The Gig Economy

By Megan Cole

As a child, I always knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. It changed from year to year – sometimes from day to day – but I always kept a goal in mind. I would be a reporter, or maybe an astronaut. I could be a pianist, a physicist, a gymnast or a novelist. I hadn’t yet considered the logistics of landing these careers; I hadn’t even found it necessary yet to settle on one. I only knew that these were things I would love to do.

Then, when I was in middle school, the Great Recession hit. My generation watched our families struggle with layoffs and furloughs, lose their livelihoods and relinquish the idea of job security. We millennials were too young to know anything other than a rough economy: We saw our parents picking up several jobs, working long shifts, going back to school to change careers, and that uncertainty became our model of a “normal” career path.

Suddenly, my structured idea of a future – going to school, getting a job as a reporter (or astronaut, or novelist), working for decades and happily retiring – evaporated. What did it mean to plan for a career when, in an instant, you might have to switch to something else? When you might have to work multiple jobs at once? How can you know what you want to be when you come of age during a time when stable jobs are becoming relics and your vocation no longer defines you?

Since then, millennials have inherited what is now dubbed the “gig economy.” Many of my friends are working two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet, or are supplementing their income with freelance gigs, internships and “side hustles.” The prospect of landing a 9-to-5 job (with benefits) for life is disappearing, and certain careers are transforming altogether.

I’m now majoring in both English and literary journalism, and the visions I once entertained of reporting for a print newspaper or landing a tenure-track position in academia have since given way to modern realities. The workplaces of old are suddenly unrecognizable, and nobody knows quite yet what will replace them. It’s hard to plan for a future that doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before.

But this paradigm shift has an upside – a liberating, hopeful one. Unlike our parents and grandparents, millennials aren’t tied to a single, traditional career, and the impossibility of predicting what skills will be “useful” in the future means that young people are becoming immensely adaptable – free to learn deeply and widely, developing themselves for themselves, not necessarily for a specific employer.

At UCI, I’ve had the chance to explore all of my interests and develop some new ones. I’ve written hundreds of stories and articles, pored over Russian novels, studied astronomy and medicine, and hosted a radio show. I’ve even used breaks in spring and summer to travel to New York and the Middle East, attending journalism conferences or pursuing research. And I did all this out of real curiosity and a willingness to learn.

The uncertain economy I’ve grown up with has taught me that it’s unwise to fixate on an idealized career that, by the time you’re qualified for it, may no longer exist. Thus, modern education should do more than train millennials for a specific job. It should make us more compassionate, complex and critical-thinking individuals able to thrive in any environment.

Universities like UCI – those that encourage learning broadly, crossing disciplines and benefiting the community – are the only sure things in this transitory time. As 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of a University: “If then a practical end must be assigned to [education], I say it is that of training good members of society … [giving people] a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.”

More than 150 years later, this still holds true. Intellectual flexibility and critical thinking skills are now more important than ever before. It’s these qualities, which abound in millennials, that create “good members of society” and lay a foundation for the future.

In a post-automation economy that puts a premium on innovation, the strengths of my peers – fearlessness, ambition, flexibility and, above all, curiosity – are in high demand. That’s why so many millennials are already thriving in nontraditional workplaces, entrepreneurial ventures, freelance work and creativity-based careers. When you can’t tailor yourself to fit a job, you can invent a job that fits you.

Young people are finding ways to combine a love of astrophysics with a passion for filmmaking. One might be both a baker and a chemist, or a skateboarder moonlighting as a business owner. The pressure to choose one skill set and stick with it has lessened. Instead, millennials are adapting to a new world, one that values a broad education, a range of skills and talents, and an insatiable drive to create and learn.

“So many millennials are already thriving in nontraditional workplaces, entrepreneurial ventures, freelance work and creativity-based careers. When you can’t tailor yourself to fit a job, you can invent a job that fits you.”

As I continue my final year at UCI, I’ve come to terms with not knowing where exactly life will take me. However, I have faith in my education, and I hope to spend my days pursuing my curiosities, no matter what my career path should be.

It’s a turbulent time we’re living in, and the loss of traditional structure can be jarring, but I find solace in the freedom to learn about the things I love and contribute to the world in my own way.

Even if we don’t yet know what it will look like, the future will come. I trust my generation to make it a good one.

Cole is editor in chief of New University, UCI’s student newspaper.