Alex Bildsoe has no interest in a cubicle job. She doesn’t aspire to a big house, doesn’t want an expensive car.
The 27-year-old University of Minnesota graduate bikes or takes the bus to part-time jobs at a coffee shop and a bar, buys a lot of secondhand stuff and barters with friends for food — recently vegetables and buffalo sausage. She’s even sewn her own underwear.
“My well-being is the most important thing to me,” she said. “Having money is just kind of low on the totem pole.”
Weary or wary of corporate America, a significant number of people under age 35 are rejecting the perceived stability of an office job for something more flexible. Some are giving up money in exchange for freedom, with no plans to pursue a conventional career.
About half of young workers say they would prefer freelancing over a traditional 9-to-5 job, and two out of five want added vacation time more than a higher salary, according to NOISE, a consultancy that helps companies market to millennials.
“Money’s just not as important to them,” said Joe Kessler, the firm’s president. “That’s a very difficult thing for prior generations, myself included, to embrace and understand.”
For some, the change is as much a matter of circumstance as personal choice. Much of the millennial generation hit the workforce at a time when there were few opportunities, and some have responded by lowering their expectations.
Some 3.8 million people from ages 20 to 34 are unemployed. The official unemployment rate, which understates the weakness of the labor market, is 10.9 percent for 20- to 24-year-olds and 6.1 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds. For many, the only available jobs are temporary or part-time, with erratic hours and weak career prospects.
But along with the struggling millions, another group of workers is giving up on the traditional career model by choice. People are quitting office jobs to tend bar and focus on art or music. Others are working for themselves, or as occasional contractors in order to travel or spend more time with their children.
“We’re the generation of the Great Recession, and we’ve seen a lot of institutions fail us,” said Tom Allison, an analyst at Young Invincibles, a millennials think tank. “Whether it’s the financial institutions, or real estate, the housing market. A lot of the drive to sort of get a bigger house and fill it full of stuff has been eroded.”
Tori Siitari, 28, grew up with two cops for parents, studied management at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate, and took a desk job for a company that makes industrial controls.
It was a good position, Siitari said. But the end goal — building excellent control panels — didn’t matter to her personally. She spent a year thinking it over, devising budget scenarios, and then quit.
She started tending bar at a spot in northeast Minneapolis where her schedule changes every week and she makes about a third of her old salary. She dines out less, shops less, drinks less. During the day she plays music, writes music, meets friends for coffee or plays tennis with her dad.
Her mother raised her to be a “ball-busting businesswoman,” she said, and she sometimes has doubts about getting off that track. But for now she’s happy that she doesn’t need to set her life by a 40-hour clock, something she never enjoyed.
“Everybody’s just looking forward to Friday, looking forward to that weekend. Oh, it’s almost Friday!” she said. “Well, it’s going to almost be Monday, and you’re going to repeat this process.”
A lack of good options
Millennials wouldn’t be the first generation to pull back from careerism and consumerism. Many boomers rebelled in the 1960s and early ’70s, but by the ’80s their counterculture was mostly gone.
The current generation could follow a similar pattern, but it may take longer. One thing that changes people’s priorities is having children, and household formation — when people settle down, establish a home and start acting like good consumers — has slowed down a lot in the United States.
In the five years before 2009, 1.2 million new households were formed. In the five years since, only 559,000 have been formed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“A difference between the boomer demographic and the millennial demographic is when they formed households,” said Janelle Nelson, a stock analyst for RBC Wealth Management who tracks millennials. “Boomers got married earlier. When you get married and start to have children, that’s when you start to see a kick-in in spending.”
Young people are putting off marriage and family at least in part because the economy has been tough, said Tom Kochan, an MIT economist. He argues that the shift in work habits among millennials is mostly involuntary.
Put two choices before a young person with an education, he said: A full-time job with good pay and opportunities to learn on one side, and a flexible, part-time, less career-oriented job on the other.
“I’d be very hard-pressed to believe that you’re not going to get the person taking that first job,” Kochan said. “It’s really important to sort out preferences from rationalizations. When they find alternatives, they start to rationalize them, especially when they don’t see a better option going on, and I think there’s a lot of that going on in the economy.”
But part of the shift to a more fluid definition of career is also imposed by technology and the nature of work, said Allison, the Young Invincibles policy analyst. Being always on — something millennials are comfortable with — enables more flexibility.
“Young workers are more likely to check their e-mail late at night, at home, on vacation. The fact that your employer sort of has access to your life after you leave the office — that in itself is a breakdown of the 9 to 5,” Allison said.
And Allison stresses that while he sees a shift in work preferences among millennials, there is a dichotomy. Less-educated workers are struggling to find work that pays the bills. The people seeking more flexible types of work are generally well-educated, with more options. “That’s a luxury that a lot of young workers don’t have,” Allison said.
Changing work roles
For those with that freedom, never have there been so many options for unconventional work. Firms that place temporary workers at other companies are proliferating.
Elance Odesk is like a Match.com for companies and freelance software developers, customer service agents and video producers. FieldNation, based in Minneapolis, connects companies with freelancers for on-site jobs, such as maintenance at data centers or cable and fiber work.
“We really see this as a fundamental shift in the way work happens and the way work gets done,” said Billy Cripe, the firm’s chief marketing officer.
Brendon Schrader started the marketing consultancy Antenna in the North Loop in 2006 after quitting a job at 3M — a move his father did not understand. The firm contracts skilled marketers to Twin Cities firms for projects that could last a few months or a few years. About a third of Antenna’s pool of consultants is on a nontraditional schedule.
“We have some that work 20 hours a week,” Schrader said. “We have individuals that say I’d like to be engaged on a project from March through May and then I’m going to take the summer off and travel, or I want to take the summer off and stay home with my kids.”
For Shelly Hunert, the shift away from a hard-charging, all-consuming career came only after a two-year sprint toward it.
She grew up in southern Indiana and got a degree at Indiana University, then worked for two years as an IT consultant. The work was grueling — long hours, stressful. The pay was excellent. She decided to quit in March.
She had money saved, so she traveled. She went to Thailand, Laos, Germany, Spain, France, Croatia, Russia, Mongolia and Vietnam.
“You get out in the world and you realize that the majority of the world’s population is making a lot less money than what people make back here in the states, and they’re doing just fine,” she said.
Now she’s back in the United States, living out of a suitcase, working on a short-term project for the same company she used to work for, West Monroe Partners, which has an office in Minneapolis. But she won’t stay. In January she’s going back to Thailand to work as a scuba instructor.
“I am to the point where, once I make a certain dollar amount, I have no intention of making above that, if it means taking away from my time,” Hunert said. “You realize what you really need to be happy. For some people that’s a mansion and a Range Rover and nice things, and that’s fine. It’s just not the path for me.”