Ambition Is Out

When Rafy Evans, 25, was a teenager, she adopted a mantra to guide her blossoming career aspirations: “I want my work to be about my life, and I want my life to be about my work.”

Evans came of age in what she calls the “girlboss” era, idolizing female entrepreneurs like Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso and Glossier’s Emily Weiss. After graduating college, she threw herself into demanding jobs in Los Angeles’ influencer economy, building a reputation for being available 24/7 and valuing career achievement above all else.

Today, however, Evans’ teenage slogan makes her cringe. After reading a recently published book that made her question the large role work played in her life, she quit her job in June and took a couple months off to rest and recover from burnout (a huge privilege, she acknowledges). She is currently building healthy boundaries between her personal life and her new job in public relations, and is working on “unlearning” the always-on mindset with which she started her career. “I’m just trying to achieve more peace,” she says. “That’s my big goal in everything that I’m doing.”

Evans isn’t alone in taking a step back from the corporate grind. First came the “Great Resignation,” followed recently by the phenomenon of “quiet quitting.” Many surveys have also pointed to a sense of malaise and fatigue sweeping the American workforce, apparently culminating in a common desire to do less.

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For example, more than half of surveyed workers said they’re questioning the purpose of their jobs and the role work should play in their lives in a January report from research firm Gartner. As of July, roughly half of U.S. workers were looking for a new job, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and 29% of those who had recently resigned said they did so because they wanted better work-life balance. In the second quarter of 2022, only about a third of U.S. workers said they were engaged with their jobs, while almost 20% said they were actively disengaged—the lowest ratio of engagement to disengagement in about a decade, according to Gallup research. That could be because, according to other SHRM research, more than half of U.S. workers feel exhausted at the end of the day. It’s not hard to imagine how that exhaustion turns into a desire for a less-stressful job.

In essays and news articles, many people have described their newly lax attitudes toward work as a loss of ambition. But it’s hard to say whether ambition is actually dropping across the U.S. population, according to Timothy Judge, a professor at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business who has studied the concept. There are some objective measures of ambition, and it can be measured in research if it’s well-defined, but Judge says that’s not often done. Some surveys that ask people to self-report their own ambition, however, suggest it’s alive and well. In a 2022 CNBC/Momentive poll, about half of female respondents and two-thirds of Black women described themselves as “very ambitious.”

Meanwhile, the idea of phoning it in at work is nothing new. The concept today known as “quiet quitting”—basically, staying at a job but doing the bare minimum—has shown up in research (often under some variation of the name “work withdrawal”) for decades, says John Kammeyer-Mueller, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Still, recent data on quit rates, work attitudes, and employee engagement do suggest our collective relationship with work has hit a rocky patch, Kammeyer-Mueller says.

As with nearly any societal shift observed over the last three years, the pandemic is one obvious explanation. But what, exactly, about the COVID-19 era has made people want to stop striving?

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a giant pause button—and not everyone is eager to hit “play” again, says Natasha Crosby, of Crosby Counseling & Services in Texas. “The pandemic forced people to slow down and actually evaluate their lives and how they were spending their time,” Crosby says. When they stopped for a moment, many high-achieving people saw all the things they’d been missing—time with loved ones, time to relax, time for hobbies—and decided there was a better way to live, Crosby says.

Remote work is a major factor in the current cultural shift, Kammeyer-Mueller agrees, but he thinks it’s for a different reason. Despite the narrative that working from home turns people into slackers, Kammeyer-Mueller thinks the problem is actually that people are working too much at home, burning out, and pulling back from their careers as a result. Being physically separated from coworkers may also make people feel less committed to their jobs, which zaps their motivation to put in extra effort, he says.

But “people are still motivated to achieve things; they just don’t want to do it at work as much anymore,” Kammeyer-Mueller says. Anecdotally, he’s noticed many people doubling down on hobbies and creative projects, instead of pulling extra hours at the office.

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Of course, not everyone was able to work from home and find new hobbies during the pandemic—and renouncing ambition is an undeniably privileged position to be in, since many people can’t afford to slow down. Nonetheless, it isn’t just remote office workers who are going through a reckoning, federal data show. From April 2020 to November 2021, quit rates were highest among people working in industries like food service, hospitality, and retail.

