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‘Zero regrets.’ Six months after quitting, these workers are thriving.

Workers who joined the ‘Great Resignation’ six months ago tell me they’re mostly better off emotionally and mentally, if not financially.

6 min

Like King George in the musical “Hamilton” gloating “You’ll be back” to his wayward colonials, many employers predicted that workers who left their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic to start new jobs, launch businesses or embrace early retirement would end up begging to be rehired.

Were they right? A Harris Poll survey for USA Today last month indicates that 1 in 5 workers who quit a job in the past two years regrets it. With inflation at its highest point in 40 years, and a bearish stock market taking bites out of retirement savings, is the “Great Resignation” becoming the “Great Regret?”

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Not quite, according to workers I first interviewed six months ago and followed up with recently. Most are thrilled with the changes they’ve made; others are concerned about the current economy and what the future holds. But no one expressed a desire to go back to their previous job.

“I’m fortunate my old job forced me to make a hard decision, because my life is a lot happier on the other side,” said Katherine Vickery of Tampa, who left a job in a crowded building at one university for another that lets her work from home. “Remote work has been a game changer for my life,” she said in an email.

“Hearing from former colleagues at my old job about the ongoing dysfunction there has only reinforced my gratitude that I’m no longer dealing with that situation,” said editor Ellen Goldlust. She relocated to Virginia after her North Carolina employer repeatedly failed to address a crushing workload. “While the new job is not perfect and certainly has its challenges, it was unquestionably the right move.”

And James, the Iraq War veteran who coined the mantra “no loyalty, but mutually beneficial relationships,” is now a consultant in a large professional services firm — and is entertaining an offer from another firm with higher pay. “Zero regrets,” he said in an email.

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Beth Ashley, a former teacher from Jacksonville, Fla., said she lost 10 percent of her pension by not waiting until her 30th year to retire — then took another hit from “inflation head winds,” as she called them.

“The stock market wiped out the equivalent of one year of my pension and I still have no regrets,” she said in an email. “The improvement in my personal happiness is priceless.”

Ashley supplements her retirement income working at a retail outlet. She says she has never once been treated rudely by supervisors or customers the way she was as a teacher.

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Even for workers who discovered neighboring pastures weren’t as lush and verdant as promised, plenty of other gates have opened. After several months in a new job with good pay and promotions, Jackson Mullen of San Diego was told he could no longer keep his flexible schedule because the employer wanted everyone to commit to week-long opening or closing shifts. Mullen quit and landed another job with flexible hours that allow him to keep his teenage daughter a priority.

For Nels Haugen, a Navy veteran in Lacey, Wash., the tumultuous job market worked in his favor when he transitioned into software management. “There was nothing available for a long time and then there were a bunch of great opportunities all at once,” he said in an email. He took a job with his first-choice company, which called him back after the candidate it had hired suddenly quit, reportedly to take another offer.

Other workers said that although their income has taken a hit, the benefits of changing jobs and careers have been worth it.

As hospitality and entertainment businesses tanked, Christopher Thomas of New York City left his stressful career as a chef to pursue certification as a substance abuse counselor. In his current path, “I may make half as much but I feel like twice the person,” he said in an email.

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Ellen Boucher quit her job as a senior manager at a scientific nonprofit in Northern Virginia, where she had worked 70 to 100 hours a week during the pandemic. Her new system-engineering job has less responsibility and lower pay — both offset, she says, by generous retirement-plan matching and other benefits. She also negotiated for full-time telecommuting and two months’ delay in her start date to recover from severe burnout. Working “only” 40 hours a week has allowed Boucher to resume daily exercise and an active lifestyle. “Having my health back is like … winning a thousand lotteries,” she said in an email.

Beth Moser of Tempe, Ariz., a former university staffer who struggled against burnout and career-stunting bureaucracy before an accident left her disabled, said in an email that she and her spouse are starting to feel the pinch from dropping to one income: “I already notice things like my credit card balances ticking up because we can’t pay as much, being overdrawn more frequently, and our savings balance whittling down. … Still, for my sanity, worth every penny.”

But not everyone is weathering the economic storm as well, thanks to poverty-wage jobs, health crises and other systemic obstacles. “It seems as if everyone I know from Maine to Pennsylvania to Florida and Colorado [is] bordering on homeless,” said Anthony Fuscellaro, the Biddeford, Maine, worker who quit a brutal warehouse job after being hospitalized for heat exhaustion.

After a health scare and the death of his mother a few weeks ago, Fuscellaro said in an email, his mental and physical health deteriorated. He and his girlfriend are living week-to-week in a hotel, struggling to turn short-term gigs into steady income. “We have a rental relief voucher but can’t find a hotel or landlord that will accept it because of the stigma that people [who are] struggling cause extra unwanted problems,” said Fuscellaro. Even at a recent job fair where employers outnumbered job seekers, Fuscellaro said, employers couldn’t hire him because of a past criminal record.

Fuscellaro doesn’t regret quitting the job that nearly killed him, although he wishes he could have qualified for unemployment benefits. But systemic inequities are still forcing many into those kinds of impossible choices: Risk death in a dangerous job, or scramble for gigs they can barely live on. Regret is a leisure they can’t afford.