It started with a Reddit thread. User Wominfullbinders1 opened a Pandora’s box of discussions that can make young Brooklynites foam at the mouth, depending on how many happy hour drinks are involved.
“Am I wrong to think many college-educated millennials living in Bushwick are under-employed?” the Reddit post read. “My barista told me today she has a master’s degree. Am I correct in thinking that many living in Bushwick are under-employed? Is this by choice or because the economy is broken?”
The thread struck a chord with more than a handful of Redditors who are, were, or know someone living in Bushwick with at least one college degree, making a living on incomes from jobs they wouldn’t necessarily write home about.
While there is something about Bushwick that undoubtedly attracts artists and creative types with unconventional work schedules, other commenters contributed tale after harrowing tale of outstanding student loan debt, an impenetrable job market, and looming rent schedules. Then of course there were commenters of the “It’s your fault for getting a liberal arts degree, loser!” variety. (I know, you didn’t know your dad had a Reddit account.)
Under-employment as a choice or as a post-recession nightmare
So what’s to make of this? Are Bushwick millennials under-employed by choice or are they victims of a job market that is still reeling from the recession and an economy that no longer values art as a commodity? Are we all going into a gazillion dollars in collective education debt to work unfulfilling day jobs to pay our rents? Are we doomed to compartmentalize our passions into whatever projects we can squeeze into our free time? And what does this mean for the future of Gen Y in Bushwick, and the Bushwick community in general?
I feel silly every day because I didn’t need a degree to do this job and I’m only doing it because I have a degree I can’t afford. It’s a total bummer.
Shandi, a full-time nanny and a Bushwick resident of four years, graduated from an all-women’s school in Boston.
“I graduated with a degree in neuroscience and a whole bunch of debt,” Shandi says. “Basically I’ve been working as a nanny since graduating in 2010 because one, when I graduated the job market was awful and we were in the middle of the Great Recession and two, even if I were to get a job in my field I wouldn’t be able to make my loan payments. Being a nanny definitely isn’t what I envisioned for myself, but it is the only job that pays me enough to pay my loans and rent. I feel silly every day because I didn’t need a degree to do this job and I’m only doing it because I have a degree I can’t afford. It’s a total bummer.”
Shandi’s story is far from the only one shrouded in the kind of disgruntlement one can expect when discussing overpriced education and reluctant underemployment. To put some numbers in the madness: Millennials take out an average of $25,000 in student loans. Tuition rates are rising faster than inflation, but college enrollment is constantly increasing because jobs pay more for more educated applicants. But as far too many of us learn the hard way, a college degree does not automatically equal a dream job. Some millennials who do get an oh-so-rare job that allows them to actually use their degrees often still wind up feeling overworked and underpaid.
Kevin, a North Brooklyn resident and New School alum, has always wanted to turn his passion for language into a career as a copy editor.
“I majored in writing with a minor in French,” Kevin says. “I didn’t have enough money to go [to school] for the full time so I took the maximum course load each semester and graduated a semester early. Right now, even though my job title is technically ‘editor,’ I’m stuck at a job where they treat me like shit and my salary falls below the New York poverty line. I’ve already written for two major international publications so I don’t think I’m lacking any experience. If anything I’ve had more than enough for a 22-year-old. I’d like to be a copy editor for a reputable magazine while I contribute to various publications and eventually publish my own books and humorous essays. But right now, it’s hard enough to imagine myself in a job where I can make enough money to pay my student loans, rent, and eat -let alone use my degree.”
Kevin, like Shandi, faults the post-recession job market for his career struggle. “After the recession, when everyone was frantically looking for a job, recruiters hiked up the prerequisites for positions because there was an enormous pool of overqualified applicants,” he says. “I think that mentality never went away, even after the economy started to recover. So much more is required from young people. So they spend their whole lives taking every opportunity they can, only to be forced into a job they’re extremely overqualified for. I don’t think it’s the economy; I think [older generations] are unwilling to recognize the success of young people in relation to themselves.”
