A career? That’s so old fashioned!

The redefinition of work in America

Once upon a time young, boys and girls graduated college, got a job in their degree field, launched into careers, made enough money to start a family, raised 2.5 children, sent them off to school and then peacefully retired.

The redefinition of work in America

Once upon a time young, boys and girls graduated college, got a job in their degree field, launched into careers, made enough money to start a family, raised 2.5 children, sent them off to school and then peacefully retired.

Today, this story reads much like a fairy tale, and no one would fault you for asking who wrote it. Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer for The New York Times, says our present-day story reads a little more like this:

“Young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach For America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.”

As the economic downturn affects every age group, it’s the 18–29 bracket, or the “millennials,” that are facing the most difficult challenges in finding jobs as they exit college. Where having a degree was once the selling point to a career in the field of your choice, now young people are lucky to find a job at all.

According to a study by the advocacy groups Demos and The Young Invincibles, young people today are bogged down by more student loans than ever before, and yet nearly 50 percent are not working in their chosen field and 25 percent are only working part-time. Twelve percent have given up looking for a job altogether.

Research shows that a large number of millennials are turning to waiting tables, tending bars or, a Portland favorite, working in coffee shops as they find office jobs and internships less and less accessible. Branding agency Millennial Branding recently released a study based on information from four million Facebook profiles (of all things) that showed less than 10 percent of this age-bracket work for a Fortune 500 company.

So, then, the traditional path toward a career seems to be all but overgrown with pot-holes and detour signs. Why would anyone want to take this road? But it is the “American dream” after all—if you work hard enough, you can have everything.

As eyes are fixed on this generation launching into a resistant job market, we see occasional reactions such as Occupy Wall Street and the resulting Occupy movements around the nation or protests against rising university tuitions and perceived inaction of the president. And there’s the 12 percent who see no hope on the horizon at all.

But surprisingly, there seems to be a whole other reaction, less obvious or explicit perhaps, and yet one that is becoming a growing trend. Rather than crumbling under the immense pressure of income loss and few job prospects, millennials are quietly changing the definition of “career.”

It has been found that young people today are 8 percent more likely than the average American to work extra hours at their jobs, freelance and take a second job, according to a survey by Metlife.

“They have a different work ethic,” said Metlife representative Laura Adams. “The times are challenging, and they have an entrepreneurial spirit that’s coming out. They’ve had to go out and get creative to find extra sources of income.”

Take Ashley Perlberg, a 26-year-old Portlander with an educational background in design and a passion for freelance photography. She recently launched her own company, Weeno Photography. In addition to this, she has two part-time jobs, one at Starbucks and the other at Paper Source, and also finds time to volunteer once a week at a non-profit humanitarian organization.

“You’ve got to pay the bills,” she said. “I am a photographer. It’s my passion—I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But, it doesn’t always pay the rent. So, you do what need to do.”

Not only are people like Perlberg changing the traditional definition of “career woman,” they’re also confounding the traditional work day. According to Time magazine, “new evidence shows that we’re reaching a tipping point in terms of workplace flexibility, with businesses seeing the wisdom of allowing employees—young ones especially—to work odd hours, telecommute and otherwise tweak the usual 9-to-5 grind.”

As they juggle different roles at different jobs, not only are young people not working the way their parents did, they don’t actually want to. More and more are taking the obstacles facing them and using them as a catalyst to launch their own companies. A study by research firm Affluence Collaborative revealed that 40 percent of millennials envision starting their own businesses and 20 percent already have.

“It went from being the stress of the job market to the realization that we were the job market,” said Jerry Sullivan, a recent college graduate. “We became our own opportunity, and that was the exciting thing that got us really pumped about starting our own business.”

So, yes, perhaps these people may be at home a little past the age of 18, and may never have that singular career. They might not marry till their 30s or have kids until their 40s, and, maybe they won’t own a house with a dog and a white picket fence.

But then again, who said that was the dream? Who said that’s what a career looked like? In today’s world where the future is painted in grim strokes and the doom-sayers are projecting little hope, what better time to change it all up?

Taking a page from the millennials’ book may just help us rewrite our story—a story that everyone can be part of and that isn’t just a fairy tale.