Conscious workers, motivated quitters

Is work becoming less of a space to assert one’s personal desires and more of a fight for collective values?

by Valentina Lunardi


sol / Unsplash

In the beginning, there were the Millennials. Armed with the power of social media and sharing platforms, they had sensed the potential to break away from traditional career paths. Working 9 to 6 was no longer the only way to make a living. Instead, Millennials leverage their reputations, influence, and possessions to barter for what they want and need. They don’t buy — they rent, swap, and borrow.

The promises of the sharing and digital economy have paved the way for a growing interest in self-employment, which is seen as a great opportunity for an adventurous and entrepreneurial generation to make money on their own terms. Sound familiar? The creator economy is taking this concept of fluid work even further by emphasizing talent and entrepreneurship, unlocking fascinating scenarios. Meanwhile, other forces of change in the labor market are redefining what work means for individuals and society as a whole.

Permacrisis and disenchantment

Every worker is also a consumer, and every consumer is also a worker. This simple truth should have been a warning sign of turbulence for corporate offices. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of unsustainable and low-quality products. It’s only natural that this trend would extend to the production and delivery of those same products and services.

In fact, companies and brands have tried to adapt to this new “conscious” audience. The typical conversation about the evolution of big business — and production and consumption models — has adapted to include and normalize issues such as inclusion, sustainability, and work-life balance. These issues are now part of the mainstream socio-political-economic vision of the corporate world. But is this really the case?

Uncertainty and “permacrisis” — “an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events,” as defined by Collins Dictionary, and named their word of the year for 2022 — are fueling disenchantment among workers. Younger generations, in particular, are skeptical about the pace at which brands and governments are addressing climate change and labor ethics abuses. This fragmented landscape is a fertile ground for political polarization, touching on the very issues the corporate narrative seeks to converge on. A value disconnect is developing in the workplace between young employees and the C-suite — between stated values and business interests.

The quitting revolution

Traditionally, quitting a job has been viewed as a negative event, often associated with failure or a lack of commitment. However, quitting is no longer seen as a sign of weakness. As the cost-of-living crisis reshapes industries and the legacy of the pandemic leads more people to reevaluate what they want from their jobs, leaving a stable job is now seen as a brave and necessary step toward personal growth and fulfillment.

The rapidly evolving vocabulary associated with attitudes toward work reflects this paradigm shift. We’ve gone from talking about “work-life balance” to discussing “quiet quitting,” ”productivity paranoia,” and “toxic positivity.” And now there’s another term on the block: “conscious quitting.”

The first-ever Net Positive Employee Barometer clearly identified this trend. This survey of more than 4,000 workers across the US and UK was commissioned by Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and climate and equality campaigner. It found that two-thirds of British workers of all ages are concerned about the future of the planet and society and want to work for a company that makes a positive impact. In total, 45% of employees said they would consider quitting and resigning from a job if their company’s values did not align with their own.

And more than 75% of respondents also felt that their employer’s efforts to address environmental and societal challenges didn’t go far enough, with many believing that their CEO or senior leaders simply don’t care. On LinkedIn, Polman stated: “Forget quiet quitting; we are entering an era of conscious quitting. And the problem with most of the advice being offered to C-suites on attracting and retaining talent is that it misses the full picture of what employees want and need.

Don’t get me wrong: the numerous studies telling us that people want better pay, more flexibility, and greater well-being are absolutely right. But, to be candid, shouldn’t this be rather obvious to senior leaders? And what about the fact that, on top of money and flexibility, many people also crave jobs that offer fulfillment in companies that are trying to fix the world’s problems rather than create them?”

Polman’s survey comes on the heels of a report from consulting firm KPMG that examined the attitudes toward work of 6,000 office workers, students, apprentices, and recent university graduates. It found that 20% of the respondents had turned down job offers because they felt a company’s environmental, social, and governance factors didn’t match theirs. This percentage was much higher among those aged 18–24. KPMG warned that the UK workforce was beginning to be filled with “climate quitters.”

