published Friday, August 27th, 2010

Young and Free

Young adults find their way off the career track

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    Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Aug 23, 2010 - Ashlee Glen, 33, heats chocolate to decorate her biscotti in the kitchen at her home in St. Elmo. Ms. Glen runs a cottage biscotti business and home schools her children.

Ashlee Glen has not worked a traditional job in nine years.

For the past five years, Glen, 33, has been running a cottage biscotti business out of her home while raising and home-schooling her three children, ages 9, 7 and 4.

“I’m passionate about staying home with the kids and home-schooling,” she said. “It’s not the most financially wise choice, but I really do enjoy it.”

She’s also passionate about her biscotti. She grinds the grain herself from a local farm, Sonrisa. “My biscotti is a big deal,” she said.

While passion projects are often points of pride, taking on an alternative, entrepreneurial career path such as Glen’s is not a realistic prospect for the majority of people in their 20s and 30s, said Richard Becherer, a professor of business and entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It requires an independent and creative spirit, he said.

However, with a 9.5-percent national unemployment rate and a trend toward people in their 20s delaying marriage, the question arises: Is the notion of the traditional career path waning?

“It certainly is more flexible,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “I think people still need to find a career path eventually, by 30 or so. The Man starts making sense after a while, when you want to start having more of a stable life.”

Indeed, he said, taking the path of least resistance is easiest in ones 20s.

Many in this age group practice what Arnett calls “emerging adulthood,” a post-adolescent period that doesn’t include such traditional adult markers as career, marriage and family-building. It’s a lifestyle that can be healthy in ones 20s, he said.

“Why not? You can get away with it. It’s the one time in your life when you’re not responsible to or for anyone else,” Arnett said. “Why not do things in that decade that you were never able to do before and never will be able to do again. Take that chance. It’s a rare and unique stage of life.”

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    Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Aug 23, 2010 -Ashlee Glen, 33, decorates her biscotti with chocolate at her home in St. Elmo. Ms. Glen runs a cottage biscotti business and home schools her children.

Chris Brooks, 26, spends most of his days volunteering for local activist coalition, Chattanooga Organized for Action. In order to sustain himself financially, he works odd jobs, donates plasma and sometimes depends on the goodwill of friends and family.

“I’ve always been able to squeak by,” said Brooks, an honors graduate in philosophy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He said he hopes to develop and sustain a full-time career as a community organizer.

Though Brooks has attempted to take on traditional full-time jobs several times, working in an office setting makes him “lose (his) mind,” he said. He said he felt stifled by corporate values not in accordance with his own and resented not being able to participate in decision-making processes.

“The last thing I want to do is work as a wage slave at Walmart,” he said.

While the notion of punching a clock might be unappealing, Becherer points out that it’s typically a requirement in any career path, even if just to learn what to cross off the list of possibilities.

He has advised students who wish to own a retail store to go get a job working in one for a while. Many, he said, end up changing their minds. But observing is key for anyone entering the workforce, particularly young adults, whom he said can be headstrong.

“It’s still an absolute requirement to keep your mouth shut, and your eyes and ears open and learn as much as you can. Don’t assume you know it all simply because you’re 23 years old and you’ve got a college education,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more that you need to learn in order to accomplish anything.”

Watching young adult children “wander” can be a challenge for parents and loved ones, said Arnett, “but they are wise to just be patient, I think. This is a life stage that is made for exploring.”

Or, as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

With three children at home and a husband who is going to school while also working full-time, Glen said she has considered going back to a more traditional employment arrangement. Not working full-time for profit, she admits, causes financial setbacks.

“I’m making big money on the sucker,” she joked of her baking business, “$3 - $4 an hour. But it’s money that I didn’t have before. And the more I think about it, the more I think about how much I enjoy what I’m doing now. And I’d rather pinch pennies. Hopefully in the future, my business will grow.”

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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