For Lee Tilghman, There Is Life After Influencing

Anna Russett, a workshop attendee, marveled at how similar Ms. Tilghman’s experience had been to her own. Ms. Russett, 31, worked on social media for a big advertising firm in Chicago, while amassing tens of thousands of followers on her personal Instagram account. Curious, she decided to go all in on influencing just “to see what that would feel like,” Ms. Russett recalled. It turned out to feel quite lucrative.

“It was like, if I do this one post, rent’s covered for the month,” she said. It was exhilarating, but unstable. She never felt able to relax, and then she felt worse for not appreciating what to others seemed like uncomplicated good luck. “It made me feel kind of lost,” Ms. Russett said. In 2020, she found a job on the product team at YouTube. She now gets health care through work and paid time off. She doesn’t wonder how she’ll keep her numbers up while she’s on vacation.

She still uses Instagram, as does Ms. Tilghman, but Ms. Russett’s last sponsored post is from 2021. (Ms. Tilghman’s is from the start of 2022, although she said she did accept a direct-to-consumer couch in exchange for a tag eight months later.) “I still sometimes fantasize about it, not having a boss,” Ms. Russett said, thinking about the pull of influencing. “But I know it’s not realistic; that’s not how it was, and that’s not how it would be.”

Her sister, Andrea Russett, has almost three million YouTube subscribers and over 1.5 million followers on TikTok. She dropped out of high school and never went to college. At 27, she’s still on a path she chose when she was in middle school. “It is this moment where it’s like, ‘Well, what else do I do and can I do this forever?’” Ms. Russett said of her sister’s deliberations. “I see it, and I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, thank god I didn’t go that route.’”

Casey Lewis, who helms the After School newsletter about Gen Z consumer trends, predicts more pivots and exits. TikTok has elevated creators faster than other platforms and burned them out quicker, she said.

Ms. Lewis expects a swell of former influencers taking jobs with P.R. agencies, marketing firms and product development conglomerates. She pointed out that creators have experience not just in video and photo editing, but in image management, crisis communication and rapid response. “Those skills do transfer,” she said.