In his masterful book Working, Studs Terkel chronicles the plight of the American working class and the supposed sacrilegious questioning of their own “work ethic.” He notes that the discontent found among people with “the blue-collar blues” stems from their deep desire for humanization and sense of meaning: “It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered [is] the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.”
Nearly 40 years later, Terkel’s observations still ring true. An annual survey of 5,000 households by The Conference Board research group showed that, in 2009, only 45 percent of American workers were happily employed. Combine that with the fact that the number of people unemployed long term in the U.S. has hit its highest rate since 1948. These statistics, coupled with suggestions by mainstream media that today’s young professionals are naively optimistic about their careers, have led to claims that this generation is ill-equipped to handle the bleak job market. However, now more than ever, these “Millennials” are shifting their expectations about the “perfect job,” finding instead great value and fulfillment in other areas, such as building social capital. Whether it’s the working class or the creative class, young people with an entrepreneurial spirit are still looking to find passion in the daily grind.
I found some fledgling writers who haven’t let hardship or recession stereotypes drag them down — or force them to seek refuge in graduate school or their parents’ basements. Instead, they’re more motivated than ever to create meaningful experiences and pursue their artistic passions, even if that requires taking a very unconventional road (and learning to mix a few Cosmopolitans in the meantime) to get there.
Liam Daniel Pierce realized that he should pursue a career in creative writing after a prestigious college accepted his application, including an essay he wrote about how his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s inspired him to choose psychology as a major. None of it was true. He turned them down and instead attended several Ivy League-type institutions known for churning out writers. Upon graduation in 2008, he was confident he’d find gainful employment after his entry-level stint at The New Yorker. “I thought I’d walk into that internship and impress the hell out of them,” Pierce recalls. “I would be on the fast track to publishing my writing. I would be ballin.’”
But the print industry was foundering, and full-time writing gigs weren’t so easy to come by. Like so many other recent grads, Pierce was thrown into the treacherous pit of freelance writers, his mouth still watering from the brief taste of working for the famed journal. And then the typical scene played out: The young artistic hopeful did whatever he could to “pay his dues,” hoping to emerge as a professional writer. He reviewed Broadway plays for a local publication while managing soap inventory at a swanky hotel. He confesses that many of its bathrobes and towels with a monogrammed P mysteriously went missing that summer. (Oh, wait, was that off the record?)
His mantra became “sucking the most potential out of [my] particular situation.” Although it seemed derived straight from an amateur life coach’s manual, Pierce, like most overworked and underpaid employees, wanted to find meaning in his efforts. As he rotated through jobs — training to be a projectionist for inflatable moving screens, cleaning cafes at night (for minimum wage, he mentions under his breath), becoming an art dealer’s personal assistant — he held onto the illusion that he was striving toward something greater than all of it.
Soon, however, he found himself in a place no one who’s spent four years earning a college degree (and going into debt) thinks they’ll ever be: returning to his high-school summer job. Even though he’d had it on his Irish-American Band of Brothers-esque resume for years, Pierce didn’t really fancy himself as a gondolier.
But rowing the 37-foot-long Venetian boat around Central Park seemed to be in his blood. He knew the anatomy of the vessel and how to maneuver it around stray rowboats and avoid the occasional attack of pirate ships filled with pop stars. He could serenade young passengers with Italian love songs that made them swoon.
I know what you are thinking: Perhaps this venture could be his calling? But what about the unfulfilled desire to establish himself in New York’s tangled creative writing scene?
He stuck with the latter. Maybe it had something to do with the goofy Venetian costume, but he redoubled his writing efforts and turned to the unavoidable medium of blogging. He documented his bizarre days as the third wheel for marriage proposals, birthday parties, scandalous 13-year-old make-out sessions, and the inevitable near boat-to-boat combat with Steve Guttenberg. With 50 percent serendipity, 30 percent networking lunches, and 20 percent charm, Pierce caught the eye of The New York Times, which found the diary of the Central Park gondolier intriguing.
“Although they began our conversation with the bleak confession that The New York Times has had a hiring freeze for seven years,” he says, “[the editors] kept asking me these really beautiful questions that directed me in a way to believe that I was at the center of Manhattan and all the love in the city passed through my boat. And I was like, ‘Wow, you guys are really good at asking questions.’” He laughs. “And so I said, ‘Let me do what I do well and start telling you stories.’”
Today, some 400 cruises and a published essay in the Times about his adventures in quasi-unemployment later, Pierce still resists identifying himself as a writer. “I’d say I am more of a gondolier than a writer. I mean, for now,” he says. “I guess I’ve just realized [that] I am a person who is lucky enough to carry everything they need in their head.”
“I’m, like, a mess,” Boucicaut laughs nervously. “I don’t know if I fit your profile. I want to study gastronomy and food and its influence on culture; travel to Italy; and document all that I learn from teachers, farmers, and vendors of the Slow Food Movement.” She sighs and nervously twists a dreadlock. “I just need to get the Fulbright scholarship, right?”
