Welcome to the YOLO Economy

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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