Looking back to 2008 Kyle Cocchi views his taking a job in politics as a risk from the start — an endeavor he now compares to making it as an actor due to the lack of consistency in Washington’s political sphere. After finishing his undergraduate degree at The Catholic University of America and working on several campaigns, including John Edwards’ run for U.S. President, he landed a two-year gig with the think tank Friends of Cancer Research. There he performed several main jobs from around-the-clock data mining and news aggregation to program development, networking and advocacy. The end of that gig in September 2010, however, left him with no upward mobility in Washington, as the Democrats had suddenly lost steam and Friends of Cancer had less to tackle post-health care reform bill.
“It was discouraging at the time, but I wouldn’t take it back if I could,” says the 25-year-old Staten Island native. “Almost every job’s a gamble these days.”
Cocchi, who’s tall, fair-skinned and soft-spoken—at least until national politics or cancer research enters the conversation—decided to leave Washington for a new job arena, feeling burnt out and slightly abandoned. Capitol Hill had little left to offer it seemed. So he packed up his belongings and headed back to New York, home of the professional job juggler. As for his strongest credentials, Cocchi says he cultivated a work sensibility during his tenure at Friends of Cancer that places him ahead of the curve, or at least right on it: the ability to comfortably wear a dozen hats in times of severe austerity, growing political disparity and constant economic flux. Cocchi sees that as the realest sense of job security in today’s world, since few companies and organizations can guarantee long-term stability post-recession. When tough times call for flexibility, hats that aren’t needed can easily be replaced for other ones.
“When I went to D.C. I was an idealist looking for a career,” he says. “By the time I came back to New York I was a fully reformed pragmatist ready to enter any field that would pay me.”
After moving into an apartment with his father in Forest Hills, Queens, Cocchi began culling through all of the online job postings that required a similar amount of multitasking to his stint at Friends of Cancer; everything from a full-time editing job at the Huffington post starting at $40,000 a year to a part-time job at a small advertising firm with no listed salary. He settled on temp work in the finance industry; a more lucrative prospect with the opportunity to change fields again in the next year or two, depending on where the dice landed.
“I didn’t come back here looking for a job as a nurse or a teacher,” says Cocchi. “But I did come back here with my eyes on a lot of different industries; non-profit work, advertising, media, finance, even pharmaceuticals.”
The recent economic and political volatility impacting nearly everyone below the top 1% of wealth holders around the country has given way to a new sense of career gambling among young urban professionals. These days, unlike just ten years ago, the average 20- to 30-year-old with a colleague degree or higher expects reoccurring job changes and has at least two backup plans in motion at any given time. Job stability throughout both the private and public sectors has reached a drastic low since the peak of the recession, while individual mobility and adaptability have become all the more easy to maintain. In turn, fewer workers are considering the single-career path over the course of their professional lives, and more employers are finding ways to perform their own juggling acts when it comes to hiring, firing and taking on more freelance and temp workers.
We can tie it to our confused political system and fragmented labor market, even as the economy slowly recovers. We can also link it to the constant growth of the Internet and its most popular sites among those under 40—YouTube, Facebook and Twitter—making self-styled celebrity and entrepreneurial success seem all the more easy to obtain as traditional jobs become more scarce. But at the heart of it, the city’s and country’s populations are continually growing while the means to pay those for their fair work is shrinking, causing more professional loyalists to reconsider their professional loyalties.
“I have friend with a law degree who works as a communications director right now,” says Cocchi. “I also know a doctor who makes $45,000 a year. It can be hard to admit, but we’re not always as special as we think we are. Probably less special than we’re willing to realize.”
These days, artists who teach and actors who wait tables are just the tip of the iceberg. Meet the countless other divided young urban professionals: political workers who temp in finance, investment bankers who write on the side, journalists who work part-time in marketing and PR (and the list goes on…) They’ve always been around, but they’re growing in scope, and they’re no longer being discreet about their various survival techniques—or making their efforts and names as visible as possible.
On the upside, we’re beginning to wear our mismatched hats more openly, as we become increasingly compelled to think outside of the box and boost our individual productivity (even if that means a higher rate of tweets per day.) On the downside, we’re gradually abandoning long-term skill development and potentially diluting the quality of our better work. But love it or hate it, rapid socioeconomic shifts and industry changes throughout the country are causing many us to go through career paths like paper plates, as we begin to entertain the next alternative even when we find a steady gig for the time being. Those same shifts are also leading many of us to develop skill sets that may or may not work together on paper. But that all depends on how big industries continue to reshape and rebrand themselves.
As of now and until the economy really improves, it’s open season for almost any budding professional who wants to try on another hat for the time being. Its as easy as covering several numbers on a roulette board. While freelancing on the side has become all the more manageable for those already employed (so long as employers provide a base salary to live off of), companies and organizations have begun to allow their workers more freedom to freelance on the side (so long as the necessary job requirements are met at the end of each work week.) That allowance includes fewer non-compete agreements, more flextime schedules and more open access to networking sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for personal use.
“During the last downturn there were very few companies that went above and beyond to make their employees feel secure about their positions, so the minute the job market started to pick up, a lot of those same companies faced serious retention and loyalty issues,” says Lorri Zelman, Managing Director of the Human Resources Search Practice at the staffing solutions firm Solomon Page Group. “There are few companies and organizations that aren’t concerned with retaining talent, so knowing that most people want to be fulfilled both personally and professionally these days, a lot of employers have loosened the restrictions on what their employees do in their free time.”
