Millennials Changing The Face Of Work, But Weak Economy Taking A Toll

By Lynda Edwards
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

The national media stereotype of millennial freelancers is brutal: Entitled, whiny prima donnas too haughty for entry-level jobs, they prefer the freedom of freelancing and ease of living in their parents’ basements.

Demographers foresee a generational shift in the workplace led by this age group, generally defined as being born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.

But some of the career factors millennials embrace — flexibility, purposeful labor, economic security — are not necessarily within their grasp as they enter a job market weakened by the Great Recession.

Independent work may give them flexible hours and meaningful employment, but economic instability is often the trade-off. Millennials on the Tennessee/Georgia state line would seem to explode the stereotype of an attitude of entitlement.

Recently, the Times Free Press posted Facebook requests and emailed invitations asking millennial freelancers with cool jobs earning less than $30,000 per year to share how they manage budgets and plan for the future.

The 31 who responded say they freelance because employers do not want the expense of hiring. Only three get any support from their parents, many of whom lost jobs, homes or savings during the recession. Cool but low-paying gigs are supplemented with other jobs such as waitressing and retail sales.

The respondents flatly say some American dreams may be out of their financial reach forever: traveling overseas, a college education, homeownership, children.

Like young people launching careers in the Great Depression, they acquire an amazing array of skills that save them money — car and bike repair, baking, home maintenance, computer languages, sewing. Several boast of their ability to cut their food budgets by eating nothing for a month but:

— $1 microwaveable burritos purchased at a gas station, one per day.
— 40-ounce jar of dollar-store peanut butter and saltines.
— Wal-Mart’s generic version of Pop Tarts and cherry-flavored powdered vitamin drink.
— Off-brand power bars bought in bulk at Kmart.

Yet they are idealistic and hopeful enough to name meaningful work for a good cause as a life goal. Economists may still be wondering when American companies will boost salaries and hire full-time workers. These millennials believe this fragile freelancing economy may be the new normal for their generation.

Here are three of their stories.

JUNIPER RUSSO: ‘In this weird new economy … you can’t afford to burn any bridge’

When one of her bosses sexually harassed her crudely and repeatedly, 27-year-old blogger and freelance marketing writer Juniper Russo knew exactly what to do.


Russo was a single mom with a toddler to support, all alone with no help. Although she gets steady ad income from some of her blogs — Crunchy Skeptical Mom, Border Collie Crazy, Your Baby Bump, The Evidence-Based Herbalist, Reading Tarot Cards, Freshwater Frenzy (fish farming) and Little Black Paws (cat-centric) — she couldn’t pay the rent without freelance writing newsletters and Web content for hospitals, doctors and medical centers.

“The guy who was harassing me had the power to cut off a lot of lucrative assignments, and I couldn’t afford to lose that money for my daughter and me,” Russo says matter-of-factly, with no hint of self-pity. “The tough reality of freelancing in this weird new economy is you can’t afford to burn any bridge. My clients now are good people. But freelancing is a small world where bosses talk to each other, so you sometimes have to put up with being underpaid or treated rudely.”

Freelancing helped her create a life nestled inside a cozy East Lake cottage where blue glass wind chimes and a pink bird feeder decorate the front porch. Daughter Vivian is now 7. Russo and her spouse have a son of their own, baby Darwin. When a stranger knocks on the front door, the family’s two giant dogs bark wildly. Darwin is a preternaturally calm baby who sleeps through the clatter, barking and introductions.

When Russo blogs, she sits at the dark wood kitchen table with Darwin draped on one shoulder, a vase of golden lilies and purple iris nearby for inspiration. The family cat, Ziggy Stardust, curls around her feet. Her spouse flips open a laptop near the fireplace in the front parlor.

Russo’s spouse is an equally young freelance writer. The two had trouble finding a landlord willing to rent to two freelancers.

They collected their 990 forms and tax returns and made a pitch to the owner of their current cottage.

“The dogs are the best alarm system,” Russo says with a smile. “East Lake is considered high crime, but our car was broken into when we lived in a trendy North Chattanooga neighborhood. I love our block here.”

The back door is painted and decorated to look like a TARDIS, Doctor Who’s magical police telephone box that transports him across space and time. Russo glances wistfully at the door when asked what her own travel dreams include.

“Yes, I’d like a European vacation or a cross-country road trip, but realistically I don’t know when we could afford it,” Russo says.

She had been earning $600 monthly from Yahoo Voices so it was a financial blow when the site closed down when Russo was nine months pregnant with Darwin.

Those financial scares keep her more rooted in reality. Freelancing is more feasible than good, affordable child care is. And Russo clearly enjoys being at home with Darwin and walking Vivian home from the school bus stop.

When asked how she envisions the future for herself and her family, there is a long pause while she reflects.

“Honestly, when I look ahead, I don’t have any hope for my spouse and me to move any higher economically than lower middle class, just above working poor,” she replies slowly. “But, yes, I do believe we can help our children be happy and confident without high income. I hope our kids make it into middle class, if the future still has a middle class.”
— —
ROBERT PARKER: ‘My W-2s remind me that by legal standards, I’m poor’

Ringgold, Ga., native Robert “Robot” Parker was laid off from a day job just as Chattanooga’s intoxicating dance party scene erupted.

