Welcome to the YOLO Economy


Something strange is happening to the exhausted, type-A millennial workers of America. After a year spent hunched over their MacBooks, enduring back-to-back Zooms in between sourdough loaves and Peloton rides, they are flipping the carefully arranged chessboards of their lives and deciding to risk it all.

Some are abandoning cushy and stable jobs to start a new business, turn a side hustle into a full-time gig or finally work on that screenplay. Others are scoffing at their bosses’ return-to-office mandates and threatening to quit unless they’re allowed to work wherever and whenever they want.

They are emboldened by rising vaccination rates and a recovering job market. Their bank accounts, fattened by a year of stay-at-home savings and soaring asset prices, have increased their risk appetites. And while some of them are just changing jobs, others are stepping off the career treadmill altogether.

If this movement has a rallying cry, it’s “YOLO” — “you only live once,” an acronym popularized by the rapper Drake a decade ago and deployed by cheerful risk-takers ever since. The term is a meme among stock traders on Reddit, who use it when making irresponsible bets that sometimes pay off anyway. (This year’s GameStop trade was the archetypal YOLO.) More broadly, it has come to characterize the attitude that has captured a certain type of bored office worker in recent months.

To be clear: The pandemic is not over, and millions of Americans are still grieving the loss of jobs and loved ones. Not everyone can afford to throw caution to the wind. But for a growing number of people with financial cushions and in-demand skills, the dread and anxiety of the past year are giving way to a new kind of professional fearlessness.

I started hearing these stories this year when several acquaintances announced that they were quitting prestigious and high-paying jobs to pursue risky passion projects. Since then, a trickle of LinkedIn updates has turned into a torrent. I tweeted about it, and dozens of stories poured into my inboxes, all variations on the same basic theme: The pandemic changed my priorities, and I realized I didn’t have to live like this.

Brett Williams, 33, a lawyer in Orlando, Fla., had his YOLO epiphany during a Zoom mediation in February.

“I realized I was sitting at my kitchen counter 10 hours a day feeling miserable,” he said. “I just thought: ‘What do I have to lose? We could all die tomorrow.’”

So he quit, leaving behind a partner position and a big-firm salary to take a job at a small firm run by his next-door neighbor, and to spend more time with his wife and dog.

“I’m still a lawyer,” he said. “But I haven’t been this excited to go to work in a long time.”

Olivia Messer, a former reporter for The Daily Beast, also quit in February, after realizing that a year of covering the pandemic had left her exhausted and traumatized.

“I was so drained and depleted that I didn’t feel like I knew how to do my job anymore,” she said. So Ms. Messer, 29, announced her departure and moved from Brooklyn to Sarasota, Fla., near her parents. Since then, she has been doing freelance writing as well as pursuing hobbies like painting and kayaking.

She acknowledged that not all people could uproot themselves so easily. But she said the change had been restorative. “I have this renewed creative sense about what my life could look like, and how fulfilling it can be,” she said.

If “languishing” is 2021’s dominant emotion, YOLOing may be the year’s defining work force trend. A recent Microsoft survey found that more than 40 percent of workers globally were considering leaving their jobs this year. Blind, an anonymous social network that is popular with tech workers, recently found that 49 percent of its users planned to get a new job this year.

“We’ve all had a year to evaluate if the life we’re living is the one we want to be living,” said Christina Wallace, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. “Especially for younger people who have been told to work hard, pay off your loans and someday you’ll get to enjoy your life, a lot of them are questioning that equation. What if they want to be happy right now?”

Fearful of an exodus, employers are trying to boost morale and prevent burnout. LinkedIn recently gave the majority of its employees a paid week off, while Twitter employees have been given an extra day off per month to recharge under a program called #DayofRest. Credit Suisse gave its junior bankers $20,000 “lifestyle allowances,” while Houlihan Lokey, another Wall Street firm, gave many of its employees all-expenses-paid vacations.

Raises and time off may persuade some employees to stay put. But for others, stasis is the problem, and the only solution is radical change.

