Whether you’re teaching kids, running a bar, making sales calls, developing apps, or doing anything else in life, you may have spent some part of the last two years considering doing something new. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way many of us think about the relationship between our careers and the rest of our lives, triggering the ‘Great Resignation’.
The term, coined by Texas A&M scholar Anthony Klotz, describes a historic level of resignations and job changes nationwide since April 2020, a month when four million people resigned, the most since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking quits in 2000. Several of the record months followed, with the last record set in November 2021 when 4.5 million, or 3% of the US workforce, left their jobs.
You might be tempted to believe that things turned out differently in Texas. After all, doesn’t this state pride itself on being persistent, getting the job done, even if it’s not all sunshine and Shiners? Good, according to data, no. Texans are no less likely to drop out of a gig than residents anywhere else, with dropout rates that sit in the middle of the road among all fifty states. The November numbers showed a continued alignment with the national trend: 3% of the national workforce quit their jobs, compared to 3.2% of Texans. At the same time, not all quits went straight to another job – there were 10.9 million job openings nationwide in December, down from 6.6 million in December 2020.
Companies in Texas and elsewhere are paying more these days to attract workers, while offering the kind of flexible hours that once would have been unthinkable. Indeed, Klotz, a professor of business administration and management, says the Great Resignation spawned a “golden age of business experimentation.” Over the next two to four years, he thinks companies will fight for workers by offering higher wages and other incentives to try to capture some who have left the workforce and others who have started to wondering if the grass covering another company yard could be greener. “The whole quitting process is often seen as taboo,” he says. “I think the last eight months have made things more palatable.”
As job change and career reassessment become the norm, I set out to find some of the dropouts in Texas to better understand who they are, why they changed their minds, and what they do next. Here are their stories.
The restaurant worker who quit to dethatch
Houstonite James Ward, 34, started out as a waiter in the restaurant business when he was just nineteen. He moved around a lot, working on the Kemah Boardwalk and in downtown Houston. But he was still mildly disillusioned with the nonsense that came with the business – being called in to work on his supposed days off, grumpy customers, bosses who didn’t respect the life he had outside of their restaurants.
Still, the salary had been surprisingly stable, and Ward was sticking to it. In 2020, he had been helping a friend try to boost bar operations at a lazy Buffalo Wild Wings in Houston when he was laid off from that job amid industry-wide cutbacks. Ward says after receiving emergency unemployment and his first of two stimulus checks, he started thinking about a different future, one in which he could reinvent himself outside of restaurants. The idea of leaving the industry had been a “passing fancy” for years. But with that cash in hand — due to the pandemic, unemployment coverage was extended from 26 weeks to a year — Ward says his passing fancy has become a viable option. “I had more time to think about it and really define what I was going to do,” he says, “and then I had the money to launch it.”
Ward, who has a toddler boy and four-month-old daughter at home, used the stimulus check and the money he and his wife had saved up to buy a truck at a salvage auction and to repair it. He also bought a trailer and financed equipment, then embarked on his new business, landscaping. Ward had been introduced to landscaping through his aunt, who ran her own small business when he was younger, and a friend had introduced him to a few apps that might provide leads on clients. In January 2021, the same month the second round of federal stimulus checks were launched, Ward officially started his company. He now offers lawn care and landscaping, working from his new home base in the small town of Magnolia, an hour northwest of Houston.
Things went well. Ward says he’s found success working with leasing companies and Zillow, providing landscaping to boost curb appeal and drive sales. “They don’t always treat you well in restaurants,” he says. “Now I still earn money and don’t have all the stress of dealing with the general public for eight to fourteen hours a day.”
The Wall Streeter Who Stopped Singing
Austin Rosenthal had a life that many would envy. The 42-year-old grew up in the affluent Dallas suburb of Highland Park, earned a 4.0 GPA from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000 and immediately landed a six-figure Wall Street job at JPMorgan. This work led to other lucrative gigs, one of which brought him back to Texas in 2010.
As vice chairman of the $679 billion Austin-based Dimensional Fund Advisors, Rosenthal was able to purchase a 4,300 square foot home in the affluent Austin suburb of West Lake Hills. “I mean, what a dream come true,” he recalled.
The dream did not last. In the summer of 2020, as the pandemic raged, stress and bad habits landed Rosenthal in the hospital just days, he says, before his body shut down. When he avoided death, he decided to reinvent himself. It took him months to chart a new path for himself, but by August 2021 he had quit his job, sold his house for $1.5 million, rented a two-bedroom apartment less than a mile and retired from the world of finance.
Since then he started Social Reflections by Austin, a site that hosts his original writings, music, and podcast episodes. His thoughts range from “current events and social media trends to the metaphysical meaning of life,” according to the site, with culture, economics and philosophy sprinkled in. His posts have included a look back at the investment deal that ultimately broke him and a short story titled “Tragedy in Paradise.”
Sporting graying, short hair, Rosenthal often appears on his site in music videos and photos from Austin or the Caribbean island of Aruba – perhaps perched on a shore, leaning against a mural or standing in front of a Sparkling white Porsche Cayman, guitar in hand. Baggy polo shirts, Ray-Bans and an easy smile scream “early retirement.” He looks happy, and he says he is. “I may never make any money from this,” says Rosenthal, whose content is free but who is writing a book he plans to try to sell and hopes to reap royalties from his music. “But the money is not the reason I do it,” he continues. “My life is fun again for me.”
Rosenthal also plans to mentor a new, more diverse generation interested in figuring out how to navigate Wall Street without suffocating under its pressures. “Money in itself,” he says, “and social status in itself, are very tasteless things that will leave you empty inside. It took me almost dying to realize that.
The teacher who quit out of respect
Amber Bowen always believed that her job was more than just teaching her students with intellectual disabilities. It was also about building relationships with those oft-forgotten students at Castleberry ISD, just west of Fort Worth. And it was about helping those students learn how to succeed, even against a stacked game. “I can’t say the academics were the most rewarding part,” says Bowen, 38. “It was the students – seeing them able to go to work and keep it.”
But during the pandemic, Bowen started to see things differently. She had long felt like a pawn in a state that too often politicizes education, a burden that seemed even greater as Texas politicians opposed COVID-19 regulations, relying in large part on information which, according to Bowen, “is not scientifically based or accurate at all.” Moreover, even after fifteen years in a job plagued by turnover and attrition issues, and even after she went back to get her master’s degree to improve her qualifications, she still didn’t feel like getting the professional respect she deserved.
Most difficult of all was what she saw in her students, who seemed to grow increasingly angry and less optimistic as the pandemic progressed. In April 2021, she tendered her resignation, effective at the end of that school year. “Everything has to be too much,” she says.
After resigning, she landed a position as clinical care coordinator. Now she works from home for a major insurance company, coordinating health care for workers’ compensation claimants. She had to take a slight pay cut for the position, but once she factored in the difference in health insurance premiums, as well as the expenses she had spent on her class, Bowen says she is approximately equal.
Plus, she says she’s treated like a professional in a way she wasn’t before. Her free time is hers and she leaves her job behind every night. She can’t imagine going back to teaching. “I say that without hesitation, she says, because for the first time in my professional life, I am respected by the people with whom and for whom I work.