The list of causes for the unfortunate job market is almost as long as the list of symptoms, but numbers tend not to lie. The share of Americans ages 22 to 27 with at least a bachelor’s degree in jobs that don’t require that level of education was 44 percent in 2012, up from 34 percent in 2001. This rate of underemployment hasn’t been as high since 1991, when it was 46 percent. Due to these grim prospects, some Bushwick millennials, especially those with degrees, are taking on side-gig after side-gig to pay their loans, rent and other living expenses.
Lately, because of these soul-crushing economic factors, it seems that the number of fabled full-time artists who inspired starry-eyed Midwestern kids to move to Brooklyn is growing smaller and smaller. But that’s not to say they aren’t still around. One Redditor (-8000_points) replied to the original thread: “I’m in Bed-Stuy with a bachelor’s. I’m 29 and [a] busboy by choice. I need to make time for my art.” Even the most dedicated of artists seem to have day jobs.
The generation isn’t uniform. There are so many different types of millennials with different job and career priorities out there.
Slaine Jenkins, a leader in millennial practice for the market research firm Insight Strategy Group says she is not surprised by millennials’ role in the broadening “gig economy.”
Millennials and the freelance economy
“Millennials are increasingly pursuing part-time work, and stitching multiple gigs together,” Jenkins says. “They talk about their day jobs and their dream jobs, often working towards the latter through self-made gigs. Gig portfolios range from the classic artist/barista type—working part-time jobs to financially and emotionally support career passions that have less financial payoff—to more intentional patchwork quilt-like freelancing schedules that help millennials find fulfillment through different professional facets. Fulfillment is different for everyone. I also know millennials who simply choose not to take on a 9-5 because they feel it will limit their lifestyle and personal freedoms. The generation isn’t uniform. There are so many different types of millennials with different job and career priorities out there.”
To Jenkins, millennials, more so than previous generations, use their gigs to develop a sense of identity that will—ideally—someday pay the bills. But in the meantime, making cappuccinos by day and moonlighting as a filmmaker is sometimes the only feasible way to make ends meet without sacrificing the creativity that gives us something to live for.
“Millennials have grown into the workforce at the time the freelance gig economy was taking off,” Jenkins continues. “The generation and this new working model fed off each other to evolve the notion of career as we know it. Ultimately, I think what’s broken is a ‘one size fits all’ career path. Millennials are used to developing unique identities and reinventing themselves time and time again. They do so in all facets of their lives—in their senses of self, in their social relationships, and definitely in their career paths. Millennials change jobs more frequently than older generations, and tend to have more diverse resumes with exploratory ventures into different fields. I do think a lot of this is concentrated in cities, and of course the ability to choose between how one would prefer to spend their days versus what they do to generate income is a privilege. Across the country, many millennials simply don’t have these options.”
Taylor, another 20-something creative living east of Flushing Avenue, is a veteran of the gig economy. “I’m working a main job, in which I feel pretty underpaid for the work that I do, but also need to rely on a side job as well working as a social media and marketing, just so that I can barely afford to live where I do in Bushwick. Honestly, I think I might need to take up a third job on the weekends at a local coffee shop just for some extra cash. But this all also leaves me not much time to focus on my passion for writing,” she continues. “I think people convene here because the Brooklyn area has a reputation for appreciating the arts and for having opportunities that maybe other places don’t. Plus, it’s more affordable than living in some areas of Manhattan.”
Living “affordably” in Bushwick and gentrification
Affordable. By NYC standards, maybe, but Bushwick isn’t nearly as affordable as it was ten or even 2 years ago. In 2005, Bushwick’s median rent was $950 per month. In 2014, it was $1,270. That’s a 33.7-percent increase in nine years. It goes without saying that even these astronomical increases are small potatoes compared to that of Manhattan or Williamsburg. Median rent numbers from more recent years are likely to be even higher, when the 2016 census data is released in February.
Bushwick, as I have come to understand, was, and sometimes still is, a place for young people to live while they get their careers off the ground or work gig-to-gig as an artist or freelancer.
Kate, a representative from the popular apartment-hunting website, Nooklyn, said that in Bushwick specifically, the most common types of renters are “young professionals and freelancers and service industry people.”
“I get a lot of designers (fashion, graphic, etc.); a lot of people [who] are moving to Bushwick specifically are just starting jobs or just graduated,” Kate continues. “62 percent of our customers are women in their mid-twenties to early thirties who are moving to NYC. They want to find a safe neighborhood in Brooklyn to pursue their careers.”