“It feels like we’ve been so locked into careers for the past decade, and this is our opportunity to switch it up,” said Nate Moseley, 29, a buyer at a major clothing retailer.

Mr. Moseley recently decided to leave his $130,000-a-year job before June 1 — the date his company is requiring workers to return to the office.

He created an Excel spreadsheet called “Late 20s Crisis,” which he filled with potential options for his next move: Take a coding class, start mining Ethereum, join a 2022 political campaign, move to the Caribbean and open a tourism business. He looks at it regularly, he said, adding new pros and cons for each option.

“The idea of going right back to the pre-Covid setup sounds so unappealing after this past year,” he said. “If not now, when will I ever do this?”

Disillusioned workers with money to spare have always gone soul-searching. And it’s possible that some of these YOLOers will end up back in stable jobs if they spend through their savings, or their new ventures fizzle. But a daredevil spirit seems to be infecting even the kinds of risk-averse overachievers who typically cling to the career ladder.

In part, that’s because more people than ever can afford to take a risk these days. Stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and a stock market boom have given many workers bigger safety nets. Many sectors now face severe labor shortages, meaning that workers in those fields can easily find new jobs if they need them. (Not all of these are high tech; many restaurants and trucking companies, for example, are struggling to fill open jobs.) U.S. job openings rose to a two-year high in February, and economists and business owners expect more turnover in the months ahead, as workers who stayed put during the pandemic start emerging from their bunkers.

“Lots of things were on hold during the pandemic,” said Jed Kolko, the chief economist at Indeed.com. “To some extent, we’re seeing a year’s worth of big life changes starting to accelerate now.”

In addition to the job-hopping you’d expect during boom times, the pandemic has created many more remote jobs, and expanded the number of companies willing to hire outside of big, coastal cities. That has given workers in remote-friendly industries, such as tech and finance, more leverage to ask for what they want.

“Employees have a totally unprecedented ability to negotiate in the next 18 to 48 months,” said Johnathan Nightingale, an author and a co-founder of Raw Signal Group, a management training firm. “If I, as an individual, am dissatisfied with the current state of my employment, I have so many more options than I used to have.”

Individual YOLO decisions can be chalked up to many factors: cabin fever, low interest rates, the emergence of new get-rich-quick schemes like NFTs and meme stocks. But many seem related to a deeper, generational disillusionment, and a feeling that the economy is changing in ways that reward the crazy and punish the cautious.

Several people in their late 20s and early 30s — mostly those who went to good schools, work in high-prestige industries and would never be classified as “essential workers” — told me that the pandemic had destroyed their faith in the traditional white-collar career path. They had watched their independent-minded peers getting rich by joining start-ups or gambling on cryptocurrencies. Meanwhile, their bosses were drowning them in mundane work, or trying to automate their jobs, and were generally failing to support them during one of the hardest years of their lives.

“The past year has been telling for how companies really value their work forces,” said Latesha Byrd, a career coach in Charlotte, N.C. “It has become challenging to continue to work for companies who operate business as usual, without taking into account how our lives have changed overnight.”

Ms. Byrd, who primarily coaches women of color in fields like tech, finance and media, said that in addition to suffering from pandemic-related burnout, many minority employees felt disillusioned with their employers’ shallow commitments to racial justice.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are extremely important now,” she said. “Employees want to know, ‘Is this company going to support me?’”

Not every burned-out worker will quit, of course. For some, an extended vacation or a more flexible workweek might quell their wanderlust. And some workers might find that returning to an office helps restore balance in their lives.

But for many of those who can afford it, adventure is in the air.

One executive at a major tech company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media, said she and her husband had both been discussing quitting their jobs in recent weeks. The pandemic, she said, had taught them that they’d been playing it too safe with their life choices, and missing out on valuable family time.

The executive then sent me a quote from the Buddha about impermanence, and the value of realizing that nothing lasts forever. Or, to put it in slightly earthier terms: YOLO.