With employment prospects poor and career ladders going nowhere, it might just be better to invent yourself a job. Meet the ambitious millennials taking a new kind of career risk

In the spring of 2006 the youth of France took to the streets in the country’s largest protests since 1968. The demonstrations concerned a new employment contract law that opponents said would contribute to précarité – a pervasive sense of risk and uncertainty over future employment and material wellbeing. With youth unemployment then at a scandalising 23%, the young people of France were calling on the government to take action.

Fast forward to 2014. Youth unemployment in France is at 25%, and the government is doing what it can to help. But you don’t see the youth descending into the streets en masse to protest against the existential condition of risk. Having witnessed the financial crisis of 2008, the ensuing global recession and the general failure of governments and institutions everywhere to look out for them, today’s youth view risk simply as a fact of life, to be tolerated or even embraced.

To explore why this change is happening now, Protein conducted the Risk Survey at the end of last year, and found that millennials around the world are taking matters into their own hands and, in the process, reinventing work as we know it. The economic shift has coincided with shifts in values and technology, leading more millennials to spurn traditional jobs, take risks and make great leaps to start entirely new forms of career paths.

Lower Loyalties

Much of this new risk-embracing attitude is the result of wider shifts in today’s economic environment. University graduates are not finding the job opportunities that their parents did, and those who do find traditional positions often no longer view them as long-term commitments.

Our Risk Survey found that millennials no longer consider it necessary to be tied to a single employer, with 84% of respondents stating they would rather have 10 jobs that lasted two years, than one job that lasted 20 years. “They saw their parents get laid off from corporations that they had devoted many years to,” says marketing expert and author Bill Connolly. “As a result, millennials don’t have loyalty to companies like their parents did.”

Growing Up Slowly

Millennials are also waiting longer to settle down than previous generations. Student debt in the United States has ballooned to $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and shows no sign of decreasing. “Young people face the prospect of taking on very large debts to complete their education and to pay back mortgages which may be five or six times their annual income rather than the 2.5 times annual income which was more typical of previous generations,” says Dr Karen Evans, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Liverpool.

A survey from the American Institute of CPAs found that student debt had caused 41% of respondents to delay saving for retirement, 29% to put off buying homes, and 15% to delay plans to marry. Little surprise that in 2011 the median age for first marriages reached historic highs in the United States, at 26.5 years for women and 28.7 years for men, according to the Pew Research Institute.

Protein’s Risk Survey found that almost half, at 46%, of respondents said they didn’t really have any responsibilities at all. “There’s an expectation of having some time to figure things out on your own,” says Leslie Forman, an international career expert and entrepreneur based in Santiago, Chile. “What might be seen as an adult decision such as getting married or buying a house, I think for many people is seen as something you do after you launch your career.”

This delayed maturity has added what could almost be considered a new life stage for many millennials. Increasingly society understands that young people will have to grapple with financial struggles and devote time to career building after university and before they reach “true” adulthood.

Materialism to Meaning

Limited job opportunities and an inability to accumulate wealth are also behind a shift in values among millennial workers. “Meaning is the new money,” as James Wallman, author of the book Stuffocation, succinctly puts it. “Rather than show off through physical goods, like previous generations used to, they are expressing their identities and getting status through experiences they can share through social media.”

According to our Risk Survey, 62% of millennials would quit their current job tomorrow for a lifechanging adventure. Such excursions are of course highly gratifying for the participants and also have the added benefit of providing exactly the sort of internet-facilitated personal status boost Wallman is talking about.

However, many millennials are also unwilling to accept that these two propositions are mutually exclusive. They want to see the world and do meaningful work at the same time. “They’re trying to balance their ambition and wanderlust, and the main desire that I’ve heard from many people is that they don’t want to settle for one or the other,” says Forman. Her contacts are determined to build international careers and aren’t satisfied with volunteering or teaching English long term.

Young Entrepreneurs

With less loyalty to traditional career ladders, and with more time and a greater emphasis on pursuing meaningful experiences, more people of this generation are instead choosing to make their own career paths. “Their mentality is that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, a youth-oriented research and consulting firm. “That’s why many are choosing the entrepreneurial path at this particular stage in their life.”

Our Risk Survey found that a third of respondents in the study already run their own business. Other research released in June 2013 in the UK by The Prince’s Trust and RBS shows that 27% of unemployed young people would rather set up their own business than continue seeking jobs. Others are taking on extra work simply to make ends meet or as a way of supporting themselves while they pursue a meaningful, albeit less well paid, full-time career. Although only 5% of UK youth are currently self-employed, a YouGov poll found that 43% had made money from some form of entrepreneurial activity, whether selling a product or freelancing a service.

Aside from these side hustles, many in this generation have simply quit to start again on their own: a plan B where entrepreneurship is seen as a way to design a lifestyle that is more conducive to meaningful experiences than the traditional nine-to-five grind. According to a study commissioned by Millennial Branding and oDesk, an online freelance job site, 57% of millennials who had left ‘regular jobs’ said they had quit in order to work for themselves, versus 42% of survey respondents overall. The most common reason respondents cited for quitting was freedom, at 69%. Comparing freelance work to “regular jobs”, 92% agreed that contract or freelance work allowed greater location flexibility than traditional employment.

There is even an admiration among this generation for those who make risky career moves. Inspired by the work icons of their generation – young, successful technology entrepreneurs such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Tumblr’s David Karp – they respect peers who eschew traditional careers in favour of their own work paths.

We found this in our Risk Survey: the vast majority, at 93%, in fact, said they would have more respect for a person if they quit a steady job in order to start their own business but failed, than had they simply stayed in that job and never taken the risk.

Tools of the Trade

Of course, the level of connectedness needed to sustain many freelance and independent careers, especially across continents, would not be possible without internet tools that we take for granted today. For a start, it’s easy to find ways to get the necessary funding to be independent. Crowdsourcing networks such as Pave and Upstart – similar in function to Kickstarter – help budding entrepreneurs to seek and find financial support for their careers and projects.

Then there are the social media and online collaborative working tools which began to reach maturity around the same time that the collapsing economy radically changed the way millennials think about careers. File transfer software such as WeTransfer and Dropbox has replaced heavy hard drives. Skype and Google Hangouts provide virtual means of hosting meetings. And cloud services such as Google Drive allow documents to be worked on by several people in real time.

Tools for crafting an online business have also become much more intuitive and easy to use for non-specialists. Website builders such as Squarespace and e-commerce platforms like Shopify have lowered the technical and financial barriers to entry for would-be entrepreneurs hoping to sell their wares online. Integrating a PayPal button into a website isn’t the chore it used to be.

Social Following

Social media has also has created opportunities for freelancers and entrepreneurs to share their work with a much wider audience than was previously possible. Building an online network requires talent, time and persistence, but underemployed millennials have more time than money. Online social networking is essentially free, yet virtual contacts can serve as the sort of safety net that employers are no longer able to provide.

Austin Kleon, author of the new book Show Your Work!, puts it this way: “Imagine if your next boss didn’t have to read your résumé because he already reads your blog. Imagine losing your job but having a social network of people familiar with your work and ready to help you find a new one. Imagine turning a side project or a hobby into your profession because you had a following that could support you.”

In spite of uncertain prospects and the real possibility of failure, millennials are embracing risk and turning to entrepreneurship like no previous generation. According to our research, they consider risk challenging and exciting. In any case, risk is no longer the threat, as it was in 2006. It’s a fundamental part of millennials’ lives and careers,
and they’re not waiting around for that to change.

Originally published in Protein Journal.