By Cal Newport │The New Yorker│8 min
Last spring, a friend of mine, a writer and executive coach named Brad Stulberg, received a troubling call from one of his clients. The client, an executive, had suddenly started losing many of his best employees, and he couldn’t really explain why. “This was the canary in the coal mine,” Stulberg said. In the weeks that followed, more clients began sharing stories of unusually high staff attrition. “They were asking me, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ”
Stulberg was especially well suited to help the executives he advises grasp the mind-set of their exiting employees. Before the pandemic, Stulberg had been working on a book, “The Practice of Groundedness,” which argues for a values-based approach to defining and pursuing success. The research process led him to question his own professional situation. He lived with his wife and their young son in an apartment in Oakland, California. He was on staff as an internal coach for Kaiser Permanente, a health-care company. He also ran his own small, community-based coaching practice, wrote books and freelance magazine articles, and delivered paid lectures. His new book emphasized the imperatives of presence and developing community ties, but Stulberg didn’t have the time to act on these principles, as he felt that he had to work constantly to keep up with the high cost of living in Oakland. “The laptop was always out,” he said.
At the end of 2019, Stulberg and his wife began discussing the possibility of moving to Asheville, North Carolina. They reasoned that the lower cost of living would enable them to significantly decrease their work pace. The city was also closer to family, and afforded easy access to outdoor recreation. When the pandemic hit full force, they accelerated their plans. Brad quit his job at Kaiser and pared back his coaching roster to a limited number of clients, whom he worked with only on Mondays and Fridays. His wife, who is also a knowledge worker, shifted her work to be fully remote, greatly increasing her flexibility. They signed a lease for a rental house near Asheville’s charming downtown sight unseen, boarded a plane, and never looked back.
In early June, the Labor Department released a report that revealed a record four million Americans had quit their jobs in April alone—part of a phenomenon that news outlets called “The Great Resignation.” The Great Resignation is complicated: it affects different groups of workers in many different ways, and its explanations are myriad. Intertwined in this complexity, however, is the thread that unifies Stulberg and the unexpected departure of employees from the mainly small to midsize knowledge-work companies whose executives he coaches. These people are generally well-educated workers who are leaving their jobs not because the pandemic created obstacles to their employment but, at least in part, because it nudged them to rethink the role of work in their lives altogether. Many are embracing career downsizing, voluntarily reducing their work hours to emphasize other aspects of life.
As someone who writes often about this sector of the economy, I began to collect stories from workers who had downshifted. An information-science professor named Ana shut down a long-standing research group at her university and left multiple projects and committees, where ambiguous focus and meandering communication were draining her energy. “This means that I will lose scholarship students, financial resources, power, and so on,” she wrote. “And that’s O.K.” A technology manager named Michael, who, in addition to making an hour-long daily commute, often has to work nights and weekends to keep up with his workload, will soon take a fifteen-per-cent pay cut to shift into a more focussed information-technology role that demands less time and allows him to work from home more days. I was amused by an e-mail from an environmental consultant named Erica, who joked, “After being in the industry for 15 years, I still do not have a good short answer for what environmental consultants do.” She recently shifted to a part-time role while she figures out what’s next. These downsizing knowledge workers represent only one piece of the Great Resignation, and their choices certainly earn disclaimers about privilege, but they seem worth monitoring, because they represent a group that wields outsized economic and cultural influence.
As I dived deeper into this trend, however, I couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity. It took several days before the connection snapped into place. Many years earlier, when I was a graduate student at M.I.T., I had decided to live the cliché and check out a worn copy of “Walden” from the Hayden Humanities and Sciences Library, which I dutifully read by the banks of the Charles River. At the time, I was, like many casual readers of Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 classic, struck by his elegiac nature writing. (I for sure never looked at ice the same way again.) A decade later, I returned to “Walden” as part of my research on digital minimalism, and I was surprised by the degree to which my experience was different on this second encounter. The nature writing still shone, but the book was also, in some parts, drier and more quantitative than I had remembered. The first and longest chapter in “Walden” is titled “Economy,” and it features multiple data tables that catalog every expense related to Thoreau’s time in the woods near the town of Concord, Massachusetts. The cost of the materials required to build Thoreau’s cabin, in case you’re wondering, sums to twenty-eight dollars and twelve and a half cents.
