The email from HR arrived days before Christmas 2020. It invited employees ages 50 and older to voluntarily separate from the company. I’d never heard the phrase “voluntary separation” before, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” flashed through my mind. I read on.
Ah, I was being offered severance pay! Some would call it an early retirement package. I had turned 50 just a few months earlier and couldn’t possibly think of retiring. Gen Xers like me are expected to work into their 70s, if they plan to retire at all.
As a writer, I don’t love numbers. I tend to find anything else to do but balance my financial books. But I could figure out well enough that with my three children heading to college someday, leaving my copywriting job and the health insurance that came with it didn’t make much economic sense.
I wanted to quit anyway.
Apparently, I’m not alone. In 2021, the number of U.S. workers who chose to leave their jobs hit the highest level since the year 2000. The reasons are many: burnout, the demands of family and children, the desire to start something new or to accomplish something they’ve always dreamed of doing.
For me, it was all of the above.
On the family front, remote schooling during the pandemic proved challenging for our children, especially our eldest, a freshman in high school. COVID-19 had forced our school district to require students to work “asynchronously” (another term I came to know in 2020) for much of the academic year. That meant they were left to manage their workloads at home, on their own time, without real-time engagement with a teacher.
My son soon found himself buried under a growing pile of incomplete reading and writing assignments. His grades slipped below passing, and he felt overwhelmed. When my husband or I would approach him about schoolwork at the end of our workdays, he’d become belligerent. I saw him drowning, and he seemed to be refusing all help. It was breaking my heart.
It was clear to us that he, like many teens, was not able to rely solely on his still-developing executive functioning skills — the ability to plan, organize and prioritize — to keep up with his schoolwork. Some educators assume teens have mastered these skills; yet, most of us don’t fully develop them until adulthood, if at all. Our son missed being in the classroom with his teachers. He needed support, and he needed it right away.
On the personal front, I had grown weary of my corporate job in the tech industry and its revolving door of managers. I had fought for a flexible, less-than-40-hours-per-week schedule when my first child was born, but the tradeoff had been a lack of career growth. As the company swelled year after year due to global mergers and acquisitions, I felt my contributions were shrinking into insignificance.
I wanted to be as engaged in my job as I was in my volunteer work at a local arts center, helping support emerging writers. And then there was my biggest passion: finishing the historical novel I’d started a few years earlier. I was revising the manuscript during the margins of my life — when I wasn’t working, parenting, volunteering or adapting our lives to the pandemic. But I needed more time, and increasingly, I felt the time was now.
“I had fought for a flexible, less-than-40-hours-per-week schedule when my first child was born, but the tradeoff had been a lack of career growth. As the company swelled year after year due to global mergers and acquisitions, I felt my contributions were shrinking into insignificance.”
My husband and I discussed it for weeks. What if I took the offer but treated it like sabbatical? I could help our son, work on my novel, volunteer at the writing studio and then find another job at the end of the year. With my husband’s small home-remodeling business doing well, we believed we’d find a way to make it work.
So, in February, I hit the button at the bottom of that email, signaling to corporate HR that I had accepted the offer. There I was, in the early days of 2021, on my way to a conscious uncoupling of my own.
I used my newfound time to both work with my son and work on my book. With the help of an outside expert in executive functioning and afternoon homework sessions with me, my son was able to dig out from the mound of unfinished assignments and make honor roll the final term of the school year. Most importantly, he was smiling. He seemed to be enjoying school again, now that he had some strategies in place for tackling the workload and people to bounce ideas off of.
I was smiling, too, having newfound hours to research and write while my kids were busy with school. I’d completed the second draft of my novel and found a beta reader. For the first time in a long time, I felt my work meant something.
I know I’m in a privileged position of being offered a severance package. Being able to take this time for myself and my kids is a gift not available to so many others. I asked myself night after night (and still do): How could I consider leaving my job at a time when so many people were struggling?
When I quit my job this year, I didn’t know I was part of a trend. I hadn’t yet heard about The Great Resignation. Perhaps my decision to leave my corporate job was a turning-50 cliché ― a knee-jerk response to the AARP magazine dropped on my doorstep with the thud of a midlife crisis. Or perhaps it was in response to the mental exhaustion of reckoning with the reverberations of 2020 when the pandemic started its rampage, a depraved president was impeached, and millions of us finally woke up to America’s racial injustice.
The Great Resignation suggests that the pandemic and the events of 2020 have led many of us to reconsider what we value. If the events of the last year has taught me anything, it’s that it’s now or never.
Elizabeth Christopher is a writer living north of Boston, Massachusetts. Her essays and stories have appeared in HuffPost, The Writer, The Boston Globe Magazine, Obelus Journal, Bacopa Literary Review and elsewhere.