Meanwhile, Boucicaut is learning as much as she can from the new wave of West African–inspired restaurants that tantalize Brooklyn. “I’ve always been impressionable, and my teachers know that,” she says, referring to both her formal training and her unofficial apprenticeships with different chefs and foodies around the Fort Greene neighborhood. Boucicaut is a food blogger, but don’t say that too loudly. “It is bad etiquette to talk about your day job when you are blogging about food. People keep their professional lives and their foodie lives separate. I guess I don’t really have a ‘day’ job, though,” she says, giggling and shaking her head again. “So that really isn’t a problem, is it?”
After graduating from a prestigious liberal arts college in 2008, Boucicaut turned down a Teach for America position and spent the next two years literally trotting the globe, driven by what she calls “misleading” job prospects. She interviewed everywhere from the New York Civil Liberties Union to a hip new restaurant in Barcelona, Spain. But each time it seemed that, just as Boucicaut was hitting her stride, nothing would materialize. This left her in the ex-expatriate position of lacking direction. She returned to Brooklyn, where she became the manager of a local coffee shop and then the full-time nanny for several neighborhood families.
“It was really hard,” she recalls. “[I was] barely making any money in tips after working all day, coming home with little idea of who I was, and questioning any right I had to be in New York City, where everyone seems to be struggling at the moment. Ugh, am I having the same cliché existential crisis as every other 20-something? That’s when I sought solace in cooking and writing down my experience of NYC chaos in my blog. You can’t leave your emotions out of the dish you create. It reflects who you are, and writing about these dishes helps me identify what I am going through.”
Boucicaut’s blog, Recipes for Life (dailymade.wordpress.com), was inspired by popular how-to books and the clear language of food-writing guru Mark Bittman. The blog has caught on, quickly garnering submissions from aspiring foodies. But Boucicaut didn’t fully realize her culinary talent until a bag of her homemade doughnuts made an impression on a sweet-toothed editor at a reputable Upper East Side publishing house.
Boucicaut, who was doing an internship for the company, brought in some apple-cider glazed doughnuts that were leftover from a birthday party the previous day. “They taste like fall,” she explains excitedly, recalling that pivotal morning. “Anyway, I just put them on the table with a note and went to my usual corner to settle in for a day of reading manuscripts, and then I heard a booming voice come from the corner office.” A tall, bookish man emerged clutching a half-eaten morsel in his hand. “Who made these doughnuts?!” he asked the whole office. After Boucicaut revealed herself and shared the recipe, the conversation rapidly shifted to her writing future. Moments later, a gaggle of colleagues huddled around a computer to read her blog. With cinnamon dangling from his lips, the editor managed a muffled proposition, “This is the best food blog I’ve ever seen. You need a book deal. Let’s think about your angle.”
Pascale is still working on her manuscript, but she continues to blog and cook by night and serves as a Pulitzer prize–winning author’s assistant by day.
When Adams graduated from college in 2008, she promised herself two things: She wasn’t going to intern, because she’d run that unpaid gauntlet too many times to count, and she wasn’t going to work for the service industry anymore. There is just no nostalgia in serving food at minimum wage as she had done for so many years while going to school. A year later, however, her recession sacrifice was to break both of those promises.
Adams’s original plan was to work for the Chicago public radio station where she had interned during college. But, after learning of a two-year hiring freeze, she figured that in order to gain access to the station’s inner-workings, equipment, and the opportunity to produce independent radio, she would have to put in pro-bono effort. At that time, she was living off bonds and the residuals from a piece she sold to Day to Day, a now-defunct radio program. Adams blamed the bad economy for the loss of many radio shows that favored independent producers — and, as her college loans came due, she was feeling the effects. So she began interning at Vocalo.org, a radio station targeted toward Millennials and Gen-xers, and bartended at night to make ends meet. Her schedule didn’t allow for much sleep, she says, and she kept reminding herself that “I can afford to be poor.”
That’s when Adams decided to ignore the job postings looking for journalists with 20 years of experience and “be at peace with her age.” She decided to take advantage of her young entrepreneurial spirit and embrace the industry’s perception of her as a youth reporter. In a grand twist of irony, Adams decided to use her dire financial position and lack of healthcare options to her advantage: She took a “flippant tone” and worked to appear even younger in her appeal to the producers of NPR’s Morning Edition, who were looking for broke, uninsured, and opinionated commentators to talk about America’s healthcare debate last fall.
Her piece “Uninsured in Chicago” aired in October. In it, Adams described the financial hardships she’d face if she tried to pay for her own health insurance at this point in her “career.” The piece stirred up enough attention and controversy (online listeners said taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the healthcare of someone who claimed not to brush her teeth) to sustain a sporadic run of freelancing gigs. “I now make enough money freelancing for programs like Youthcast on Public Radio Exchange and substitute hosting at the radio station to sustain myself,” she says. “That includes my mental health, too. But I’m still not paying for health insurance.”