Millennials: The Workers of the Future?

Since Andrew Benton graduated from college less than four years ago, he has dropped out of a Princeton Ph.D. program in economics, moved to rural Georgia to start a Web-software company that he's trying to sell, and now works freelance for a cloud-computing company in Silicon Valley. He buys his own health insurance and contributes to his retirement accounts; neither his policy nor his accounts receive corporate contributions. Does his job instability and lack of benefits worry him? Nope. The 26-year-old does not expect to hold a traditional 9-to-5 job unless he starts his own business again, and he is not overly pessimistic about the recession's long-term effect on his career. "I don't pay that much attention to what is going on in the economy," he says. "I just found stuff I was interested in."

Whatever you make of this attitude—smart, entitled, tech savvy, risky, or bold—Benton is arguably the prototype of the new and perhaps ideal worker in the post-recession economy. Like many millennials, a.k.a. Generation Yers, he does not mind flitting from project to project and doesn't miss the traditional climb up the corporate ladder. He does not look to companies to provide safety nets such as health insurance, 401(k)s, or paid sick leave. "The recession has confirmed a skepticism that's very deep for Gen Yers that there is no such thing as job security. You've got to be a free agent to pay the bills," says Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, a Connecticut-based research firm that studies young people in the workplace.

Still, this nimble demographic group isn't immune from the career setbacks of the recession. Only 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported having a full-time job in 2010 compared with 50 percent in 2006, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Workers born after 1980, who are having a harder time gaining a foothold in the job market, may face lower earnings over the next several years of their careers. Some studies suggest workers who come onto the job market during a recession may never earn as much as people who began working in fatter economic times.

Those who opt for traditional corporate careers have had to readjust their expectations. For some young, well-educated workers such as 24-year-old Adrian Muniz, the recession has been startling. Muniz graduated from Brown University in 2007 and moved to New York City, expecting to easily find work at a magazine. Instead, he ended up working at high-end retail stores for the past three years and doing media internships on the side to build up his résumé. "It took me a year and a half to realize that I'm not just going to stumble into a great job," he says. "It made me more hungry."

When the economy does pick up, experts warn that millennials may leave their companies for better jobs and higher paychecks. They will quit to travel the world, or simply because they did not like their boss. Twenty-three-year-old Anna Maltby, an editorial assistant at a glossy women's magazine, says she's noticed that lots of peers seem to be "holding down the fort" at work or "holding our breath for a second." When more jobs become available, the millennials will use their tech savviness to promote themselves on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. They will have no problem accepting contract, short-term work in lieu of a steadier paycheck. "The economy is actually creating a type of work that suits millennials well and does not suit baby boomers," says Karl Ahlrichs, a human-resources consultant. In part, that's because the economy is generating jobs in technology, computers, education, and health care that require serious technological, entrepreneurial, and creative skills as opposed to expertise in operations or management.

Twenty-eight-year-old Jeremy Valeda embodies this entrepreneurial approach to his career. Although he worked for five years for AIG as a business analyst, project manager, and supervisor—ultimately earning an annual salary just shy of $200,000—he also took time to buy 16 houses and apartments in a college town in Ohio and create a business plan for a hedge fund that he is now launching. His overarching philosophy is finding the fastest path to retirement. "My idea is to get in and get out before Wall Street ruins me," he says. Even his appearance hints at the millennials' ability to both play the game and preserve their own identity. During NEWSWEEK's first meeting with Valeda, he wore a suit and mentioned a secretary. A few months later, he wore a gray T shirt that showed off an intricate tattoo of a compass, square, and an hourglass on his right bicep.

Armed with their education, parental support, or savings, millennials seem to have plenty of answers when it comes to dealing with the current economy. Still, questions remain. In their 30s and 40s, will they start their own businesses rather than joining the ranks of middle management? How will they transform the culture and products of corporate America? Will their innovative and entrepreneurial streak survive as they move through adult rites of passage such as buying houses, raising children, or caring for aging parents? Ask a millennial and they'll tell you that they'll find or invent new answers to such age-old questions.