Dissatisfied with service industry jobs, and seeking flexibility while completing their undergraduate degrees, a group of students in Atlanta began working as human directionals for a company called Eastern Onion Entertainment. Emily Greenfield, who most in the group of friends remembered as the original directional, found out about the job through her boyfriend at the time, who had discovered it through a friend, and him through another friend. So by word of mouth, Greenfield and her cohorts were hired to don costumes and “perform” on the street outside of leasing offices all over the metro area, holding giant arrow shaped signs with the words, “NOW LEASING!” and a phone number boldly written below.
It was not a typical job, but it was a high-paying gig for a student; Greenfield and her friends made $20 per hour (for about four to six hours of work per shift) to attract attention and drive traffic into the leasing offices. Waiting tables can be fast money, but it doesn’t offer the flexibility, nor the solitude and peace the directionals found while gyrating and listening to music on their shifts.
“I was like, really, I get paid that much to dance, dress up, act like a fool?” said James Fairchild, one of Greenfield’s friends. “I thought it was the next best thing. I was so broke. I felt very fortunate to have that job and not be pushing dishes or some other 30 hour a week job.”
Faced with a dire economy and an unstable job market, America’s young people haven’t just wallowed in self-pity and thrown their hands up in despair. They’ve gotten creative. They’ve adapted and evolved, creating their own jobs and doing whatever it takes to make a buck or two, and at the very least, pay the rent. A lot of talk is said about millennials, but one thing is for sure: They are not lazy. It’s survival of the fittest, and millennials are highly inventive and creative, making a living, but not always in traditional suit-and-tie jobs. From commissioning their art pieces to peddling food and wares at music festivals, there is a generation of odd-jobbers and multi-taskers amongst us taking their careers into their own hands, even if they can’t find the full-time positions with health care and benefits that their parents were offered—the ones many felt would be waiting for them after college.
In a recent comprehensive national survey of HR Professionals in multiple industries, Rich Milgram, Founder and CEO of a career network called Beyond.com, said, “The Millennial Generation has learned to be two things during the recession: resilient and nomadic. As the job market improves, the level of confidence will improve along with it and cause many in this age group to reevaluate their current situation, possibly seeing value in seeking greener pastures.” Greener pastures are subjective, but it is clear that Millennials are fiercely questioning the status quo and pursuing whatever their individual greener pastures might be.
Josalin Saffer, another friend of Greenfield and Fairchild’s, and a seasoned human directional, found the job to be somewhat of a release—an escape from her otherwise hurried life as a full-time student and part-time child care and restaurant worker. For someone unaccustomed to having a spare moment to herself, she found being a human directional particularly rewarding because of its solitary benefits.
“You just don’t ever get that much time to yourself to think about your life without feeling guilty about it,” Saffer said. “And listening to music for that much time, you just get really introspective. Or I did. That’s what I used it as. It’s almost therapy. Dancing and listening to music by yourself for extended periods of time.”
Saffer did admit that it was not a job for the faint of heart or easily embarrassed.
“This job is for a certain type of person,” she said. “You just have to have no shame about it and, I don’t know, I’ve had some of my happiest moments on that costume job.”
Sometimes people would yell at her from their cars, passing judgment on her and telling her to get a “real job,” but most human directionals have a thick skin.
“I got made fun of a lot, by like, a lot of high school kids,” Saffer said. “They would walk by and laugh, and I would just laugh back or do a heel click or something.”
There are many reasons and varying circumstances that lead young people to pursue odd jobs like the human directional gig, and find ways to piece their income together. Often, it’s not out of desperation, but by choice.
Upon returning to his hometown of Atlanta, Ga., Evan Fillon, an Atlanta-based musician and artist who graduated with an MFA in Theater from Chicago’s DePaul University, decided to follow his passion and dream of creating music. The artist’s life is not an unfamiliar struggle. But with a little ingenuity, those who choose a creative path don’t have to stick to restaurant jobs and busking on the street to earn their keep, though Fillon made his entire living wage by playing music on the street in his Wicker Park neighborhood at one point. People are often quick to assume that buskers or street performers are desperate or clueless, but Fillon said it has been his favorite income source over the years.
“I smiled at everyone who passed by,” he said. “If they looked interested, I’d ask if they wanted to hear some music, and usually they’d say yes. People got to know me, and I loved the social aspect.”
Making anywhere from $40 to $180 a day and couch-surfing with friendly locals, Fillon found entertaining passing pedestrians to be a viable self-employment option.