But with more ways for young professionals to find new work, or create their own, retention no longer seems likely when the big bucks and benefits aren’t there. As a result, whether out of a sense of necessity or a sense of newly found freedom, the 10- to 20-year job routine has become all the more rare; especially in a city that tends to feel like everyone’s oyster until the aftertaste makes them too sick to stay. Even in the best of circumstances, job security is worth less than half of what it was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, making the single-career path seem more and more like a high risk/high reward investment. Joining a start-up company that makes it into its third year and keeping your job in the process is an equally risky bet, but in times of uncertainty, that kind of gamble can seem more appealing.
Not to say that career investment has completely vanished (this writer is committed to journalism as a full-time profession.) But among the many working professionals who have their chips in one pot when it comes to their careers, the anxieties are often visceral. For the government workers, and those who rely heavily on government funding, it’s the concern over looming budget cuts and coinciding job losses. For the investment bankers and analysts, it’s the concern over new regulations and the result on financial salaries. For the medical practitioners, it’s the concern over weighted health care costs and a rising volume of patients per doctor. For the content creators, it’s a growing concern over the continuous abundance of other people’s content, and the mass audiences who now view music, news and other media as a free commodity.
In New York, the economics behind career longevity are tricky to measure, since no raw data for job tenure exists on the city level. The biggest indicators are in the movements of people themselves. The city’s population has continued to grow at an increasing rate over the past decade—slower since the start of the recession, but growing nonetheless—while unemployment remains almost twice as high as it was five years ago, up from 4.6% in April 2006 to 9% in April 2011.
As a result of those figures and a sharp decline in public and private spending since the beginning of the financial crisis, finding steady work in the city has remained an ongoing challenging for those in search, with fewer full-time positions available. In larger industries like advertising and retail, companies have started to hire again as business gradually picks up, but the majority of those companies are expanding their workforces in small doses with less of a cushion for new employees. Smaller industries like publishing, on the other hand, have found it all the more difficult to keep their books open, while the city itself has continued to shed government-funded jobs by the month.
For those who have maintained stable positions in their fields over the years, one of the biggest concerns is a growing compensation-productivity gap, which hit a national all-time high in the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the average U.S. employee is working more and receiving less in return at a growing rate. In media, the signs are obvious: AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post in February 2011 prompted a new requirement for the merger’s staff writers to produce between five and 10 stories a day, up from five or less, with no indications of a pay increase for their quicker turn-around.
“With so many developments in technology, more Blackberries, more means of remote access, etc, people are typically working longer hours and taking on more work,” says Zelman. “So burnout levels are increasing and employees are staying at one job for shorter periods of time. These days, a lot of people will go into a job saying ‘ok, I’m giving it a year or two, and if they take care of me I’ll stay. If not, I’ll move on.'”
Of course, in the fickle world of finance that mindset might prove slightly more fleeting as money markets steadily improve. But it’s no less significant considering the recent changes on Wall Street post-2006. After the subprime mortgage crisis hit and the federal government began to clamp down on banking, Wall Street suffered not only a revenue decline, but also a branding issue that it continues to struggle with even as profits steadily return. Bankers, no longer the well-protected risk takers of the 80s and 90s, have been left with three basic options in recent years: 1. Be the decent and accountable good guy and be willing to make less. 2. Be one the one who still plays dirty and nervously cover every track. 3. Be a big swinging dick and face public castration.
“In finance, there has never been that tactile sense of creating something, but for a long time there was the reward of being well compensated for dealing with the pressures and criticisms of the job,” says one New York-based sales trader, who has worked in the finance industry for 12 years. “Now people coming into the field are starting to realize that the big checks aren’t always guaranteed, despite the sweat. I think the underlying thought for a lot of these people is why not translate my skills into something more creative.”
The infamous Goldman Sachs alone has seen the passing of several financiers who were betting on something other than finance: Cristina Alger, the former Goldman analyst who’s getting ready to publish her family-drama novel The Darlings; J.C. Davies, the former Goldman analyst who recently published her nonfiction book on interracial dating, I Got the Fever; Allen Mask, the former Goldman analyst who released two online hip-hop albums, “Pilot Season” and “Sweet Dreams.” While working in finance and pursuing a side career in the arts has become common practice in recent years, it’s no secret that many of the same professionals doing so would have received far less acceptance from their employers and colleagues no more than a decade ago, when moonlighting and rapid job changing in the corporate world signified disloyalty.
In 2011 it’s more often a matter of self-preservation. And few can criticize. In tough times like these, the best potential outcome of more people taking on more roles is a rise in productivity and innovation throughout the country, especially in big cities. Ideally, the employed, self-employed and unemployed are spending less time resting on their laurels and more time coming up with new ideas and viable ways to make money, as fewer long-term job opportunities become available.
When Kyle Cocchi cashed his chips in on making a lifelong career out of political advocacy, he felt momentarily defeated—like a frustrated tourist leaving Atlantic City with empty pockets. But in the long run, remaining on unemployment for too long was like getting barred from the casino. With that in mind, almost any industry would do as long as it provided an open window for another year of work and another set of skills to keep him marketable.
“It’s not really about what kinds of jobs you do to get by in tough times like these,” says Cocchi. “It’s about the amount of time between each job on your résumé. It had already been a few months for me and I didn’t want that gap to get any bigger.”