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Living the "Wrong Life"

Did existential angst fuel the Great Resignation?

Key points

  • Experts have tried to understand why job turnover surged in the 2021 "Great Resignation."
  • A recent study explored the relationship between Covid-19-related death anxiety, meaning, and job turnover.
  • Desire for meaningful work mediated the relationship between death anxiety and intent to leave one's job.
  • Although yet unstudied, desire for meaning outside of work may also have contributed to the Great Resignation.
Koh Sze Kiat / iStock
Source: Koh Sze Kiat / iStock

The omicron variant was raging while my husband and I binged the HBO Max show “Station Eleven” in January of 2022. We were well past the acutely fearful stage of the pandemic. When my (vaccinated) husband contracted Covid for the first time later that month, I was inconvenienced rather than terrified.

Watching “Station Eleven” brought back more memories of the first months of Covid than his positive test. Images of panicked hospitals, overflowing grocery carts, and empty streets recalled the eerie uncertainty of early lockdown. The show, and the book by Emily St. John Mandel that it is based on, is about a pandemic and its aftermath. Incredibly, both were written before Covid rocked the world. I know this because I checked and rechecked the dates after one line in particular stopped me in my tracks. It is not so unbelievable that the author could imagine that a pandemic was eventually coming for us. But how could St. John Mandel have known how we would feel about it?

“I don’t want to live the wrong life and then die.” This line is repeated with different emphases by different characters throughout the show. For me, it did everything great writing is supposed to do–it put to words a sentiment that I didn’t even realize I had been feeling until the moment I heard it expressed.

As I mulled over the fear of living the “wrong life” in the context of the pandemic, I thought about the Great Resignation. Near the end of 2021, the rate of Americans leaving their jobs reached a 20-year high. No sooner was the phrase “Great Resignation” coined than we attempted to understand what it all meant. Was it due to a backlog in resignations after would-be job leavers kept needed employment in 2020? A general sense of burnout from the stress of sustaining organizations (and, simultaneously, households) during a pandemic? A search for meaning after we realized our own mortality?

That last theory now has empirical evidence to back it up after a study was published in November 2023 in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Authors Xu, Dust, and Liu set out to understand whether anxiety about death from Covid-19 led to the desire to leave one’s job, and whether an increase in the need for meaningful work played a role in this relationship.

Through a series of four studies with a total of 932 participants in China and the United States, they found that Covid-19-induced death anxiety was associated with an increase in the need for meaningful work. Likewise, desire for meaningful work was associated with increased intention to leave a job. Statistically, this is called “mediation”–death anxiety leads to the intent to leave a job via the desire for meaningful work. Several of the studies were conducted over multiple time points, allowing for a temporal mediation relationship to be established.

Perhaps the existential desire for meaning amidst the Great Resignation actually went beyond what the researchers were able to capture–because their hypotheses centered around the need for meaning at work. Many people derive meaning from what happens outside of working hours.

Take my household as an example: my husband and I both started new jobs during the pandemic. Our considerations for doing so initially read as banal. My husband was tired of commuting and wanted to work from home. I wanted a job with better leave benefits. If we peel back just one layer, however, meaning starts to gleam from under the surface. Eliminating my husband’s commute allowed him to spend quality time with our daughter each morning, helping her get ready for daycare without rushing out the door. Because Atlanta commutes are long, it also allowed him to fit a workout in. My qualification for 12 weeks of paid parental leave kicked in just in time for our son’s birth, one year after I started the new job. I knew from having our daughter that those are 12 weeks you never get back.

Meaning outside of work may also be behind the top reasons selected among individuals who quit a 2021 job in a survey from Pew Research Center–reasons such as “pay was too low,” “childcare issues,” and “not enough flexibility to choose where to put in hours.” Sometimes a little more work-life balance makes space for meaning.

Nearly four years after Covid-19 death rates started scrolling across news frames, a recent study now confirms that existential angst did contribute to the Great Resignation, and that desire for meaningful work was a significant mediator of this relationship. The question remains whether meaning outside of work also played a role. I would theorize that it did, because a meaningful life–just like the “wrong life”--happens off the clock, too.


St. John Mandel, E. (2014). Station Eleven. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Harper Avenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Pew Research Center. (2023, April 25). The Great Resignation: Why workers say they quit jobs in 2021 | Pew Research Center.

Xu, M., Dust, S. B., & Liu, S. (2023). COVID-19 and the great resignation: The role of death anxiety, need for meaningful work, and task significance.Journal of Applied Psychology, 108(11), 1790–1811.

Opinion | Why workers across America are quitting their jobs right now. (2021, May 30). NBC News.

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