In many cases, however, hourly and essential workers aren’t quitting because of “angst about ambition,” says Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez, a journalist who writes a newsletter about ambition. They’re quitting because they don’t want to work jobs that provide few benefits and barely pay the bills. That may help explain why workers at Amazon and Starbucks are unionizing, and why many Great Resigners are taking advantage of labor shortages to negotiate for better-paying jobs.

Even for privileged, white-collar office workers, O’Connell Rodriguez thinks it’s not as simple as people spontaneously “losing” their ambition. She believes the current discourse is about a rupture in the social contract, a mass realization brought on by the pandemic that working hard doesn’t always guarantee stability and enough savings to weather an emergency. “It’s a reckoning with the workplace, and it’s a reckoning with the social safety net more broadly,” she says. “When your health care is tied to your employment and you get laid off in a pandemic,” it’s natural to reevaluate the way you spend most of your waking hours.

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Income inequality is also worse than it’s ever been, adds Jacques Forest, a psychologist and professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who studies motivation and ambition. When a handful of very rich people hold more wealth than the vast majority of the population, he says, it leads to questions like, ‘Why should I kill myself at my job’” if it won’t pay off?

Is it healthy to break up with ambition? Here, too, opinions vary.

In 2012, Judge, the Ohio State professor, and Kammeyer-Mueller, the University of Minnesota professor, published a study based on data from a group of 700 people who agreed to be tracked for decades. They found that ambition was strongly linked to career achievement, and was also associated—albeit to a lesser extent—with life satisfaction. “Usually when somebody describes someone else as ‘ambitious,’ it insinuates [something] derogatory,” Judge says. “But I think the evidence does not necessarily support that view.” Instead, his research suggests that ambitious people are just as likely to be happy as their more easygoing counterparts.

“Ambition, in and of itself, is not bad,” Forest agrees. The “what” and “why” behind that ambition—the goal someone is striving toward and their motivation for doing so—often matter more. In scientific research, ambition is often assessed by measuring someone’s desire for higher education, career success, prestige, or income. But striving outside the professional realm may actually be healthier, Forest says.

Forest is a proponent of self-determination theory, which argues that humans’ key psychological needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness (or connection with other people). Self-determination research suggests that ambition can be positive if it fulfills those needs, such as through doing work that feels meaningful or pushing for productive changes in one’s community. But if people are striving due to external motivators—like money, prestige, or social status—they’re likely to feel unfulfilled and may even act in antisocial ways, research shows. (There are exceptions, such as people who aspire to make enough money to lift themselves out of poverty or give charitably, Forest says.)

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To Forest, it’s a good thing that many people are thinking critically about work and, in some cases, choosing to scale back. “When you see people renounce ambition, that’s [usually] the mainstream American capitalist ambition,” he says. “And if people are dropping out of this, that’s good news.”

Still, work is inescapable for most of us. And O’Connell Rodriguez thinks it’s dangerous for people to think they’ve simply stopped being ambitious on an individual level without considering larger cultural factors, like unsustainable workloads, unfair or unsafe working conditions, and health care being tied to employment. “When you misdiagnose the problem, you cannot come up with an effective solution,” O’Connell Rodriguez says. “It takes the responsibility away from the employer, from the culture, and the government to address everything that is contributing to this burnout, resignation, and loss of ambition.” Burnout researchers have known for years that workers can’t “self-care” their way out of the problem; employers have to make systemic changes for sustained progress.

Those changes are happening in some industries, buoyed by unionization efforts and employees pushing for higher salaries and better working conditions. But the progress has been slow and hard-won, leading some people who can afford to step back to forgo corporate ladder-climbing in favor of more satisfying social, family, or personal lives. That’s not necessarily bad, O’Connell Rodriguez says, but it’s also a choice people shouldn’t have to make.

Ambition Is Out

“How do we enable a system,” she asks, “where we’re allowed to experience ambition in all facets of our lives?”

Evans, the public-relations rep redefining her relationship to work, is asking herself similar questions. She wonders how her life might look now if she’d had a more balanced outlook in her teens and early twenties, rather than buying into hustle culture. She’d probably have carved out more time for her personal writing, she thinks, and devoted more time to leisure and relationships that had nothing to do with networking.

She’s trying to find those things now, and is determined not to let her career take over her life again. “I look back now,” she says, “and I don’t know why I ever glorified your life being like this.”

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