Thoreau’s goal was to calculate the specific cost of eliminating deprivation from his life. He wanted to establish a hard accounting of how much money was required, at a minimum, to achieve reasonable shelter, warmth, and food. This was the cost of survival. Work beyond this point was voluntary. Some of the sharpest insights of “Walden” are found in Thoreau’s probing of why we work so hard for things that are inessential. While surveying the farmers surrounding him in the Concord countryside, Thoreau saw peers “crushed and smothered” by the endless hours of work required to manage larger and larger land holdings. These farmers were motivated, he noted, by the emerging consumer economy that was being driven by the industrial revolution. More land meant more earning, and more earning meant more access to shiny copper pumps or Venetian blinds—to name two products that Thoreau called out specifically.
The key to Thoreau’s “new economics,” to use a term by the philosopher Frédéric Gros, was to demand an accounting for the implicit price of this extra effort. “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” Thoreau writes. Venetian blinds are nice, but if they require you to work extra acres of land, which in turn requires extra hours of labor from you per week to maintain, are they nice enough to justify all of that squandered life? Wouldn’t you get similar pleasure from walking through the woods and staring at ice?
The quantitative nature of Thoreau’s deconstruction of eudaimonia was radical, and deserves more attention. In our current moment, we should remember in particular the role of disruption in this intellectual journey. It’s hard to account for the cost of voluntary work if you’re tangled in a cultural context where everyone is getting and spending. Thoreau needed to retreat to a deliberate existence in which the voluntary was rendered obviously voluntarily—only then could he obtain the distance necessary to accurately account for these extra efforts. The Venetian blinds don’t truly feel optional until you’re living in a cabin that cost only twenty-eight dollars and twelve and a half cents.
Many well-compensated but burnt-out knowledge workers have long felt that their internal ledger books were out of balance: they worked long hours, they made good money, they had lots of stuff, they were exhausted, and, above all, they saw no easy options for changing their circumstances. Then came shelter-in-place orders and shuttered office buildings. This particular class of workers were thrown into their own Zoom-equipped versions of Walden Pond. Diversion and entertainment were stripped down to basic forms, and it became difficult to spend more than the cost of a Netflix subscription or batch of sourdough starter to keep occupied. The absence of visits with friends and family reinforced the value of social connection. The unceasing presence of video conferencing and e-mail enhanced the Kafkaesque superfluousness of many of the activities that dominated the pre-pandemic workday. This class of workers was suddenly staring at the proverbial cabin and wondering if a copper pump would really be worth the labor required to cultivate another acre.
It’s unclear whether career downsizing will grow into a sustained movement. The heightened emotions of the pandemic led to many drastic reactions, and when the coronavirus has finally finished its final surges we may return to a pre-pandemic state of normalcy with shocking speed—a normalcy that could pull many tentative downsizers back to increased workloads and standard striving. The resignations and relocations of the past few months may also be more superficial than we realize. Stulberg notes that many of his clients who started losing employees this summer are receiving new applicants at similarly high rates, which suggests that some of this shifting may be due to bored knowledge workers making career changes for the sake of novelty.
Regardless of how this macro-level trend evolves, on the micro level there are still undoubtedly many who were accidentally pushed by the disruption of the past year and a half into a transformative encounter with Thoreau’s new economics. I’ve known Stulberg for a while now, as our paths frequently cross in the world of book publishing, so I’ve directly observed the relief that his experiment with downsizing granted him. When I call him, he’s now often in the woods, hiking with his dog. Unlike other authors I know, he doesn’t talk about book writing in terms of maximizing the amount of money he makes. Instead, he discusses earning enough to support a simplified life style while tackling the most interesting possible topics he can identify, developed at whatever pace seems best for the topic (which, ironically, is probably the best strategy for achieving creative success). We’ve developed a routine in which, during podcast appearances together, he half-jokingly pushes me to slow down and move to a city like Asheville. My faux enthusiastic responses are only half-joking, as well.