Chasing Their Dreams, by Necessity

Derek Thompson
Julienne Alexander, a 24-year-old Davidson College graduate with sharp freckles and light-red hair, was tired of applying for jobs in Portland, Ore., and having only interviews ("and second interviews!") to show for it.

So she retired her cover letters, bought some screen-printing supplies, and tried her hand at producing graphic T-shirts. The first batch--20 Hanes Beefy-T shirts emblazoned with sextants and penny-farthings--sold out before noon on her first day at the local market. A few weeks later, bars and clubs were begging Alexander for custom prints; within three months, she was wholesaling through American Apparel. The hobby became a gig, and the gig became a business.

Julienne's success may be exceptional, but her motivation to work around the recession is not. Unemployment among young adults has risen 7 percentage points since the recession began in December 2007. And with the job market failing to place millions of Millennials in full-time positions, more and more of them are supplementing their unpaid internships and part-time gigs with side projects and cottage-industry enterprises.

It's an ironic inversion. Past generations of young workers were cautioned to set their high-risk, creative aspirations aside and focus on getting "solid" jobs. But in an environment where those seem to have evaporated, what once looked risky now seems almost prudent. "Home-based businesses are thriving," says Dennis Ceru, an adjunct professor at Babson College, which boasts the country's top-ranked business school for entrepreneurship. Ceru cites pet grooming, bead work and jewelry, fashion consulting, and food services as examples. "Oftentimes we'll see people take an avocation and turn it into a vocation. Most common is folks who have a special recipe and think they can open a small food-service cart in a shopping mall or garden."

Anna Gonick, an Oberlin College graduate, parlayed an unpaid internship at a New York City nonprofit into a job, but she was let go after just a few weeks. Stuck with a barista gig that paid barely a fifth of her rent, Gonick starting selling homemade jewelry. It wasn't enough to live on, but that wasn't the point. "It was something that saved me," she says, "something that I could do on my own."

The rise in what experts called "necessity entrepreneurship" is a normal consequence of a weak economy. But it is accentuated in members of a Millennial Generation already inclined to be itinerant dabblers rather than lifelong cubicle fixtures. "[Millennials] are more aware that they're out alone and aware of the need to fend for themselves," says Bruce Tulgan, author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y. "The Gen-Y mind-set is not being stopped in its tracks by the recession. It's being reinforced."

Not every young person without a job is savvy or lucky enough to turn her passion into a business, of course. But until the jobs come back, the cost of failing on your own has never been lower. "These days, there's a big 'why not?' factor," Alexander tells me in the living room that doubles as her new office in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. She's turned the day-to-day management of the T-shirt business over to three employees in Portland and brought it under the umbrella of Steadfast Associates, a venture with two fellow Davidson alums that, among other projects, includes a writers bureau that runs workshops for freelancers and helps set them up with clients.

In Portland, a weak job market forced her to do what she loved. In Washington, she's helping other freelancers do the same. Faced with an economy in which the cubicles are growing cobwebs and more young people are looking to make it on their own, she may have picked the perfect gig at the perfect time. Again.

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