Knowing When to Quit Looking for a Job

Vic Napier

July 2011

I recently read a McKinsey Global Institute research project examining ways the United States could recover enough jobs to return to pre-recession employment rate (Manyika, et al., 2011). McKinsey interviewed hundreds of executives, analyzed the latest official data on domestic and international economic sectors and created a number of statistical scenarios. The results are not encouraging, especially for people seeking a traditional job.

The McKinsey report found that 21 million jobs will need to be created by 2020 in order to achieve full employment, but only the most optimistic of their statistical models indicated this was possible. The economy of the early 21st century will likely never return.

Here are a few examples of how different things will be in the near future:

This means that millions of unemployed Americans will never have the chance to return to full time traditional employment. Most of the people out of work now will never be employed in the kinds of jobs they once had. There will simply not be enough jobs for everyone, and the jobs that do exist will have very high barriers to entry. Nevertheless most unemployed people look for the same kind of jobs they used to do, using job search techniques that are no longer effective. Most of them will spend years filling out applications and sending out resumes until they qualify for Social Security – if it still exists.

One of the strengths of the American economy has always been our work ethic. We are tenacious and goal oriented. For most of the 20th century Americans worked more hours per capita than any other labor force in the world. One of our most popular aphorisms is “Winners never quit and quitters never win”. Ironically, our exceptional work ethic is one of the challenges that need to be overcome, both for individuals seeking a way to make a living, and for the national economy seeking recovery.

Sometimes you have to know when to quit. Every resume or application that does not result in a job is a waste of time and effort. The time and effort expended on useless job searches could be better spent pursuing some other way to make a living. The sad reality is that most people are wasting their time sending out resumes and filling out applications because there will simply not be enough jobs for everyone. There might be alternatives to traditional jobs for these people, but until they give up looking for traditional jobs they will never see them.

Paul Pearsall was a psychologist with the very rare distinction of surviving a terminal cancer diagnosis. All the treatments had failed and he was referred to hospice for end of life care, but his cancer miraculously went into remission and Pearsall lived for several more decades. He wrote a wonderful book about his experience, The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, And Throttle Your Inner Child. Here is what he has to say about the virtue of giving up:

Persevering is not the only way to demonstrate strength… Strength can also mean knowing when to engage in en­lightened surrender, willingness to give in and move on. Though giving up has a bad reputation … winners do some­times intentionally quit, and quitters often end up winning.

Sometimes, persevering turns out to be glorious stupidity, and not giving up can lead to the loss of a golden opportunity…Too often we foreclose on today by constantly feeling pressured to struggle for a better tomorrow. So long as we give up both the striv­ing and the goal, we are free to think creatively about our problems. (Pearsall, 2005, p. 54-55)

Pearsall’s insights on quitting are supported by scientific studies. In a fascinating series of surveys a group of academic researchers found that long term pursuit of unattainable goals resulted in elevated levels of depression (Wrosch, et al, 2003). That isn’t so surprising. What I found interesting is that abandoning unattainable goals and focusing on more realistic ones correlated with lowered depression and higher rates of general happiness, particularly in mature adults.  

The researchers put it this way:

Considering that opportunities to pursue new goals often decline as people advance in age…goal reengagement tendencies might become more influential among older adults who have abandoned personal goals. In support for this hypothesis…among older adults … failure to reengage in new goals was associated with particularly low levels of emotional well-being.  (Wrosch, et al, 2003 p. 1505)

In other words, as we get older it is just as important to pursue realistic and attainable goals as it is to abandon unrealistic ones. Rather than just “giving up” we are much happier when we shift our efforts to goals that are attainable. This is where the real value of Pearsall’s advice comes into play for the millions of unemployed who still chase a traditional job. By giving up on that unlikely goal we open our minds to other possibilities that we might never have imagined.

Think about it…if we remain single-mindedly focused on being hired into an increasingly rare traditional job we blind ourselves to other opportunities. For example, the McKinsey report predicts that many of the jobs are the future will be part time or limited duration, but we may not even be aware of the opportunity offered by contingent employment if we remain focused on non-existent traditional jobs.

If you have been looking for a traditional job for more than six months your chances of getting hired are very slim. So forget about finding a traditional job. It’s not an attainable goal and continuing to pursue it robs you of time and resources you could dedicate to more realistic outcomes.

What is more realistic? I don’t know. It depends on your unique situation, gifts and goals. Several part time jobs, maybe. Possibly going back to school to learn a trade relevant to the new economy, and volunteering or interning for practical experience. Perhaps you can use your old skills and be a consultant while you start a business in a completely different field. There are all kinds of possibilities, but you might have to abandon goals that are no longer possible in order to see them. And one goal that might need to be abandoned is a traditional job.


Pearsall, P. (2005). The last self-help book you'll ever need: repress your anger, think negatively, be a good blamer, and throttle your inner child. New York: Basic Books.

Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Miller, G. E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C. S. (2003). Adaptive Self-Regulation of Unattainable Goals: Goal Disengagement, Goal Reengagement, and Subjective Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology., 29(12), 12.

Manyika, J., Lund, S., Aguste, B., Mendonca, L., Welsh, T., & Ramaswamy, S. (2011). An economy that works: Job creation and Americas future. New York, NY: McKinsey Global Institutte.



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