A genuine Renaissance man and jack-of-all-trades, Fillion once exchanged work for housing at a local boarding school, an arrangement he proposed and organized himself. Another time, Fillon found work as a roofing repair man, and has even responded to ads for medical testing, allowing scientists to inject him with dead or dying flu viruses, and attach protein strands to disguise them as HIV, tricking his immune system into creating HIV antibodies. He has done a similar experiment for the yellow fever vaccine.
“Besides getting sixty dollars per visit, I like getting the free science lesson,” he said.
It’s a tough life; you’re constantly fighting for a piece of the pie and often having to scrounge, scrimp, and stretch just to pay the rent and put that pie on the table. But it also seems that many millennials are embracing a mantra of working to live, rather than living to work, feeling that the monetary benefits of an unfulfilling job anchored to a cubicle are outweighed by the benefits of pursuing their life’s passions and dreams while they are still young enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Your twenties are a time to experiment with jobs and relationships before deciding on how you want to settle down. Why wait to be wrinkled, old, and laden with health issues to write that book, perform in that rock band, teach English abroad, or climb that mountain?
More young people are having trouble finding a reasonable answer to this question. The reality is that many of them are carrying a burden of crippling student loan debt that they’re afraid they’ll never be able to repay. They also feel duped by the system and aren’t willing to play along, finding richness in their lives rather than in their wallets. Fillon explained his decision to go against the grain as a lifestyle choice.
“My definition of success is definitely how happy I feel with myself, rather than how much money I’m making,” he said. “My barometer of success is much less focused on my social status or how nice a car, (I don’t own a car) or house I have. It might change in the future. But I enjoy having the ability to determine what is satisfying to me, which is the ability to have conversations with people. That’s the way I want to live. A lot of people don’t understand it. And I’ve had people lecture me. They say I have so much more potential and could be doing so much more with my life. I say, well you say you’re doing so well, but you have to do the same thing every day. It just doesn’t seem like something I’d be interested in doing.”
Similarly, Lauren Rosenkranz, an alumnus of Texas A&M’s Industrial Distribution and Engineering program, turned down a job offering her six figures in favor of moving to Austin and making her living as a bartender.
“It just didn’t feel right, and it’s hard to explain that to people…it forced me to think about why I was doing it,” she said. “And I didn’t really have a reason to do it other than making money.”
Deciding that her freedom and mobility were more important to her than financial security, Rosenkranz did something that her family, friends, and classmates struggled to understand. To them, it seemed like a downgrade to go from engineering to bartending, but Rosenkranz feels that she made the right choice.
“I feel like if I’m going to take a career where I’m going to give so much, I want to be 100 percent passionate about it, because I’m gonna give it my all,” she said. “And I just didn’t feel like I even knew enough of myself to give that to anybody. So right now, I mean, I know it’s so cliche, but I’m totally just figuring out what I want. Once I figure myself out, I can give more. I don’t need a lot of money. I’m working on a very simplistic lifestyle, and later in life, when I feel like I can commit, I’ll work on making money, and that will be a different kind of freedom. Right now, I’m working on experimental freedom. The ability to take off and travel and do what I want. And later, maybe I’ll have the money to kind of, to pay for whatever I want.”
Rosenkrantz says a lot of people give her a hard time about shirking engineering for bartending.
“I hate the word ‘just,’” she said. “But I get that all the time. That it’s ‘just’ bartending. But dude. It’s ‘just’ a job. It’s ‘just’ a way to make money to live, which is exactly what you’re doing. It’s just a job, and I happen to enjoy it. So yeah, I get a lot of pressure, and I get a lot of negativity. But it kind of fuels me. And there are days where it’s harder. It does discourage me, but you know, again, it’s just another obstacle to fire me up, like whatever guys, I can do whatever I want. [These naysayers] are just jealous because [they're] stuck at some 9-to-5 hating their life, and I love mine. I have to remember that.”
Abby is a wandering freelance wordsmith, originally hailing from Atlanta. She has a penchant for strange and curious cities, so she purchased a one-way ticket to Berlin a few weeks after finishing her undergrad, where she worked, wrote, and ate more schwarma than she cares to discuss before switching gears and deciding to dive headfirst into Austin’s weirdness. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, xoJane, The Toast, Thought Catalog, Scoutmob, Venture Village, and more. To see more, take a peek at her website. Photo: Julie Jordan Scott