After a year into a pandemic that upended people’s working and personal lives, many Americans are rethinking their professional aspirations, creating what one New York Times report called the “YOLO economy" — or “you only live once.”
The existential questioning bears a resemblance to another work trend that gained in popularity after the Great Recession disrupted many career trajectories: FIRE, or the path to financial independence, retire early, according to adherents of the movement.
“It’s probably gonna be a pretty good 25% of the workforce that’s really having that question in their mind of what’s really important? Do I really want to go and be sequestered away from 9-to-5 and use it as my main means of income?” said Michael Quan, blogger, author, and FIRE adherent who retired early at age 36. “With FIRE, all of a sudden this opens up the conversation, ‘Hey, there’s an option, right?’”
A handful of recent surveys found that workers are ready for some kind of change. For instance, more than half of American workers were thinking of switching jobs this year, according to a recent Fast Company survey, with 44% reporting they had plans in place to make the move.
Manager and higher salaried workers were more likely to consider the leap, the poll found, the same workers who likely remained employed during the pandemic. Many of those surveyed wanted remote options or more flexible working arrangements.
At the same time, many of these workers have seen their savings increase. Strong market returns, stimulus checks, and limited spending opportunities over the last year have boosted savings rates, allowing them to consider more flexibility in their working lives.
The pandemic has “opened up a variety of different perspectives,” Quan said, and those perspectives lend themselves to the FIRE movement that also breaks the mold of the traditional 9-5 workday.
While FIRE is generally associated with decades worth of austerity measures to build up a nest egg big enough for financial freedom, it’s also about living a more purposeful life.
“[FIRE] is really talking about getting clear on what your values are, first and foremost,” Quan said. “Then ultimately using the money as a tool to be able to leverage that, and then really capitalize on what's important to you.”
The pandemic also has enabled some to adopt certain measures like swapping expensive cities in California and New York for cheaper costs of living but maintaining their salaries, which is already a FIRE tenet known as geoarbitrage. In fact, a recent survey from Realtor.com found that 1 in 4 homeowners who bought their houses during the pandemic would find a new job if their employer forced them back to the office full time.
The work-from-home experiment of the last 14 months has caught on and companies like Twitter and Google have adopted permanent remote work arrangements for certain employees.
Pre-pandemic, the emphasis for working America was “making money, climbing the corporate ladder, getting recognition, and status,” said Sam Dogen, known as the Financial Samurai who retired at 34. Now, he predicts the new work economy will normalize sabbaticals or stepping away for a few years to pursue an entrepreneurial passion without the old stigma of having resume gaps.
“We're going to shift that ideology towards more purpose, more purposeful work, better relationships, and more time with family,” he said.” I think there's gonna be a huge shift in the work-life balance equation.”
Dogen looks abroad when thinking of how the work environment could change. For instance, Australians make a seamless transition to the workforce after what’s known as a walkabout, or extended sabbatical. Dogen thinks Americans could do the same.
“I think we're gonna have more towards what our European friends do,” Dogen said. “Those guys seem to really work to live, versus in America it is so capitalistic, so about living to work. There's going to be a definite and permanent structural change in the way we view work and we view life.”