In this context, the younger generation seems to be an indicator of the shifting relationship between the pursuit of values and a sense of powerlessness in the face of their parents’ expectations of adulthood and society. But make no mistake — this is not just “a Gen Z thing:” a workforce is on the move, driven by a desire to find meaning and solutions and not just resignation.


Illustration by Francesca Ragazzi

Change career for climate change

In July 2022, an article on CNBC’s website addressed the intrusion of political issues into the employer-employee relationship. It told the story of Tyrese Thomas, a 21-year-old who had recently graduated from Columbia University with a degree in sociology, East Asian studies, and business administration.

Tyrese had interned at a major tech company in the summer of 2021, when workplace dynamics began shifting, and companies started to become more vocal about political issues. As a result, his approach to job-hunting changed. He began to thoroughly research the reputation and standing of the companies he was considering. “As a candidate, I can assess whether this organization or company really cares about my values,” he said. “Do they really care about me?”

We do not know which path Thomas ultimately chose. However, a few weeks later, another article in the same publication told the stories of some tech workers who had left their ultra-desirable, high-paying jobs to work for companies fighting climate change.

Despite their different experiences and moments of illumination, the stories share a common theme: the decision to prioritize responsibility over financial success.

“As a privileged technologist, where should I spend my life?” asked Sandy Anuras, formerly of Expedia and now CTO of home solar provider Sunrun. As she realized that her skills could help fight climate change, the answers to her own questions became increasingly evident. “What problems do I want to look back on and say I helped solve: one of the greatest problems humanity has faced or selling some widgets in the metaverse? It just didn’t compute for me.”

While existential questions sweep through the tech sector, a sense of disillusionment is also spreading among the most unlikely technical profiles: oil and gas professionals.

The January 2023 issue of Bloomberg Green focused on “climate quitters,” featuring many stories that later merged into an episode of the Zero podcast. Like Jan Bohnerth, an employee of the public and government affairs department of ExxonMobil in Germany who now works for a cleantech communications firm, or former Shell geoscientist Dimitri Lafleur, who works for the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, where he assesses whether companies are aligned with climate goals.

The significance of these individual stories continues to be reinforced by the data published in other reports and analyses. A 2022 survey of 10,000 energy professionals by the Global Energy Talent Index found that 21% of those working in renewables had switched from another field in the past year and a half, and nearly a third of those had left the oil and gas industry.

The same survey also found that 82% of respondents still working in oil and gas are considering a move to another energy sector within the next three years. Half of them see a potential job in renewable energy.

No compromises

2023 is shaping up to be a year of increased environmental radicalization as fears of climate and ecological collapse become more tangible. In January in Europe, the Lützerath lignite mine became a test case that reignited the climate movement’s ability to mobilize and take symbolic action. In addition to Germany, activists in France, Italy, and Switzerland sabotaged snowmaking machines at Alpine ski resorts, preventing them from restoring their slopes as an abnormal heat wave turned them to mud.

Activists from Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Futures, Just Stop Oil in the UK, and Ultima Generazione in Italy believe there is no more time for compromise. And they’re not alone. Dissent has found an unexpected home within the walls of one of the world’s top engineering schools — École Polytechnique in Paris, traditionally a talent factory for major French industrial and energy companies. When oil giant Total planned to move part of its operations right into the middle of the campus in 2020, where 400 people were expected to work on “energy decarbonization,” the project sparked a massive protest from students and faculty.

After successfully blocking Total’s research center, the student organization didn’t stop. In 2021, it published a critical report on the cosmetics giant L’Oréal questioning “the very usefulness of all the group’s activities” and essentially denouncing what the students saw as pointless consumerism. The case is not isolated. Similar clashes are taking place at France’s elite campuses, where students are challenging the same companies that view them as potential future employees.

In summary, it’s still unclear what the future work scenario will look like while signs, stories, and data that can be classified as “conscious quitting” continue to emerge. But one element of reflection does surface: the drive for individual and professional validation seems to be giving way to a desire for the collective and social utility of work. People are no longer chasing the idea of the dream job. Instead, they’re seeking the opportunity to work for a better future.