Since I’m part of Nooklyn’s most popular 62 percent and a non-native New Yorker, it may be tacky of me to even delicately put this in terms of gentrification, but this trend has not been lost on Brooklyn’s landlords and property investors, who, to both accommodate the influx of new residents and alienate Brooklyn natives, renovate apartment buildings and rent them out at high prices to young transplants.
In regard to millennials being well-equipped for Bushwick’s job market specifically, New York Senator Martin Dilan notes that native Brooklynites may not see the same opportunities in gentrification that millennial transplants do.
“They see the service industries exploding, the bars and restaurants coming in, and they know their rents are increasing,” says Dilan. “The more they are made a part of this growth, and are exposed to the many burgeoning technologies they may not even know are a few train stops away, the more they’ll benefit. Either through better paying jobs, or by becoming employers themselves.”
The senator notes that though Bushwick may not be able to stop some of the effects of gentrification, he has noticed that younger people moving into the neighborhood are getting more involved in local issues, and that’s something we should continue to strive for. “[We] are seeing more engaged members of the community; they are much more than just tenants, they’re looking to be a part of the community,” he says.
New York City Council Member Rafael Espinal, represents Brooklyn’s 37th district, which covers Bushwick, Cypress Hills and Oceanhill-Brownsville.
“Our neighborhood has a high proportion of young people who are interested in the arts and technology,” says Espinal. “That is why I was a major part of the effort to pass strong laws protecting freelance workers in NYC, so they can get paid fairly and on time for the work they do. Many of these freelancers live and create in Bushwick, so we want to make sure their rights are protected and they are able to perform their valuable work.”
I urge newcomers to be mindful of the community’s dynamics. For example, we must preserve the character of our local housing stock and our cultural flair that makes Bushwick unique. We should work together to prevent development that will harm the character of our neighborhood and invite disingenuous development.
At the same time, Espinal recognizes the importance of making sure the expanding millennial transplant demographic does not displace Bushwick natives. According to Espinal, 30 percent of Bushwick residents live below the federal poverty line, and the unemployment rate in Bushwick is 5 percent higher than in Brooklyn as a whole.
“Over my tenure, I expect to help build local jobs in the manufacturing and retail sectors, and support small businesses of all kinds,” explains Espinal. “We are currently working with the Bushwick community to explore changes in existing zoning laws that could support smart growth for Bushwick residents—providing them with opportunities for housing, jobs, education and recreation, while at the same time attempting to stave off the negative effects of gentrification. I urge newcomers to be mindful of the community’s dynamics. For example, we must preserve the character of our local housing stock and our cultural flair that makes Bushwick unique. We should work together to prevent development that will harm the character of our neighborhood and invite disingenuous development.”
So what to do
So what can college-educated, non-Bushwick-native millennials do to afford rising rents, make nauseatingly high student loan payments, scavenge for gratifying employment in a lackluster job market, AND pursue the passions that allow us to have a shred of creative humanity, all while making sure to preserve the local businesses, people and community we made our home?
For starters, it’s important to educate ourselves on the challenges the community faces, and learn what local elected officials plan to do about them. Bushwick’s Community Board 4 holds monthly meetings that are open to the public, as does Brooklyn’s 83rd Precinct Council. Also, volunteering or donating to organizations like St. Nick’s Alliance, which provide job training, housing, healthcare and educational opportunities to low-income North Brooklynites, can help show support for the community.
While some of us may not spend the rest of our days in Bushwick, living and working in a community without being involved with its people, social issues or politics would be using an entire neighborhood as an adult playground and leaving it to rust (and then bulldozed and replaced with Starbucks) when we decide we don’t want to play anymore. If we want to stop the negative effects of gentrification and preserve Bushwick as a unique community of Brooklyn-natives, families, creatives and young professionals, we should do what we can to prevent landlords, big business owners, and even a scary as hell political climate from turning it into Williamsburg lite.
So yes, you, ambitious, dog-walker/barista/PhD grad/multifaceted human being with emotional and creative needs, you can live here and stay on your grind until you have the career you want. But don’t let Bushwick just be the place where you crash in between gigs. Take care of the community that takes care of you.