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How the Great Resignation is fueling the passion economy

November 3, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

When Martin Bekerman, 37, left his role as a designer at Netflix in September, it was not because he was unhappy with his job. Nor was he suffering from the burnout that so many white-collar workers complain about as a result of the long hours and endless Zoom calls during the pandemic.

In fact, at Netflix, Bekerman had what he calls “the coolest job in the world.” And he didn’t have an issue with his pay, either. “You cannot get a better salary than that,” he said. But despite these glowing attributes, there was one area in which Bekerman found his role at Netflix severely lacking: it wasn’t intellectually or creatively fulfilling.

When Bekerman left, it was to pursue a growing passion project that he had started toying with months earlier: A collection of digital art that he describes as “a cross between cows and Star Wars.” The project, called Savage Dogs, taps into the growing craze for non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, that involves artists creating and selling digital artworks similar to collectible trading cards. 

Along with the career move, Bekerman is finding a growing sense of fulfillment in his creative endeavor that he could never have found in his previous role. 

“I was absolutely tired of the 9-to-5 job,” he said. “No matter how cool it was.”

Bekerman is among a growing number of people leaving their jobs during the pandemic. In August 2021, the number of Americans who quit their jobs reached a record high of 4.3 million, according to the Labor Department. Now, without steady incomes and stable careers, many people who left their corporate gigs say they don’t intend on returning to full-time employment anytime soon. Instead, they’re devoting their time to passion projects and entrepreneurial ventures inspired, in part, by the creator economy. 

White collar workers leaving corporate jobs to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors underscores a growing shift toward the “passion economy,” a term coined by the venture capitalist Li Jin in a 2019 essay. 

Jin, who founded the venture firm Atelier Ventures in 2020 to invest in companies focused on broadening new forms of work, observes a marked change in worker demands: people are “desiring to be on their own terms and work autonomously and independently,” she said. And it’s not as though the desire to ditch the corporate gig is new, either. Many of the people leaving their full-time roles are acting on a latent desire that has existed for a long time, she said. 

In a post-pandemic world, the notion of having a job and working in a single role felt old-fashioned, several people who recently resigned from their jobs told Fortune. In a world where work is made increasingly autonomous through gig work, social media, and ecommerce, seeking out entrepreneurial endeavors is likely to become the rule, rather than the exception. 

Many people, like Christine Kim, 26, who quit her job at a San Francisco-based real estate investment firm in July, said that the pandemic hammered home that life can be unpredictable and fragile. “If I’m not going to live [my dream], especially after something like the pandemic, well, then, shame on me,” she said.

Now, Kim is building a company of her own called Village, a real estate startup that’s currently in stealth. So far, she’s bootstrapped what she hopes will soon be a venture-backed company using the money in her savings account. 

Office workers leaving lucrative corporate gigs to embark on their dreams is a largely affluent phenomenon not afforded to those without college educations, savings, or family connections to fall back on. Most of the people who spoke to Fortune said they relied on health insurance provided by a spouse or had temporarily moved home with family members while pursuing a passion project.

Kim, the Village founder, said that while she had tapped into her savings to fund her company, she could rely on her husband to “make sure that I have a place to rest my head and that I eat well, so I’m not super worried.” She also counts herself as lucky to be on her partner’s healthcare plan. “I recognize that I’m more privileged than a lot of folks,” she said.

Kelsey Willock, who left her job as a brokerage manager at Goldman Sachs in February to start building Aura, a startup that provides financial and investing advice geared toward young women, said passion projects can often be more demanding than a 9 to 5.  “Too many people think idealistically that quitting your corporate jobs is all sunshine and rainbows but the reality is that it’s 10-times harder and you will work longer hours for less money,” she said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster.”

While she doesn’t regret her decision to quit her job and start a new company, Willock said she would have been less likely to do so had she known the difficulties in store. Like many founders of early-stage companies, Willock realizes that she is funneling her money and energy into an endeavor that may not succeed.

Some, like Bosha Novart, 28, who left his job working in the food and nutrition department of a Salem, NC, hospital to pursue his dream of being a photographer, are contemplating returning to full-time employment in the future. While Novart’s freelance career seems promising at the moment, he knows he can return to steady work should things turn south. 

A 9-to-5 job, said Novart, “is like a safety net.” In the current economy where jobs are plentiful and workers are in demand, quitting doesn’t seem as big of a risk. “Anyone can go back and get a full-time job,” said Novart.

Some, like Farah Al Chammas, 24, counts herself fortunate that her family can help her pursue her dreams: she’s covered under her mother’s healthcare plan, and her mother has offered to help pay for her New York rent for the next few months. 

After graduating from college in 2020, Al Chammas worked just eight short months in her role as a junior research strategist at an ad agency before deciding to start her own company. Using the dividends she made from a timely cryptocurrency investment, she is now building Okel, a company that helps people make new friends by connecting strangers for meals at restaurants offered at a discount rate.

The pandemic made Al Chammas realize that “my job was not worth my time,” she said. 

Al Chammas said that the digital age has created a wealth of opportunities for people like herself. And, in the world of entrepreneurs, she is finding that she is far from the exception: “I’ve been meeting so many people who are my age and younger who are building companies,” she said. 

For Bekerman, the former Netflix designer, the pandemic revealed how unnecessary much of his work seemed, including a long commute, showing up at an office, and taking meetings. 

“You start to wonder if you need to have a job, if you need to take a thousand meetings a day, if you need to work for someone else’s dream or if you want to work for your [own dream],” he said.

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