The Depression walloped one generation. The recession, oil shortage, and stagflation whipped mine. Many classmates avoided the job market, or the pronounced lack thereof, by diving into grad school and further debt, which drove them toward more lucrative professional if not necessarily innovative endeavors.
These are days of diminishing economic returns for the “millennial generation,” adults 18 to 34, entering a challenging and rapidly changing marketplace.
But out of hardship springs ingenuity. More members of Gen Y are doing creative, entrepreneurial jobs than was true in prior generations, certainly more than the Baby Boom.
There are 80,000 bartenders in America with bachelor’s degrees, the series notes, but that’s not a bad thing. Bartenders can make excellent money—some are star “mixologists” —while their days are free to further their education or pursue other interests.
This generation is far less elitist about old distinctions between white- and blue-collar jobs—the terms barely exist—or working in the service industry. They like getting their hands dirty, working outside.
By doing more, working in different environments, they acquire a second education, becoming more worldly about other people and the economy, understanding that the rewards of vital work extend far beyond the monetary.
The younger generation is more prone to teaching, to volunteering, to helping the less fortunate. Its members tend to travel to places where there’s work. Many twentysomethings lead inspirational lives, doing a lot at once.
People like Nathan Winkler-Rhoades, 29, who earned a doctorate in psychology from Harvard last fall while launching the acclaimed Philadelphia wood-fired pizza truck Pitruco with two partners.
“Everyone thinks that it’s the coolest thing,” Winkler-Rhoades says, meaning the fire-engine-red truck, not his postdoc fellowship at MIT. “I think that it has something to do with the entrepreneurial aspect of the business. We like doing something that no one has done before, putting a brick oven inside an enclosed truck.”
Where other people see limitations, he sees freedom.
“In this economy, it’s like we’re able to kind of do whatever we can do,” he says, as long as they’re not dependent on one job. One business partner, Jonah Fliegelman, taught tennis to inner-city kids, and now manages real estate and Pitruco.
“Teaching appealed to my family’s values of giving back to the community,” says Fliegelman, also 29, who loves the autonomy of running a food truck and working in real estate. “I like how tangible it is.”
If parents and grandparents tended toward the vertical, hoping job responsibilities and paychecks would forever trend upward like a bullish stock market, this generation lives more laterally, assembling a patchwork quilt of jobs. Many young adults seem far wiser and more worldly than those of us who followed traditional, cubicle-driven careers where we worked in one profession forever, a folly in this economy.
Certainly, pragmatism pays, as do the disciplines that lead to jobs. But rather than pampering young adults, the economy is teaching valuable lessons early — how to be flexible and deal with rejection while finding multiple sources of fulfillment.
As the mother of a college-bound senior, I’ve never heard so many teenagers already declaring their intention to major in the sciences and engineering. Once you studied only what you loved; now the advice is to learn history, sure, but also statistics and Arabic.
If life is a collection of indelible experiences, this generation is precocious. We live in interesting times. But we’re also producing truly interesting young adults.
©2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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