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The many flavors of YOLO

Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose
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Hi all. Before we get into this week’s newsletter, two pieces of housekeeping:
  1. Apologies for skipping last week’s newsletter. As you may have seen on Twitter (or MSNBC or the Today Show or about half a zillion other places that picked it up, to my great surprise and delight), I went home to surprise my mom for her birthday. It was my first time seeing her — and the rest of my family — in more than a year, and it was the kind of trip that makes you remember that IRL socializing is orders of magnitude better than any Zoom or FaceTime call. Mom hugs? Highly recommended.
  2. Last week, the New York Times (where I work) announced to employees that it was issuing new guidelines for outside newsletters. Under the new rules, staffers won’t be allowed to write paid newsletters, and free newsletters (like this one) will need to be approved by a special “outside projects” committee. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what that means for the future of this humble gazette. I’d love to continue writing it – I’ve had a blast, gotten great feedback, and enjoyed having a small, well-lit place to write outside the confines of my day job – and I hope my overlords will declare it sufficiently unthreatening and allow me to keep it going. I think having direct connections with readers only helps my Times journalism, and I’d hate if reporters lost the ability to experiment with a promising media format just because it happens to involve writing emails rather than tweets or Facebook posts. In any event, I’ll keep you posted.

Okay, let’s talk about YOLOing.
I published a column this week that got more attention than anything I’ve written since my 2019 phone detox column.
It’s about what I called the “YOLO Economy” – the growing number of burned-out, exhausted white-collar workers who are deciding to quit their jobs, professionalize their side hustles, or leave it all behind in pursuit of fulfillment and post-pandemic happiness.
The column hit a nerve – including, interestingly, the most traction I’ve ever gotten from a story on LinkedIn – and I’ve been flooded with emails and DMs from people telling me their own YOLO stories.
I also took some heat from people who thought that I’d paid too much attention to the top leg of the “K-shaped recovery” – the privileged, high-earning workers whose bank accounts have grown this year, and who can afford to take big gambles at a moment of historic precarity – and neglected to spend enough time discussing the many people on the bottom leg of the K who can’t afford to do any of that.
Others thought I’d done the topic a disservice by conflating two types of YOLOs: those resulting from boredom and wanderlust, and those sparked by mental health emergencies and severe, crippling burnout.
Both are fair points, although in my own defense, it’s sort of hard to write this kind of sweeping, finger-in-the-wind column without making some generalizations, and I don’t think these two cohorts are entirely disconnected. People respond to traumatic events in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Some might display classic symptoms of depression and PTSD, while others might channel their emotions into a kind of exuberant anxiety that could be mistaken for whimsical thrill-chasing. We shouldn’t assume that someone who quits a cushy job and says it’s because they’re sick of Zooms isn’t actually collapsing under the psychological toll of the pandemic, or that people who seem like privileged YOLOers aren’t practicing their own version of self-care.
The best thing about writing a take that Goes Big is all the other takes it spawns. In this case, it led to an all-week slugfest in my mentions about what, exactly, a YOLO decision was, who was eligible to make one, and what else might be driving people to give up on their straight-line career ambitions after a year of pandemic dread and remote-work burnout.
Anne Helen Petersen – who literally wrote the book on burnout – proposed calling it “The ‘Capitalism is Broken’ Economy” instead of “The YOLO Economy.” Her reasoning being, basically, that the workers she hears from aren’t experiencing this as a fun, exciting time to reinvent themselves and escape the corporate rat race, but something much more desperate.
She writes:
These workers are not lazy or whimsical or seeking their bliss, and these moves aren’t quarter-life or mid-life crises, or something that a mandated one-week vacation will fix. These workers were, or are, on the verge of collapse — and have come to terms with the reality that something has to give. 
And Dror Poleg, riffing on both my column and Petersen’s, suggests reframing the “YOLO economy” discussion entirely. Instead of understanding it as a case of burned-out workers making bold, risky decisions about their own futures, he suggests that we should understand YOLOing as, basically, the rational response to an economic system in which the traditional version of upward mobility is all but closed off.
He writes:
We live in a world with low-to-negative interest rates where your money is guaranteed to lose value by simply sitting in the bank. The cost of anything real is going up — houses, medical care, toilet paper, Coca Cola. All industries are or will soon be disrupted by technology, including the technology industry itself. Traditional institutions seem unable to rise up to the challenges ahead (pick your preferred left/right argument as to why).
Why would you sacrifice your best years for a corporate job if that job is not likely to be there in five — let alone ten — years? Why put your money on safe assets when they are guaranteed to diminish your purchasing power? Why would you trust the government to catch you if you fall when the government cannot fulfill its own basic functions even while you’re still on your feet?
