The past two years have seen the rolling pandemic shove us violently into the quiet of isolation, with our alone time giving way to a thrum of worries.
We questioned what we were doing, who we were and where we wanted to take our lives. The pandemic was botching our entire existence. Yet, in the silence, the time to think also lent time to recalibrate.
While I was slumming it as a bartender through late night shifts and constant drinking, paying my way through uni, isolation made me rethink the tiring party behaviour. For others, it was the opposite: the constant nine-to-five resulted in a complete pivot towards a more casual way of life.
These revelatory ways of thinking about life and work in the wake of the pandemic have resulted in “The Great Resignation”: a phenomenon, first observed in the U.S. by Professor Anthony Klotz, that has seen countless people trade in their pre-COVID, burnout-inducing jobs for work-life balance. Many are unwilling to return to the jobs that led to so much unhappiness and exhaustion, and distracted them from their life passions and side-hustles. A recent survey from consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reports that 38 percent of Australian workers are looking for a different job in the new year.
As this idea of “The Great Resignation” starts to sweep through the nation, we asked young Australians about where they are now, what they’re doing and whether living through a once-in-a-century pandemic has resulted in any life-changing realisations.
VICE: So what’s going on? How has COVID made you question your life?
Acacia, 23, bartender and student: I’ve always picked the practical option, ‘cause I thought it would make me happy having stability. But COVID made me realise that it wouldn’t. I was doing midwifery and working in hospitality to pay the rent, but now I’m probably thinking about going back to my first degree I did when I was 18, which was film.
Bonnie, 23, mental health worker and sex worker: I got this job at a helpline – my first job in the mental health field since finishing uni – and I wasn’t really sure what to expect with COVID. The number of people calling increased up to 200 percent, the demand was so high. It was something that really made me question if that career was gonna be sustainable for me, because it was really intense. I balance it with sex work as well, so I think that really helps to be able to take a break from one and do the other. But I ended up taking a few weeks off work to think about the decision I had made and if it was something that I did really want to do moving forward.
Zaheen, 17, student: When lockdowns happened, being away from the actual school environment, it gave me a moment to pause and fully realise the extent of trauma I had surrounding the school system. I realised that the traditional system was weighing me down mentally and physically, and after a lot of reflection I ended up dropping out of Year 11. It actually helped me a lot.
Tom, 24, gardener: I was lucky enough to find a job gardening only a month or so before COVID shut everything down in 2020. I've kept that job and it's kept me out of lockdown a few times, which I'm so thankful for. But I catch myself wondering: "If it weren't for COVID, would I enjoy this job as much?" It's not the career path I ever expected, and I don't know if I'm doing it because it's convenient or if I actually enjoy it. I'm 24 and have no direction in life.
Wes, 25, cook: I guess I kind of questioned the lifestyle I had myself immersed in. I was bartending for six years and didn’t work, pretty much all of last year, until October. It gave me the opportunity to get back in touch with myself, and really made me question the fact that I was in quite an extroverted field where I had to deal with people constantly. I realised how much of a strain that was taking on my social battery and my mental health in general. A friend asked me if I wanted to learn how to cook, and it turns out that I actually love it a lot more when I don’t have to interact with people at all.
Are you worried about your future, and how you’re going to make money?
Acacia: Yep, I am worried, which is why I went for the stable option in the first place. But I’ll probably have a back-up, anyway, if I do pursue it.
Bonnie: To an extent, yeah. If we’re talking about sex work then 100 percent, because the way that I’ve been doing that has changed significantly since the start of COVID. There was definitely a huge part of me that questioned whether that was going to be sustainable for me.
Zaheen: I’m definitely worried, especially with the economic state that COVID will put the country in. I will say I’m really grateful because, obviously, I’m younger – so I can depend on my parents – but I’m definitely worried about what my future looks like.
Tom: I wouldn't say I'm worried about the future, not financially anyway. I'm lucky enough to have parents who own a farm, so I always have that to fall back on.
Wes: At the moment, I’m not worried. I’m not worried at all.
Have you realised now what makes you happy, or what you want to do?
Acacia: Yeah, I think it’s doing what you really want to do and maybe not taking the sensible route. Realising that you’re young enough that if that non-sensible route doesn’t work out you can always pick something sensible later.
Zaheen: Honestly, I think I have been able to figure that out. By rethinking my path I’ve been able to find balance, and I’ve genuinely been the best I’ve been in years.
Tom: I still don't know what the key to my happiness is, but I know that I'm getting closer to figuring it out all the time. COVID has brought me closer to new, unexpected friends and sharing with them has provided some unreal perspectives on what it is to enjoy life.
Wes: Yeah absolutely: having more work-life balance. I’m not working late nights anymore so I can actually put aside time to spend with my friends and my family, or just be by myself as well.
Making food that nurtures people, rather than getting people drunk, has been much more fulfilling work for me.