Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Passion economy

How the Great Resignation is opening new doors for creatives


Published on November 16, 2021

Millions of U.S. workers left their jobs this year. For many, it’s not about burnout—it’s about opportunity.

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“Don’t quit your day job” used to be conventional wisdom. Then the world turned upside down. 

In the past two years, people have been looking at their lives and wondering if they wanted to keep devoting so much time and energy to work that was neither stable nor fulfilling. After proving they could work effectively at home, they started to realize they didn’t need an office after all. So when they were asked to return, many declined and decided to invest their energy in work with more purpose and passion.

Some creatives found new jobs that offered the flexibility to keep working from home. Others joined the creator economy, turning side hustles into new businesses where they had a better chance of making a living doing what they love.

But it turns out, these workers weren’t bailing on their careers—they were taking control of them. 

“An incredible open mindedness”

Just as people were rethinking traditional ways of working, companies began adopting an entrepreneurial approach to reaching new customer segments that emerged during the pandemic. That meant there was a need to hire new talent—and remote work removed the single biggest barrier to employment: location. Suddenly, a much wider pool of writers, designers, and animators were available for hire. 

“It's a perfect storm of opportunity for talent, brands, and platforms alike,” says Jay Haines, founder of Grace Blue, an executive search firm that serves clients such as Microsoft, SAP, Spotify, Omnicom, and Coca-Cola.

In June 2020, Grace Blue launched Transition, a pro-bono service to support creatives in advertising, marketing, and media who’d been laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19. “Anyone who had lost their job could register on this site,” says Haines. “Then any of our clients around the world could submit any open recs so they could find each other. It was created to help that community when they were at their lowest ebb.”


“It's a perfect storm of opportunity for talent, brands, and platforms alike.” — Jay Haines, founder of Grace Blue

After seeing success and an ongoing need for the resources Transition provided, Grace Blue decided to turn that into a new venture that will soon be launching to serve the needs of those who want to work a different way. He believes having access to these opportunities can lead creatives to reimagine where, how, and what they might do next. “It gives them a chance to really pursue their passions,” says Haines.

A wave of entrepreneurial thinking

Though the Great Resignation officially began in April 2021 when four million people walked away from their jobs, the wave has been building ever since. But amidst the hype surrounding the Great Resignation, some questions remain. Is this an impulsive reaction to extraordinary circumstances? Or is this a true paradigm shift toward worker empowerment? 

Recent statistics suggest trading full-time employment for full-time freedom isn’t a pandemic-related anomaly. It’s a trend that’s been building momentum every year. As Stripe’s Edwin Lee found:

While 2020 saw a jump in new creators, it wasn’t a one-time spike. A year later, creators are still coming online at a record clip: the number of creators is up a whopping 48% year-over-year… In the US, the number of creators earning a living wage has increased 41% year-over-year.”

“People have much more access to dream jobs by virtue of the way the world has turned,” says Haines. 

“There's never been a better moment to pursue the projects you really love and be selective about the work you want to do.”

He believes talent that was once overlooked is finally being discovered and valued in a new way. Where they may have felt stuck in the agency realm in years past, they’re now being courted for projects that tap into their unique skill sets. 

“We find ourselves at a very unusual moment in time when the structures around the way people work have been blown up,” says Haines. “That’s caused an incredible open mindedness as to where they are in their journey, professionally and personally.”

New ways to connect with customers and clients 

As we learned from Li Jin, founder of Atelier Ventures and Side Hustle Stack, there are now more ways than ever to build relationships with fans, followers, and customers. Creators can now sell directly to people all over the world, and as a result, many feel liberated from their dependence on social media. 

Haines says although many platforms have been created in response to the pandemic, there was already a latent desire for more freedom and flexibility—and a willingness to work differently. “The market was already created,” he says. “The people in the market just didn't have that outlet. The moment the outlet was there, people poured into it.”

For creative people working traditional full-time jobs, this shift has brought unprecedented independence. Why work a 9-5 when your passion project can pay the bills? Thirteen years after WIRED co-founder Kevin Kelly proposed his theory of 1,000 True Fans, companies such as Patreon, Substack, and Shopify have now turned what used to be a wild leap of faith into more of a calculated risk. 

“He saw the future then and was absolutely right,” says Haines. “There's never been a better moment to pursue the projects you really love and be selective about the work you want to do.” And as technology evolves, Haines believes machine learning will make it even easier for creative people to find new clients and customers. 

Haines believes this moment is a sea change of sorts. Creatives are realizing their skills are in much greater demand than they thought. “For the first time, I’m seeing people step out of roles without jobs to go, which you would normally never see,” he says. This shift has given creative talent a confidence boost—and reason to be optimistic about a future on their own. 

Haines’ advice to those who need a nudge? “People just have to be brave and take that step.”