“I was unemployed, broke. I had two housemates, and we were living in an old house in a bad neighborhood with worn-out carpet in the bathroom,” recalls Parker, now 32.

So he grabbed his Nikon and headed for parties where “I became the only game in town for photos. At the end of the night, a promoter would give me $100 or $200. I photographed about three events each week.”

When partygoers appeared in a Parker photo, it bestowed a certain cachet. In 2010, Parker told Times Free Press music columnist Casey Philips that he took 2,000 party photos that year alone.

He curated his photos online and worked hard at all sorts of promotional work in the local music scene. But all that work didn’t translate into a steady income.

“I was a terrible negotiator. People told me they would pay me later then never did. I wanted to convince potential employers to hire me permanently so I didn’t complain or argue when I probably should have,” Parker says.

During the four years he photographed parties, city officials and local activists noticed his work and were impressed.

He discovered he had a gift that marks talented photographers: the ability to capture diverse worlds. His photos of men playing dominoes in a homeless shelter and elderly low-income locals lunching in front of a community center mural are as vibrant and engaging as those of wildly costumed dancers at Bangers Ball.

“I was doing work I loved for a higher purpose, which meant a lot to me,” he says. “I did get exhausted by how often people wanted me to work for free. They said it would help me build my portfolio. And I had already maxed out my credit cards building the portfolio for a career I was trying to make happen. Finally, I took a food-service job at Mojo Burrito — and I was glad to have it for the health insurance.”

Then a local politician offered Parker a salaried dream job as campaign photographer. Parker gave notice at Mojo Burrito. The politician scheduled a meeting with Parker at a coffee shop to discuss his start date.

“He never showed up. I phoned him. The call went directly to voicemail,” Parker says. “I called my boss at Mojo and said, ‘Abort! Abort! I need my job back!'”

Parker is now office manager in Mojo Burrito’s Main Street headquarters, where he occasionally photographs menu items. He can repair his truck and motorcycle. Most of his salary pays credit-card bills. He expresses gratitude that President Barack Obama’s student loan reforms reduced a huge burden.

“Going from $460 to $140 per month payments is less homelessness-inducing,” Parker says, with a rueful laugh. “My W-2s remind me that by legal standards, I’m poor. Sometime in the future, I’d enjoy teaching fine-arts photography and working for a social-justice cause. For now, I need to focus on the present.”
— —
DAVID RUIZ: ‘I’ve begun to wonder if marriage and children will ever happen for me’

Artist David Ruiz, 32, has the ZZ Top-ish beard of an urban hipster and the brain of a born entrepreneur.

He shares a white frame Highland Park bungalow with two housemates. The living room walls are covered with bright, colorful local art. The adjacent dining room walls are covered with paintings that are homages to rock greats such as David Bowie and Lou Reed.

When Ruiz asked the price of the paintings, the artist replied, “$25.”

“I told him, ‘You can’t do that; you hurt all of us when you devalue your work,” Ruiz says, shaking his head. “I suggested $150 for this one. I’m going to have a party here at the house that will double as a gallery showing where people can buy local art.”

Desks, chairs and tables fill the living room space. Ruiz rents the desks to other millennial freelancers who need an office or a quieter place than a coffee shop for client meetings.

“It’s a sliding fee scale; $25 per month would get you a desk and chairs whenever you needed them for your work,” Ruiz explains as he walks into the adjacent dining room. “My new housemate is renting this entire room for $200 per month to use for her jewelry business.”

Ruiz and his two housemates share the kitchen, which means their only privacy is their bedrooms. Ruiz even shares his own room with an enormous dog, “some sort of boxer/Doberman mixture that I rescued when he was locked alone, starving in an abandoned building.”

The lack of personal space doesn’t seem to bother Ruiz or his housemates, both of whom occasionally work for a business Ruiz launched with his brother.

Called 423PK, the business began as a directory of local bands. Ruiz would take promotional photos and create an entire, low-cost press kit for the band, complete with posters and music videos.

Now he’s adding legal forms and online contracts band members can print out and use in lieu of hiring a lawyer. Bands can hire 423PK to promote individual events. Ruiz is now at a point he can hire freelancer friends instead of doing all the work with his brother. His new jewelry-making housemate discovered she had a knack for negotiating sponsorship deals after Ruiz hired her for assignments.

Ruiz is planning a business trip to Atlanta to pitch the 423PK concept to potential investors. His dream is to turn his business into a franchise in many cities. He does not dream of having a college degree.

“I just can’t take out student loans to spend time in class learning how to do what I’m already doing,” he says.
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The Small Business Administration famously documented that 50 percent of all small businesses fail in their first five years.

Ruiz readily acknowledges that hard work is not enough for a millennial entrepreneur to succeed; a certain personality type is necessary. Ruiz seems destined to succeed, but like other Chattanooga millennials, he seems keenly aware that the new freelance economy demands sacrifices.

“I’ve begun to wonder if marriage and children will ever happen for me; most of my girlfriends get tired of how much time I need to spend on working,” he muses. “But I need to invest that time because now I have people whose work and pay depend on me.”

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