Jonathan Caballero made a startling discovery last year. At 27, his hair was thinning. The software developer realized that life was passing by too quickly as he was hunkered down at home in Hyattsville, Md.
There was so much to do, so many places to see. Caballero envisioned a life in which he might end a workday with a swim instead of a long drive home. So when his employer began calling people back to the office part time, he balked at the 45-minute commute. He started looking for a job with better remote work options and quickly landed multiple offers.
"I think the pandemic has changed my mindset in a way, like I really value my time now," Caballero says.
As pandemic life recedes in the U.S., people are leaving their jobs in search of more money, more flexibility and more happiness. Many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time. It's leading to a dramatic increase in resignations — a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone, according to the Labor Department.
In normal times, people quitting jobs in large numbers signals a healthy economy with plentiful jobs. But these are not normal times. The pandemic led to the worst U.S. recession in history, and millions of people are still out of jobs. Yet employers are now complaining about acute labor shortages.
"We haven't seen anything quite like the situation we have today," says Daniel Zhao, a labor economist with the jobs site Glassdoor.
The pandemic has given people all kinds of reasons to change direction. Some people, particularly those who work in low wage jobs at restaurants, are leaving for better pay. Others may have worked in jobs that weren't a good fit but were waiting out the pandemic before they quit. And some workers are leaving positions because they fear returning to an unsafe workplace.
Restaurant and hotel workers led the way in spring resignations
More than 740,000 people who quit in April worked in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants, theme parks and other entertainment venues.
Jeremy Golembiewski has ideas about why. Last week, after 26 years in food service, he quit his job as general manager of a breakfast place in San Diego. The pandemic had a lot to do with it.
Work had gotten too stressful, marked by scant staffing and constant battles with unmasked customers. He contracted COVID-19 and brought it home to his wife and father-in-law.
When California went into lockdown for a second time in December, Golembiewski was given the choice of working six days a week or taking a furlough. He took the furlough. It was an easy decision.
In the months that followed, Golembiewski's life changed. He was spending time doing fun things like setting up a playroom in his garage for his two young children and cooking dinner for the family. At age 42, he got a glimpse of what life could be like if he didn't have to put in 50 to 60 hours a week at the restaurant and miss Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas morning with his family.
"I want to see my 1-year-old and my 5-year-old's faces light up when they come out and see the tree and all the presents that I spent six hours at night assembling and putting out," says Golembiewski, who got his first restaurant job at 16 as a dishwasher at the Big Boy chain in Michigan.
So instead of returning to work last week, Golembiewski resigned, putting an end to his long restaurant career and to the unemployment checks that have provided him a cushion to think about what he'll do next.
With enough savings to last a month or two, he's sharpening his resume, working on his typing skills and starting to interview for jobs in fields that are new to him: retail, insurance, data entry. The one thing he's sure of: He wants to work a 40-hour week.
Remote work changed hearts and minds
The great migration to remote work in the pandemic has also had a profound impact on how people think about when and where they want to work.
"We have changed. Work has changed. The way we think about time and space has changed," says Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere. Workers now crave the flexibility given to them in the pandemic — which had previously been unattainable, she says.
Alyssa Casey, a researcher for the federal government, had often thought about leaving Washington, D.C., for Illinois, to be close to her parents and siblings. But she liked her job and her life in the city, going to concerts, restaurants and happy hours with friends.
With all of that on hold last year, she and her husband rented a house in Illinois just before the holidays and formed a pandemic bubble with their extended family for the long pandemic winter.
It has renewed her desire to make family a priority. She and her husband are now sure they want to stay in Illinois, even though she may have to quit her job, which she's been doing remotely.
"I think the pandemic just allowed for time," she says. "You just have more time to think about what you really want."
Work is no longer just about paying the bills
Caballero, the software developer, knew when he took a remote job last year that he'd have to go into the office someday. But 10 months in, he's no longer up for the commute, even just three days a week. He doesn't even own a car, and there's no public transportation to his office.
The new position he's just accepted will allow him to work remotely as much as he likes. And so even as he's fixing up his backyard, building a new fence for his dog, he's dreaming of a future beyond his basement office, maybe near a beach.
"I do need to pay bills, so I have to work," he says. But he now believes work has to accommodate life.