"Which sounds better?" she asked me, "The Collective Muse or The Muse Collective?"
It was late one morning when my sister—a former art history major turned part-time waitress, sometimes philanthropist and freelance curator—broke the news of her latest endeavor. Adding to her cluttered list of credits, my sister now had plans to start her very own creative consulting company. Only 26, and already she's vying for a spot as CEO.
Her ambition, though not surprising to those who know her, is a prime example of the audacious attitude often attributed to Generation Y's work ethic. It's even the subject of an HBO series, How to Make in America. Set against a gritty New York backdrop, the drama explores the lives of 20-something entrepreneurs hell-bent on saying ''F*** The Man'' until they're able to be The Man. In real life, Millennials, born between 1977-1997, are often the subject of unwanted media scrutiny— not to mention some unflattering headlines: The New York Post questions whether or not Gen Y is ''The Worst Generation?" Portfolio describes us as ''Generation Y Can't We Have It All,'' while the Huffington Post is more blunt and asks: ''Is Gen Y Lazy?''
There's a reason why my generation is under such scrutiny.
Millennials are a demographic numbering over 80 million, the largest generation since that of our parents, the Baby Boomers. Those of us over 18 accounted for roughly 21 percent of the U.S. population in 2009 (29 percent total). And by 2025, Gen Y will take over more than 75 percent of the workforce. But instead of tiptoeing up the corporate ladder, we've been catapulting ourselves toward new directions, demonstrating a penchant for entrepreneurship and, despite entry-level positions, a sense of entitlement normally reserved for the guy in the corner office.
Yet, as much as we've been criticized for side-eyeing the status quo, Millennials aren't the first generation of misfits to shake up American life. In the tumult of the 1960s and '70s, the Boomers, distrustful of anyone over 30 and cited for self-indulgence, were dubbed the Me Generation. Once Boomers aged into midlife, Gen Xers became the poster children for counterculture, slammed for their skepticism and labeled slackers. Now that it's Gen Y's turn in the spotlight, the generational divide has seemingly gotten deeper—and more complicated. Last summer, a cross-generational study done by the Pew Research Center revealed that 79 percent of Americans today (contrasted with 74 percent 40 years ago) saw major differences between the young and old, with nearly two-thirds of all blacks (65 percent) stating that they believe the moral values of younger and older generations to be ''very different.''
Three-quarters of those polled also said that those from older generations had a superior work ethic. (Another Millennial-specific study done by the Pew Center early this year reported similar data. More on that study later.) Notwithstanding the mounting data, the problem with measuring Gen Y against traditional American values, those involving work, is that the old rules no longer apply. We've grown up in a time when technology, social networks, education and the economy have been dismantled, remixed or revolutionized. So why wouldn't work standards follow suit?
There's been a ''recalibration of expectations'' for Gen Y at work, says writer and public speaker Nadira Hira. Hira, a 28-year-old Millennial, has written extensively for Fortune about how young adults will impact the workplace. She says most young workers feel that if they're going to ''put in the time and the hard work and the energy,'' it's going to be on their own terms. For black Millennials, this shifting of gears is particularly significant. In the Jim Crow past, black professionals often took the entrepreneurial route out of the need for survival; corporate doors were slammed shut to them. Today, we're choosing to go at it alone—and open our own doors in the process.
Submitted for your approval: A window into the working mind of Gen Y.
Ready, set, go (away)!
With his multi-colored, high-top sneaks and ''members only'' jacket, Darrell Britt-Gibson looks the part of a young Hollywood actor. But he hasn't hit Tinseltown. Yet. The 24-year-old actor and aspiring superstar spends most his days working retail and eagerly awaiting his next big break—which, in typical Gen Y fashion, he is certain will come.
''It was a great experience,'' he says, reflecting on O-Dog's impact. His lean, 6-foot frame and puppy-dog expression belie the look of the silent killer he once played. When asked what The Wire did for his acting dream, a cocky smile plays across his lips, ''It made it real.''
As we chat over lunch, he discusses plans to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting full-time—a goal he has maintained since the series ended in March 2008. ''I actually regret not moving sooner,'' he later tells me. ''I know [L.A.] is where I need to be to do what I want to do.''
This sense of urgency, according to Hira, speaks to the Gen Y sentiment that ''we can't afford to wait'' for our dreams to happen. Witnessing Boomers ''pay their dues'' by investing in one steady job with little return has taught many Millennials to go another route, to venture off on their own careers and make moves—quickly.
