Talent   //   December 16, 2022

Why people in their early 20s are vanishing from the workplace

When the pandemic struck, Forrest McCall, like a lot of other people, found himself wondering what his future work life would look like. But he knew one thing for sure: he had to make a change. 

“I was burnt out of my corporate tech job, and even though I was compensated generously, I was exhausted,” recalled McCall, who is in his twenties. “Working 40 hours per week was draining and the lack of time and freedom was crushing.”

McCall started blogging and came to realize he could earn a living by way of side hustles. Within two years, he was doing well enough to finally leave his day job. “I think there are so many freelance and side hustle options for people to make money at their own pace that the corporate grind is becoming less appealing,” he said.

A number of people in their 20s who participate in the labor force have mysteriously vanished — and analysts are divided on exactly why. As The Wall Street Journal reported, those over the age of 15 years old who are either employed or are looking for a job fell from an average of 63.1% in 2019 to 61.7% in 2021, rebounding to 62.2% this past October. However, for workers aged between 20 and 24 years old, the 72.1% average recorded in 2019 was stuck at 70.8% as of this fall.

Experts have attributed the trend to everything from childcare needs to long Covid to professionals sitting on the sidelines ’till just the right job comes along. Meanwhile, many other people like McCall have given up the corporate life altogether to join the growing, happy ranks of the self-employed.

Fiverr, a platform that connects freelancers with people or businesses looking to hire them, reported that the majority of its freelancers are now Gen Z and millennials, with more than one-third of its total users being under 30 years old.

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen a major shift in career preferences, especially among younger generations, who are the main drivers behind the movement towards more flexible, autonomous work,” said Gali Arnon, Fiverr’s CMO. “For young people, the opportunity to pursue a freelance career and be their own boss provides major appeal, especially as more people discover the value of having control over their work life while being passionate about their work.”

For Alexa Nizam, a copywriter in his mid-20s who is part of Fiverr’s network, being able to make more money and be more in charge of her schedule and work/life balance was a no-brainer. “I get to choose if I want to work more to try to grow my business, work less to enjoy more of my personal time, or fall somewhere in the middle,” she said. “It’s just freeing to be able to make your own choices about which projects and clients to take on and what work/life balance looks like.”

Kaela Williams, a branding and web designer and developer in her mid-20s who is also on Fiverr, said the job she had before going freelance, in tech support, was unfulfilling in several ways, ultimately affecting her mental health. “I loved the company but not the job,” as she put it, adding, “I wanted flexibility. I like being able to control my own time.”

They also want more control over their money. According to a study by Bank of America, nearly three-quarters (73%) of Gen Z said the current economy has made saving more challenging, with inflation making it harder to save for financial goals (59%) and pay down their debt (43%) while creating more financial stress (56%). Fully three-quarters (75%) of those polled said they were seeking ways to earn additional income. 

Economic worries have stoked interest in freelancing and side gigs beyond what was seen in the thick of the pandemic. A recent study by the American Staffing Association and the Harris Poll found that more than half (58%) of Americans polled are considering getting a second job in the next year, with an even greater number (72%) of those who are Gen Z currently considering a side hustle.

Ronald Ander, CEO of SEOAnt, an ecommerce SEO platform, said employers looking to attract younger Gen Z professionals and compete against the allure of going it on one’s own must create an organization whose work speaks to this group — appealing to their commitment to a sustainable planet, for example. With that in mind, Ander’s company takes on only those clients that are involved in sustainable projects or products. 

Also benefiting its efforts to attract those in their early 20s is its custom onboarding process and the sense of community it has fostered, Ander added. But perhaps nothing has resonated with young professionals like its shift to hybrid work, which has been central to recruiting Gen Z workers. “Giving them the option to work from home or the office as they please is what most [people in] their early 20s want,” he said. “Yet the current job market fails to provide it freely.” 

As Fortune recently put it, millennials want two things to stay in vogue: high-waisted jeans and hybrid work, stating, “The thing that will keep your workers from quitting is the one thing you don’t want to give them.” (Hint: it’s not the clothes.)