Five years ago, I bought a Polaroid camera because I wanted memories I could hold in my hands. While my apartment is primarily furnished with post-college cookie-cutter IKEA furniture, my antique coffee table is my absolute favorite piece. If I eat at a restaurant that serves drinks out of mason jars, I’m ten times more likely to return (okay, and post a picture to my Snapchat story). There’s something about these objects from the (far and not-so-far) past that are so quaint and so un-Apple, I just can’t resist them.
And apparently, it’s not just old-timey objects that Millennials are attracted to. According to The Wall Street Journal, a wave of Millennials are being drawn to craftsmanship careers from the past—bartending, carpentry, butchery—as well. Based on findings from sociologist Richard Ocejo’s newest book Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, the article paints a picture of college educated twenty-somethings mixing up craft cocktails at trendy bars in lieu of the corporate nine-to-five. Jobs that were once seen as undesirable are now glamorous.
So what caused this resurgence, and why now? According to Ocejo, Millennials thirst for careers with an element of performance; they value the ability to craft something they can physically interact with. This hands-on experience is the antidote to the digital 2-D space of information technology that swallows many of our days at the office.
Millennials thirst for careers with an element of performance; they value the ability to craft something they can physically interact with.
As a Millennial myself, I’m inclined to stay up-to-date on what people are saying about my generation. And while parts of Ocejo’s theory resonate with me—the desire to break away from tech, a love for things old and quaint—I have a couple of questions remaining.
Post-grad career or super-extended gap year?
The more I think about it, the more I get stumped on this one question: Are my college-educated peers really choosing craft jobs as careers? A generation often weathered by crippling student loans and the recession, Millennials are pretty anxious about money. With these old-timey careers paying a median of $30,000 a year, I wonder how people are financially validating their college degree.
I’m not saying that I don’t have friends who are college educated and also tending bar, because I do. The difference here is that my mixologist peers are shaking and stirring temporarily, rather than as their long-term career plan. Many people don’t know what they want to pursue when they graduate from school (which is fine!) so they take a gap year (or two or three). Selecting a job that allows for creativity—and in the case of bartenders—social interaction, is a refreshing break from academic and corporate environments. It’s a welcome reprieve after four (or more) years of grueling over textbooks.
But there are more than just staff roles at these businesses. Someone’s gotta run these operations, right?
Butcher, entrepreneur, or both?
According to Ocejo, an important element of the old-timey career resurgence is the emergence of new businesses. It isn’t the butcher counter inside the grocery conglomerate Millennials want to work at—it’s the pricy hipster one on the trendiest block in town that draws in the young talent. In The Wall Street Journal article featuring Ocejo, the sociologist is quoted describing businesses like whole-animal butcher shops—staffed by Millennials, of course—popping up in cities across the country. These new businesses, he says, have “created a niche that didn’t exist before, and they’re operating along parallel but very, very separate paths” from their more conventional counterparts.
It isn’t the butcher counter inside the grocery conglomerate Millennials want to work at—it’s the pricy hipster one on the trendiest block in town that draws in the young talent.
As much as this does sound like a return to the old craft of carving meat, it also sounds like an entrepreneur finding a gap in the market and taking advantage of it—as much a hipster counterculture move as it is the Millennial entrepreneur story we hear time and time again.
If loan-barren Millennials are turning to the old-timey industry, perhaps “expertly cutting meat” is not the only responsibility on their job descriptions—I’m guessing you might be able to find titles like owner or founder on some of their LinkedIn profiles, too.
A staff bartender’s salary seems tight for someone carrying loans on their back. But owning a hipster butcher shop in the middle of an affluent metropolitan area? That might just cut it.
I’ll be the first to say that I love (and am good at) my uncrafty job—and there are plenty of Millennials just like me who are anxious about debt, lack of savings, and job security. We don’t desire the risk; we find comfort in corporate roles. But I also understand why this path isn’t for everyone—and I’m pretty happy it isn’t. People who are turning away from the norm are producing some pretty sweet stuff. The old-timey career resurgence and those driving it are creating a rich, artistic, nostalgic culture that we all reap the benefits of. If you’ve ever enjoyed a long conversation with a pop-up chef about how to prepare your locally-raised lamb or drank a Bourbon Apple Sangria out of a mason jar, you’ve got this crowd to thank.
And while expertly cut free-range meats, drinks in jam jars, and handcrafted bar stools are an important part of our culture, we can’t forget what else is happening here: whether Millennials are choosing the path of the old-timey careers or sitting behind a desk at in a downtown highrise, it’s refreshing to see that success is possible on both sides. No longer does everyone need to get a college degree to succeed; there’s a place for everyone at the top—the doctor, the banker, and the craft cocktail maker.
Sara Lighthall is a content marketer at Zendesk and a student of life. When she’s not demystifying the Millennial generation on Relate, you can find her with her toes in the sand and a latte in her hand. See what she’s up to on Twitter: @saralighthall.