Not so long ago, the expectation was that a college degree placed graduates on the first rungs of a stable career ladder. But high unemployment has left many young Americans unable to even find the ladder. Recent graduates are going into debt to take extended unpaid internships, often after going deeply in debt to get their degree. Or they’re balancing unstable contract work with spells of unemployment, taking McJobs with no prospects, or moving into Mom’s basement.
But some young people are finding or inventing ways to make a living and maybe even make a difference.
In 2009, three years out of college and a year into the recession, Wesleyan graduate Rebecca Rosenfelt started her own company, Inhabit, a service for apartment and house vacation rentals. Like the collaborative consumption enterprise of car sharing, Inhabit’s Internet site connects existing resources—in this case, homes—with people who want to rent them, sometimes for less than the price of a hotel. From wine-makers in Sonoma to wine-drinkers in Paris, 100 people rent out their properties. Inhabit works, not just in spite of the economic downturn, but partly because of it.
It turns out that the non-traditional work life appeals to Rosenfelt more than the well-trod corporate path. “I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak, and I wanted to try my hand at making my own way in the world, when the cost would be low,” she said. “The bad economic climate meant that not only was there less stigma in not having a regular job, but many talented friends were unemployed and available to pitch in.” Self-employed people like Rosenfelt make some trade-offs: Being your own boss means no one times your lunch, but the emails never stop coming.
The same desire for independence cropped up repeatedly in the essays from 20-somethings I assembled for Share or Die. I asked for stories of young people finding new and productive ways of surviving the recession, and a common narrative emerged from the submissions. There’s more than enough fear and pain to go around, but ventures in the “real world” aren’t fueled just by anxiety. Whether living out of a backpack as a nomad freelancer, or starting a cooperative, young people are finding ways to survive independent of corporate jobs. Sharing resources, skills, and social energy is especially important to making this work.
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Milicent Johnson wrote about visiting Detroit, a city where the old paradigm has clearly failed, but a new one is taking root. Friends warned her before she left of criminals lurking in every abandoned house and dark alleyway. Instead she found streets buzzing with activity, young people running shops and cafes in storefronts where rent was cheap, and laid-off workers planting gardens in empty lots and starting sustainable communities. The deconstruction of Detroit created opportunities along with the destruction. The disruption of an economic crisis can allow a city—or a generation—to step back and reassess values. Johnson writes, “Within our lifetimes, many of us will have to find new ways to get our needs met, and a new meaning of what ‘the good life’ really is. Those who have stayed in Detroit are pioneers. It’s like what happens to a forest after a great fire. At first glance, it looks like everything is dead. But, if you look closer you’ll find that the rich soil is fertile and ready for planting. Detroit’s ground is fertile and being seeded.”
If any generation is equipped for recession, it’s this one. Educated to be flexible and creative, unemployed young graduates are like samurai without masters. Their passion and energy isn’t about saving capitalism from crisis but about finding a place for themselves in a world that won’t stay still or slow down. America’s Generation Y is faced with a great challenge, but if what I’ve seen is any indication, we’re up to the task.
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