“The Work Shift” series is written for Daily Hive by Gerald Narciso, a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, as he speaks with millennial and Gen Z workers who are navigating the post-pandemic job market in real-time.
Melissa Tolentino was considered one of the lucky ones during the global pandemic. The 36-year-old social media strategist possessed rare job security while employed at a trendy Vancouver marketing agency.
But she felt stuck. Even before the pandemic, she was unfulfilled at her 9-to-5, fearing she would never earn enough money in Vancouver to own a condo.
Her frustration at work worsened after her agency was acquired by an international conglomerate in March 2020. The workload increased and she found herself constantly putting in overtime during her evenings and weekends. In an already stressful time in the world, her job added to her mental, emotional, and physical well-being. She became resentful.
“I wasn’t happy in that corporate world,” said Tolentino, now the owner of Flourishette, an online bakery. “I felt like I was just an employee and if I left, no one would care. I would be replaced as soon as possible.”
So, she quit. In January 2021, Tolentino put in a generous, one-month resignation notice to her corporate job and has not looked back since. Tolentino enrolled at Vancouver Community College’s (VCC) Baking and Pastry Arts program, while simultaneously doing some marketing consulting work. She found solace and inspiration following in her parents’ small business ownership footsteps, creating Filipino-inspired desserts like ube cakes and miso chocolate cookies. The success came organically.
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“It was as simple as wanting to start an Instagram food page just for fun,” Tolentino said. “I started to sell things part-time and it just kind of grew from there. I saw there was a market.”
Expanding past social media, Tolentino, along with other up-and-coming female-owned retailers, hosted several pop-up markets in Gastown and Granville Island. Her online store has taken off and she recently moved her baking production to a large commercial kitchen. A brick-and-mortar location is the next goal.
“I have a lot of loved ones that have supported my decision and are rooting for me on the sidelines,” said Tolentino. “And to be honest, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to marketing. I could always find something.”
The growing trend
You don’t need to understand blockchain to recognize Katreena Tecson’s recent ascension.
In the last two years, the 29-year-old metaverse architect and NFT educator has racked up hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok, sat on various thought leadership panels, collaborated with global web3 influencers, and has jet set to business meetings and conferences in IG-friendly locations like New York City, Paris, and Miami.
The Vancouver native’s latest project is building a complex metaverse cemetery, joining forces with her hand-picked global team of freelance software engineers, 3D artists, and gaming developers.
But her rise is as accidental as it is remarkable. Exactly 36 months ago, Tecson was laid off as a corporate architect technologist.
“At the beginning, I would have never thought all of this was possible,” she said. “As an entrepreneur, I’ve been able to pick and choose who I work with and what I want to work on based on my personal mission and values.”
“And it’s the best feeling.”
@coconft This is not the only way to randomly generate NFTs 🤓 #nft #nftart #howtoNFT #cryptopunks #bayc #supducks ♬ original sound – cocoNFT
The great renegotiation
Tecson and Tolentino are shining examples of perhaps an emerging trend in Vancouver and beyond: millennial and Gen Z workers reinventing themselves during the pandemic, trading their traditional corporate gigs for entrepreneurship. It’s a spinoff of the Great Resignation, where nearly 57 million empowered employees in the United States alone between January 2021 and February 2022 quit their jobs and levelled up.
“It’s really a great renegotiation,” Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labour studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told Daily Hive. “In some cases, [workers] were taking advantage of the tight labour market and moving into better-paid positions.”
“The pandemic also meant that many workers faced the reality that their employers were willing to risk their health and safety, and they were unwilling to work for heartless employers if other jobs were available,” Givan said.
According to a 2022 study conducted by Ownr, the Canadian business and legal management platform, 45.6% of Canadian entrepreneurs were working regular corporate jobs just prior to starting their businesses.
Before her life was immersed in the metaverse, Tecson was an entry-level technologist at a glossy architecture firm in downtown Vancouver trying to climb the corporate ladder. But in late February 2020, on the eve of the global pandemic, an urgent email from HR popped up in the corner of her desktop.
The message read: “Can you please come to the meeting room now?”
Moments later, Tecson was laid off. She was among the large group of casualties the firm let go that day because of the looming pandemic and recent business struggles. Carefully crafted instructions about a minimal severance package and expiring benefits ensued.
“I was in shock,” admitted Tecson, a graduate of BCIT’s architecture program.
The pandemic pivot
Mass corporate layoffs during the height of COVID-19 were – and still is – an unfortunate sign of the times. In the first month of the pandemic, one-in-five Canadian businesses had laid off 80 percent of their staff according to Statistics Canada. Most industries in Vancouver and across the globe were impacted. Some layoffs were temporary, but the majority were permanent.
“The world has become much more complex, volatile, and unstable as a result of the pandemic,” said Saeed Rahman, an assistant professor in the University of the Fraser Valley’s (UFV) School of Business. “[The younger workforce] are fully aware that they are not going to have as stable of a life as their parents or grandparents had.”
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In addition to job uncertainty, many feel undervalued and disposable. The delivery of the layoff news is often detached, if not cruel. In Spring 2020, one Burnaby-based tech company informed several dozen of its remote employees of their new-found unemployment by shutting off access to their laptops immediately after an all-staff Zoom call.
Tecson felt discarded by her own layoff. While her ego may have been initially bruised, she concedes that a traditional career in architecture was wearing thin long before her dismissal. Firms felt old school and hierarchical. Big ideas were often shut down and clients tended to water down creative designs in favour of cost savings. And the pay? Tecson was pulling just above $50,000 annually and her earning potential significantly improving in the foreseeable future seemed improbable.
“Vancouver is a very expensive place to live, and I’m like, ‘How do people survive on that income?’” said Tecson, noting she was living at home at the time of her layoff.
The next chapter
Unemployment, even in a global crisis, served as a rebirth for Tecson. She launched a successful sustainable clothing accessory business that she heavily promoted on Instagram.
Those same social media skills would be her niche in the web3 space. On TikTok and Instagram reels, she made complex technical terms digestible. She romanticized NFT concepts, implementing Gen Z slang and Doja Cat musical overlays in parody videos.
@coconft It really be like that though #coconft #nfts #blockchain ♬ original sound – Tik Toker
“I know that entrepreneurship life is not for everyone, but I think sometimes people don’t understand that if they want to step out of their comfort zone and try something new, it is possible,” said Tecson, who now earns more than double her former income by launching her own projects and contracting out to different web3 companies.
Starting your own business may offer flexibility and limitless earning potential, but it does not eliminate the work hours, stress, or probabilities. Approximately 20% of new businesses fail in the first year.
Tolentino has surpassed the one-year mark but admits she still has bad days. She sometimes messes up recipes, she still worries over finances, and can feel overworked – she is a business of one.
But she has never second-guessed her decision to quit.
“I was baking recently, and I just thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I just do this sooner?’” Tolentino said. “Anytime I have friends who want to quit and do something else, I tell them to do it.”