what you do won’t make a difference. It is often accompanied by demands that are experienced as overwhelming.
It can be seen that burnout provides a strong mental health motivation to leave toxic jobs behind. And for some people, leaving work isn’t just a motivation, it’s a necessity to avoid a downward spiral into depression.
In his The Irish Times reports on the investigation, Mark Hilliard wrote that “nearly half of Gen Z workers say they feel stressed all or most of the time”. Generation Z consists of people aged 25 and under.
Not all stress can be attributed to work. The pandemic raised anxiety levels and so did climate change, the war in Ukraine and the threat of recession. What all this does, however, is beg the question of how much of yourself you want to give to work when everything is falling apart around you. And then the lockdowns gave people time to think about what they wanted and, perhaps more importantly, what they didn’t want. (Memo to social engineers: if you want people to keep doing what they’re doing and accept what they have, don’t give them time to think.) People experienced life without the debilitating commute, they had to make time for family and for a sense of freedom that has only ever been an unattainable desire. And they discovered that you could do this and work from your own home, too.
Old assumptions were found wanting. If you find that hard work won’t buy you a modest home, you start to turn a blind eye to the “work hard and you will prosper” mantra.
Five years before Easy Rider, a Christian brother at 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 answer from today’s younger generation?
“Yes, but I will also take the time to look up at the stars. And I will choose my star.”
— Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – A Guide to Self-Compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available for free via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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