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Dreamers Ditch Day Jobs To Pursue Their Passions

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Elena Lacayo and Craig Keenan at a recent basement band practice.
Jacob Fenston
Elena Lacayo and Craig Keenan at a recent basement band practice.

It's a sort of strange sign of economic recovery — as the economy picks up, more people start quitting their jobs, no longer clinging to that monthly paycheck. This year, the number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs is on the rise, about one-third higher than during the depths of the recession in 2009.

Sometimes, regardless of the stagnant GPD or the persistently high unemployment rate, there comes a time when you just have to quit your high-profile policy job and start a band.

On a recent Wednesday night, Elena Lacayo and three friends are practicing in her basement in Mount Pleasant.

Until a few months ago, Lacayo worked on Latino and immigrant issues at a big non-profit in D.C. It was a great job, she says, tackling really important problems. She had a lot of responsibility, frequently making media appearances.

"But that also was really high pressure," she says. "That meant any day I could show up to work and I'd think it'd be a chill day, and then suddenly it'd be like, 'Oh, my God, CNN called,' I've got to do everything and get my talking points ready and put on my pearl earrings." This was a career path she'd been on since college, moving from one job to the next one up the ladder.

"You know, D.C. is the kind of place where the next step is the next step up. And I just couldn't think of what that would be for me."

She thought about going back to school, but instead, decided to take a different route: live cheaply and focus on playing music. Even though she had some money saved up, it was a sort of scary decision to make in this economy.

"For me the biggest fear actually was never getting a job that was as fulfilling as my old job, feeling like I was walking away from the best job I could have ever had."

Fran D'Ooge, who runs the D.C.-based recruiting firm, Tangent Corporation, says in the past few years not many people have been quitting jobs at all. "You can say we're in a recovery — that's sort of the economic numbers, it hasn't really filtered through. So whether we're really recovered or not, people aren't just going out there and quitting jobs."

Before the Great Recession, about 2.7 million Americans quit their private-sector jobs each month. That number plummeted as work dried up. D'Ooge says many workers are still afraid to walk away from steady employment, even if they hate what they're doing. But, she says, the recession has created a sort of pent-up desire to quit.

"People have been working many, many, many extra hours, and I think some people have gotten to the point where they just couldn't do it anymore," she says. "Because you can sustain that for a while, but when you're looking at doing that for years?"

For Barbara Michelman, the choice was between career and family. A little over a year ago, she decided to quit her job at an education non-profit, and now works part-time from home, in Cheverly, Md. She gets to spend a lot more time with her 7-year-old daughter Ava, walking her to school most days.

"It is the conundrum, if you have a child or children — at least it's my conundrum — I felt I was doing a good job at work, then I felt I was neglecting my family. Or vice-versa. And I think there's a lot to do with being an over-achiever: there's a lot of type-A personalities in Washington, D.C."

She had always been career-driven. But as she was spending more and more hours at work and away from her daughter, Michelman thought more and more about her childhood, and how her mother raised her.

"Our life-paths couldn't have been any more different," she says. "My mom was a stay-at-home mom. But I really started to think, my mom was always there. And home-cooked meals were always on the table."

She says this stay-at-home thing is probably not permanent, and she'll re-evaluate as her daughter gets older. "I don't think I'll ever get to a place where I feel completely comfortable with any one decision, but for now, this works well. It was a good decision."

Meanwhile, Elena Lacayo, in addition to working on her music, has a part-time gig at a bike shop. It's the kind of job you don't take home at night or on the weekend. She says that's part of what she was looking for — the chance to define herself beyond a job title.

"Who am I gonna be? I've been this person for four years, working in this job and being known for that. And I felt like I had also accepted that as my identity. It wasn't just what other people saw in me, it was also what I was seeing in myself. And I think that at the end of the day, part of the reason that I decided to leave was that I wanted to rediscover who I was without that."

At this point, she's not sure what's next, but says it's kind of liberating to not be focused on the next rung of the ladder.


Jacob's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories.
 For more information, click this link.

Photos: Dream Gigs

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