MBO Partners, a group that’s been tracking the rise of the independent worker -- freelancers, self employed, side-giggers and so on -- found that in 2014 the number of “solopreneuers” rose to 17.9 million, an increase in 2 million since MBO started tracking it in 2011. What’s more, 82% of them reported that they are either highly satisfied (63%) or satisfied (19%) with their work style. Overall there are 30 million Americans working independently, they learned. As the Freelancers Union concluded through a study of its own members, this is the new normal for millennials: “Millennials expect to piece together a work-life through a variety of gigs. They don’t know -- and often don’t want -- the traditional 9-to-5 work-life. That’s why our under-30 membership has boomed more than 3000% since 2007.”
Many of those independent workers have been pushed out of -- or blocked from -- full-time work courtesy of economy-wide shifts (helped along by employers who don’t want to pay for benefits anymore), but a significant percentage just want to do whatever the hell it is they want to do. Maybe selling twee ironic mustache wax out of a refurbished artillery factory, or stitching literary record reviews onto scarves to sell on Etsy, or whatever other pipe dream millennials have when we write jokes about them, might not be as sound a career choice as [trying to think of an actual stable career field these days and failing], but why are we actually criticizing them? Wanting to do something that makes them happy? Not wanting to fritter away the best years of their lives in an office or a warehouse somewhere making money for someone else who doesn’t care about them and is going to end up firing them anyway when the next crop of young fresh workers rolls off the higher-ed conveyor belt?
The dividends of the so-called entitlement generation’s self-esteem offensive may be seeping into the culture at large as well. Consider the widespread and growing protests around the country all year from workers who have been rallying for a $15 minimum wage. The argument against that, if you can call it one, is typically a spittle-flecked dismissal of lazy, entitled workers who want something they didn’t earn. Sound familiar?
Entitlement is merely another way of saying I, and you, and we, deserve something better. That doesn’t mean anyone should be able to work four hours a week and make a hundred grand just because it would be nice and they’re super chill, come on, man. It’s setting a higher ideal, and saying: why the hell not?
This translates into other realms as well. You’ll often hear millennials criticized for saying that their feelings matter, for expressing social justice tendencies online, and for trying to enforce political correctness. While there’s some merit to the argument that that sort of sensitivity can swing too far in the opposite direction at times, by and large this emphasis on personal respect for others’ feelings has had sweeping effects on the way we talk about, accept, and embrace others throughout the country. What is fighting for civil rights (as we’ve seen in the gay-marriage victories), the newly emphasized trans-rights movement, and the enough-is-enough rhetoric of Black Lives Matter but a generation of people demanding more from those who’ve long refused to give it to them?
On a personal level a lot of this attitude might seem selfish, but these new norms have a way of spreading out from the source once they take root. Maybe it’s we, the older cohort, who are being selfish here. Ask any parent what they want for their children and they’ll likely say they want them to be better off than they were. Why doesn’t that apply to the other guy’s kids too? That’s all that millennials believe they’re actually entitled to here, a slightly better, more enjoyable life. To which I say: good for them.
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Luke O'Neil is a writer from Massachusetts who contributes to Esquire, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast and Vice. He loves Tom Brady, expensive cocktails, and skipping leg day at the gym. Follow him @lukeoneil47.