Poleg’s argument is one I’ve been thinking about this week, as I think about the many flavors of YOLOing I’m seeing out there.
The stories in my column were basically divided into two camps: Adventure YOLOs and Crisis YOLOs. Adventure YOLOs are the decisions made by people who decide to change paths because they’re bored and overworked. They’ve got money in the bank, and they can afford to give themselves a year (or more) of runway while they find something that fulfills them on a deeper level. They are definitionally privileged, and not totally dissimilar from the corporate overachievers who have always quit their jobs to take surfing lessons in Costa Rica, or collect air-cooled Porsches, or whatever wealthy midlife crisis-havers do these days.
Crisis YOLOs are the ones Petersen is talking about – the decisions made under extreme emotional and economic duress by people who simply realize that their status quo is unsustainable. Crisis YOLOs are self-preserving, rather than self-actualizing, and they generally look less like throwing caution to the wind than throwing in the towel.
There’s also a third type of YOLO I didn’t include in the column, which is related to some of the economic realities Poleg identifies.
You could call it the Nothing Matters YOLO. These are abrupt decisions and risky gambles brought on not by a desire for novelty or an I-can’t-take-it-anymore surrender to circumstances, but by a kind of bleak nihilism that says, in so many words: I’m probably fucked anyway, so why not go for broke?
The best examples of a Nothing Matters YOLO I’ve seen came earlier this year, during the GameStop fiasco. For weeks, the r/wallstreetbets forum on Reddit was filled with posts from users explaining why they had just decided to bet huge sums of money on a meme stock. Many of them weren’t wealthy. They weren’t just teens doing it for the memes, or idiots making a rash financial decision. They were simply people who sized up the future and identified, possibly correctly, that they were trapped in a downward mobility spiral, and that no amount of 9-to-5 striving was going to get them out of it.
Here’s an example of Nothing Matters philosophy, expressed by user eatee410 in a mega-thread full of people explaining why they decided to bet on GameStop, despite the risk of losing all their money:
I like the stock and live with my parents. Worst case scenario I lose it all but I still live with my parents. Best case scenario I get big gains and still will probably live with my parents.
Another user, with the delightful username High-Def-Piss-Jugs, justified his GameStop YOLO thusly:
Dad lost his pension and retirement when the airlines filed bankruptcy around 2002ish. They got a bailout but he didn’t. Parents got their house foreclosed on around 2012.
We’re angry and have nothing to lose…because we don’t have much.
You see this attitude all the time on TikTok and other Zoomer-dominated spaces. “What do we have to lose?” is becoming the generational battle cry of young people who grew up understanding that the old rules didn’t apply – that they could go to college, study hard, get a good job, and still not achieve their parents’ standard of living. They’re not scared of failure, because they’ve already assumed they’ll fail. They’re not socking money into their 401ks, because the idea that they’ll retire before the climate burns or the American economic system collapses seems laughable. They see themselves not as chess players carefully plotting out their next moves, but as patients with terminal illnesses who might as well have some fun on the way out.
It’s a completely fascinating development, and one I don’t think I’ve seen adequately unpacked and explained. (Side note: if you’ve read something good about Zoomer economic nihilism, link me!)
We don’t yet understand the implications of an entire generation growing up with this kind of attitude toward money and ambition. But we can predict one thing: this isn’t the last time a bunch of disillusioned, emotionally drained young people will decide to give up on stable careerism and hop off the beaten path. In fact, pretty soon, it might be the default.
Odds and ends
– I did an interview with BRINK, a newish publication about risk and resilience, about Futureproof and what we should do to prepare for AI-related disruptions.
– Daron Acemoglu, one of my favorite labor/automation/AI economists, has a new paper out in the Boston Review called “Redesigning AI” that nicely balances optimism and realism about all the good things AI is capable of doing, on the one hand, and the steep challenges we face, on the other hand, in building an economic and political system that is capable of actually using AI to do these good things rather than more profitable bad things.
– I’ve been amazed by the number of people who tell me they’re listening to Futureproof as an audiobook. (I don’t get exact sales figures, but if my reader email box is representative, I’d guess that audio represents at least 40 percent of sales.) So I’m intrigued by the new “audiobook first” approach being taken by Malcolm Gladwell and the folks at Pushkin Industries, which will start by making high-quality audiobooks (complete with sound effects, archival tape, etc.), and then sell those books to print publishers only after the audiobook script has been written.
– If you want to wonk out on some of the RPA (robotic process automation) stuff we’ve covered in previous newsletters, I learned a lot from Jon Ma’s detailed teardown of UIPath, the biggest RPA firm in the market, which went public last week in one of the largest software IPOs in history. I continue to believe that the growth of RPA is one of the most important trends in tech today. And it is not nearly as boring as it sounds!
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Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose @kevinroose

Notes on life among the machines.

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