Until he's ready to make that move, Britt-Gibson is saving money by living at home with his family in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Silver Spring. And, in this respect, he's not alone either. According to this year's Pew Research Center report on adults 18-29, one in eight Millennials over 22 live at home. Chalk it up to the economy and helicopter parenting. But Gen Y is braver because of that safety net. When it comes to going at it alone, Hira says, we're more than willing to struggle if there's a good enough reason to sacrifice.
Britt-Gibson is all about the sacrifice. When he's not on the clock as a sales associate at American Apparel, he works odd jobs and e-mails L.A. contacts in hopes of landing another steady acting gig before the big move. Occasionally, he flies back and forth between his hometown and Hollywood to sell himself to entertainment execs and potential agents. ''It's almost like fishing,'' Darrell chortles, ''you're the bait.''
And the big catch is not guaranteed. His older brother, screenwriter Hamani Britt-Gibson, who's lived and worked in L.A. for several years, has warned Darrell about the realities of the industry—especially for a black actor. For every Denzel and Halle, there are countless wannabe stars and starlets who never see their name in lights. But Darrell doesn't seem too worried about the odds against him. He's just anxious to finally arrive in L.A. so that he can ''hit the ground running'' and never look back.
Until then, working the register is a means to an end. O-Dog can only get him so far.
Britt-Gibson's former cast mate, Armando Cadogan Jr., has an impressive, if eclectic, background in entertainment. The son of Panamanian immigrants, Cadogan got his start with bit roles in industrial films and PSAs. Right before his freshman year at UMBC, he landed a spot on The Wire, appearing on episode three of the first season. He was later recast in the fourth season as a ruthless junkie, a role he describes as ''HBO's No. 1 street bully.'' Back at school, he played the big man on campus, performing at parties and local freestyle competitions to showcase his rap skills and establish his brand. He even helped promote a friend's Baltimore-based T-shirt line, B-more Creative, sporting it at events where he performed. Cross-marketing and collaboration are also part of the Gen Y hustle.
Once college was over, Cadogan left Baltimore for New York City, where he now lives with his grandmother and actively works to stretch 15 minutes of fame from The Wire into a successful crossover career.
Armando Cadogan a.k.a. "Panama."
His rap moniker, ''Panama aka Da Spanish Kid,'' is a proud nod to his Central American roots. A fluent Spanish speaker, he's gone to Panama, almost every year of his life, witnessing—and living—the kind of struggle that comes from extreme poverty: crammed tenements in squalor, a lack of running water and scarce electricity.
Not surprisingly, his decision to make an uncertain living as an entertainer didn't initially sit well with his family. ''In the Hispanic culture, we believe in a 9 to 5,'' he says.
According to Hira, for young adults who come from immigrant families or other communities of color, the expectation is not to just be resourceful, but to be traditionally resourceful. (Read: be a doctor; be a lawyer.) A professional gig, the reasoning goes, offers guaranteed wealth, better to reinvest in the family. For Cadogan, it wasn't until his face appeared in the Panamanian newspaper Critica en Linea that his grandmother and other relatives living abroad began to embrace his career choice. Despite their doubts, he says, he was always confident about making his own way.
Growing up, Cadogan and his childhood friend, Shawn Smith, caught the entrepreneurial spirit watching Diddy and other rap moguls get rich. So, rather than simply wait for a major label to open doors of opportunity, the two decided that they could be moguls, forming Young Exec Records in 2005. (Right now, the label hasn't expanded beyond producing Cadogan's mixtapes, but the duo has dreams of being picked up by a major label.) Like other Gen Yers, Cadogan is willing to play the risk game—even in a recession.
In Cadogan's case, his hubris makes him a pro at self-promotion. As I talk with him about one of his projects, he casually describes several others, as if ticking off items on a to-do list: a pending liqueur endorsement, television appearances, a forthcoming music video and his mixtape, ''Ringside Seats.'' Then, looking up briefly from his BlackBerry, he states it plain: ''I'm a hustler.''
In his mind, building a business is an obvious, if not prudent, expansion of his skills. ''We're not just going to be rappers,'' he explains. ''That don't make no money. We're gonna be bosses! … You always gotta see the bigger picture.''
Saaret E. Yoseph, a proud member of the Millennial generation, is The Root's assistant editor.
READ: Part two of "Generation Y's New Age Hustle." Meet three more Millennials who are redefining what it means to work toward the American dream.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"