How Millennials Feel About Work:
Not Just in Brooklyn and Berkeley but in the Post-Industrial Heartland Too
Could there be a new – and altogether different – sort of economy burgeoning with today’s millennial generation? We thought they were “feeling the Bern,” but maybe it really was the cauterization of capitalism.
Raised during the economic disaster of 2008, the youngest millennials – as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau – are somewhere around 20 while the oldest, in their late 30s, are flirting with true adulthood. And while there are plenty of hard-working millennials reshaping attitudes and expectations in places like Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington, Toledo’s Warehouse District has become ground zero for millennial designers and digerati in Ohio.
Take Seed Coworking, for example. In the heart of the district, Seed functions as a kind of office “co-op” of young web developers, video producers, and designers. A space for “anyone who needs a professional work environment that isn’t your typical office,” freelancers, startups, and even the average Joe can rent a daily workspace in Seed’s open, collaborative environment for about $50-$200 a month.
Across the street from Seed in the hip, family-owned Maddie & Bella Coffee Roasters, I spoke to a few of Seed’s collaborators. Over responsibly sourced slow-drip coffee, I asked them if they felt like the “prosperity train” has left the station, taking a rocketing stock market and affordable homes with it. To my surprise, they didn’t feel that way at all…
Dylan, a content developer born in 1987, thinks it’s time for a recalibration of capitalism. To him, the stock market is a knot of algorithms manipulated by Masters of the Universe that has no meaning in his life.
“Capitalism is all about me, me, me, and more, more, more, to the detriment of the planet,” Dylan said. “It’s based on greed and consumption.”
Kristin Kiser, a brand and marketing strategist who is more Gen X than millennial, agrees that young people today don’t see brands as totems of their lifestyle the way some of us once proudly sported Polo shirts. Now, she says, brands and products have been replaced by the experiences they represent. Three weeks backpacking in Slovenia have become the new Rolex. You can flood Instagram with pictures of yourself on mountain peaks day after day, while a shot of your blinged-out wrist gets old fast.
Even luxury consumables have seen this shift, notes Kristin’s husband Andrew Newby, a digital marketer and whiskey distiller. Whiskey lovers can see the stills and talk to the Minister of Cocktails while sipping their favorite blends. Look no further than the explosion of craft beer or handmade bicycles and you’ll see that it really doesn’t matter where you make it… As long as it’s local.
In their various businesses, Andrew and Kristin employ several young creatives. When asked to describe their average millennial employee, and the answer was… “highly mobile.” Kristin summed it up kindly when she said, “They devalue dedication and prioritize evolution.” Career longevity is not valued as much as a variety of specific skills and experiences, which creates higher turnover and adds to the gig economy.
Kristin and Andrew’s goal, like so many of their employees, is to do what they love and build a business from it. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy… or that much fun.
…the stock market is a knot of algorithms manipulated by Masters of the Universe that has no meaning in his life.
Most millennials grew up with dizzying new devices – like 2007’s iPhone – amplified by 2008’s frightening financial instability. It’s easy to imagine anxious parents obsessively grooming their children to succeed in a world whose technology and promise they, themselves, didn’t fully understand.
Because of this uncertainty and upheaval, today’s 20-somethings often juggle multiple jobs, anxieties, and relationships in an attempt to eliminate a single point of perceived failure in their professional and personal lives. This allows them to be web designers by day, bartenders by night, with “side gigs” in between. And while pursuing your passion may sound appealing, stress lurks behind every espresso machine… often piled with a mountain of college loans that makes every financial decision more difficult.
Back at Seed Coworking, Dylan said that while his lifestyle might look fun, he has no structure or boundaries for his work. Ty, another Seed coworker, agreed that he feels the pressure of work anywhere he goes, “fun” or not. (Ironically, he added that he hated to see his father work at a job he didn’t like until he died.) For some, there is a way out. Many in the gig economy aspire to “get FIREd”…
“Financial Independence, Retire Early” is their mantra… To retire early and focus on things that matter – giving back to their community and leaving the world a better place. It’s cutting back and learning to live a pared-down existence versus “keeping up with the Joneses.”
I came away from my venture into the gig economy with feelings of both admiration and concern…
Admiration for the ingenuity with which young people relentlessly search for authentic ways to build a self-sufficient life, and concern that this restless search for authenticity while avoiding a dreaded single point of failure will lead to fractured professional and personal relationships.
And I can’t help but wonder where the jobs will be for those not as educated and nimble as the coworkers at Seed. And will anyone want those jobs?
Perhaps that’s why a disdain for capitalism and the promise of universal income are so attractive to millennials… As they’ve experienced it, the system is broken. Yet, everyone I spoke with was passionate – even optimistic – about voting and was deeply committed to the environment and improving quality of life. So, music aside, I’ll take Hipsters over Hippies any day.
John Fedderke is too young to be Don Draper and too old to be Mark Zuckerberg. He owned an advertising agency for many years and, after retiring, became Director of Marketing for The Toledo Blade. He has lived in Toledo all his life.