Millennials Who Blaze Trails in the Innovation Economy

A new project highlights how some young people are paving unique career paths in an unstable, unpredictable era.

Millennials are coming into adulthood at a time of high student loan debt, rising rents, and elusive financial security. On top of that, older generations lob criticisms right and left—they’re tech-obsessed, unprofessional, antisocial. You name it, millennials have heard it.

Faced with these obstacles and more, how are young people finding careers in an economy where meaningful long-term employment is increasingly elusive?

That’s what Craig Watkins, researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and his team wanted to know when they started their new project, Doing Innovation. The team has conducted more than 50 interviews with millennials and spent hours observing young people at home, work, and in social settings.

The work was inspired by a yearlong ethnography the team conducted at a public high school in Austin where many students, who are mostly from immigrant or low-income households, were graduating and entering an evolving workforce with few tangible career pathways.

So Watkins and the team went beyond school walls to connect with young adults who were already paving alternative pathways to careers—and is hoping to bring lessons back to educators, policymakers, students, and others.

“Doing Innovation is trying to provide examples of how young people are building this future,” said Watkins. When it comes to the kinds of skills young people today should be learning, he added, “we really think the answer lies with them.”

Lauren Foster talks about her journey to founding the website Stretch Recipes, during a webinar about new career pathways in today’s economy.

For example, in a webinar Watkins hosted last year, Lauren Foster described how she grew up in a food desert on the south side of Chicago and lacked experience shopping at grocery stores. Years later, she found that her little brother had trouble keeping to his food budget. She quit her job and created Stretch Recipes, a web site where people plug in their budget per serving and receive recipes that prioritize price and nutrition.

“I wanted to make sure people on extremely tight budgets are able to make it work, and not compromise their long-term health because of immediate costs,” Foster said.

For Adam Saltsman, his career pathway started after years of not being hired. He picked up freelance jobs here and there, and on nights and weekends he worked to create simple and addictive retro-looking games. Eventually, his games grew more popular and he became an independent game designer.

Doing Innovation highlights stories like those of Foster and Saltsman. From web design to painting, the young subjects work in a variety of industries but are all “trying to create alternative pathways to opportunity,” Watkins said.

Foster and Saltsman are among many millennials carving career paths that may not have been possible in a previous generation. However, the knowledge economy may provide new pathways for some, but the same social, economic, and geographical disparities that shape today’s economy mean resources remain uneven.

“Once you get into the realities of the digital economy, and especially once you add race, gender, sexuality, and class onto your assessment of its health, the picture becomes much more complicated and fraught,” Aymar Jean Christian, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, said in another webinar Watkins hosted.

While younger people are seen as “tethered” to technology, Watkins writes, his examples showcase “a generation that is figuring out how to leverage technology for social impact and opportunity.”

[pullquote] How do we help today’s young people develop the kids of skills and dispositions they’ll need to succeed in the knowledge economy?[/pullquote]

“I think we are at a point now where we can no longer look at these skills as a kind of luxury,” Watkins said, referring to knowledge-economy skills such as creative technology use, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, or using technology to build connections with other people. But Watkins says the young people highlighted on Doing Innovation share more than those skills—they share an entrepreneurial, independent streak, too.

“These kinds of skills and dispositions—or attitudes— how do we help young people develop that disposition?” Watkins said, adding that he hopes his research will give educators a picture of how better to design opportunities for young people.

Millennials realize the path to financial security isn’t easy no matter what career a person follows. As Foster said, those who are trekking outside well-worn pathways know the difficulties that come with that level of instability and unpredictability.

“It’s a struggle. It’s lonely. It’s scary,” said Foster. “But when you look at your life, and say, how do I want to live it? There are some things you’re willing to sacrifice without a second thought.”


Published March 29, 2016