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What Thoreau can teach us about the Great Resignation

Henry David Thoreau was a thinker who challenged the very notion of traditional work.

What Thoreau can teach us about the Great Resignation
[Photo: National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons]

America is giving up. Collectively, we’re putting in our two weeks. Please accept our national letter of resignation. “We’re in the middle of a Great Resignation,” reports Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. “Employees have had the time and space to think about what really matters to them and there are plenty of options, so it’s no surprise resignation rates are through the roof.”

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As we tender our mass resignation, many of us might wonder: Is there a roadmap for what comes next? There is a map, but it leads into a forest, and to a man named Henry David Thoreau. 

Henry David Thoreau is known—inaccurately—as a loafer: a tree-hugging, work-shy, proto-hippy.  What he was, in fact, was a job-hopper, and, in the end, one of the nation’s Great Resigners, a thinker who challenged the very notion of traditional work. In 1837, two stars crossed: Thoreau graduated from Harvard and the Panic of 1837 sparked a great depression, which lasted until the middle of the next decade. Coming home to Concord, Massachusetts, the new grad hustled for a job in an employment drought, soon getting, then quitting, a teaching position. Thoreau refused to abuse children (aka apply corporal punishment), but the school required it of him, so he quit a workplace that was, let’s say, toxic to children.

After quitting, Thoreau, still hopeful for a teaching position, scrabbled for various gigs—a scrabble plagued by recurring bouts of tuberculosis. He had his first publishing success in November of 1837: an obituary for one Anna Jones, an 88-year-old Concordian. Come March 1838, Thoreau suggested a getaway to his older brother and best friend, John Thoreau: “I have a proposal to make. Suppose […] we should start in company for the West and there either establish a school jointly, or procure ourselves separate situations. […] I think I can borrow the cash in this town. There’s nothing like trying.”

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A version of such a getaway came and ended in May 1838. On May 2, with a loan of $10 and a letter of recommendation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau went job-hunting, without John, in Maine. Fifteen days later, Thoreau returned home. No job.

Less than one month after his Maine job search, Thoreau teamed up with his brother John to open a private academy or “alternative school.” The brothers Thoreau allowed students thirty minutes of recess, rather than the traditional ten; they took field trips with vocational aspects, such as trips to a printing press. Unfortunately, in 1841, due to John’s own tuberculosis, the brothers closed their small school. On January 11, 1842, 25-year-old Thoreau lost John, not to tuberculosis, but to a tetanus infection from a very slight razor cut to his finger. This loss would make every January for the remaining 20 years of Thoreau’s life a dark season inside. 

In May of 1843, Thoreau moved to New York, to Staten Island, to chase his literary dreams, and had modest success as a freelance writer, but his New York dream floundered, then flopped. 

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So, starting on July 4, 1845, a few days shy of his 28th birthday, Thoreau gave up, opting for a life of resignation. As the nation celebrated Independence Day, Thoreau embraced his own, walking the two miles from Concord to the shores of Walden Pond. He would stay there for two years, two months, and two days. 

It is easy to interpret Walden as America’s first environmentalist manifesto—and there is something to this—but we should remember that Thoreau’s attempt to “get back to nature” was simultaneously the attempt to get away from the capitalist rat race that defined his culture. There is a difference—an absolute gulf—between “just making a living” and getting a life or truly living. This is the abiding message of Walden. 

The frenetic busyness of modern life should never be confused with the essential business of living. Human life is precious because it is so ephemeral and fleeting. People die of lockjaw, or tuberculosis, or the flu, or a pandemic—and it is best not to waste the tragically little time we are given. For Thoreau, life was best spent constructing a simple house of his own making, tending his beans and melons, and leading children through the huckleberry patches surrounding Concord. Being a great resigner entails reclaiming life, or rather making a conscious choice about what to respect and where to tap meaning. 

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Today, “The Great Resigners” are the children of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the young adults of the Great Recession, and now the adults of the Global Pandemic; the Great Resigners have learned, in hardship, lessons similar to those learned by the Greatest Generation during the Great Depression: Be as self-sufficient as you can, because the ship of state, always listing, is liable to keel over.

The Great Resigners have grown up under the swaying sword of climate change, so self-sufficiency also means sustainability, personally and globally. Consider some of the trends of the last few years: the “Right to Dry,” that is, the right to hang dry your laundry; the “Right to Repair,” the legal push to allow the repair of old broken iPhones and such, rather than buy new (to patch and darn our wares); even the right to grow vegetables in your front yard, still prohibited in some places. Thoreau, two hundred years ago, saw the seeds of real liberty in such self-sufficiency. 

Thoreauvian self-sufficiency is not isolation, nor “rugged individualism,” but simple and deliberate living to optimize good living. This is America’s Thoreauvian Turn. With sufficient internet infrastructure, online education, with Starlink on the horizon, delivery services at an unprecedented peak, permanent remote work is now viable for millions of Americans. We got our taste of freedom during the pandemic, when many of us renovated our homes and tended our gardens (some of us discovered permaculture!). Quarantine put a new priority on the home. 

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Many of us, no longer bound to the business plaza, the office block, migrated to the geography of our desiring, to put the home where the heart truly is, often after searching in our RVs and renovated vans; fleets of van-lifers circulated through America’s National Parks and old cobwebbed main streets. Now there is, one might say, a new “stay-at-homestead” movement. We’re trying to stay remote en masse. We’ve staked our pond houses and now we mean to live deliberately—or at least that’s the dream. 

We can hear the critics now: The Great Resigners aren’t great, they’re just lazy. Maybe. When Thoreau finally succumbed to the disease that plagued his life, his dear friend Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected “that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.”

This may be the case, but it strikes us as slightly unfair. After all, the children that followed Uncle Thoreau through the huckleberry patch were in fact Emerson’s children. Thoreau chose berry-ing with the Emerson kids over the international travel of their famous father. Life is a matter of choice and perspective. And it is all too easy to let our traditional professional lives mask this essential fact. 

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The Great Resignation is a resignation from the industrial model, the brick-and-mortar model, the office-factory model. That model, of course, is far from razed, but it has been doused in an accelerant. Who would’ve thought that leafy ol’ Thoreau would meet us in the digital age? Perhaps he has always been waiting for the industrial one to lose steam. As you took your final commute away from the business plaza and office park, we hope you glanced in the rearview mirror to see that office block sink below the horizon. Perhaps you then heard your car’s guidance system guiding you to get away, or quietly voicing a question that you have longed to answer: Where, exactly, is my Walden Pond?


 John Kaag is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at UMass Lowell, External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life. 

Jonathan van Belle is an editor and content creator at Outlier.org, and author of Zenithism.

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