Julia Cosart spends her days attending to San Francisco’s skin woes unwanted hair, unwelcome wrinkles, and clogged pores at Spa Radiance. Her calm, self-assured, soothing demeanor is not unlike the atmosphere of the spa in which she works. Which is why it’s hard to imagine her in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of advertising.
But that is where Cosart imagined herself ending up, having graduated in 2004 from the University of Nevada at Reno with a combined degree in advertising and journalism. After college, she tried her new career on for size with an advertising internship. "I realized I hated it," she says.
After working a few other jobs, including a stressful stint at a home for troubled youth, she decided to become an aesthetician by training at Miss Marty’s School of Beauty in San Francisco. Now, she says, "I love what I do. I only work three days a week, but make enough to live in a beautiful San Francisco apartment. Most importantly, I don’t go to a job I hate every day. There is very little stress in my life, and that’s no accident."
Cosart isn’t alone. According to experts like Alexandra Robbins, author of Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived (Perigee, 2004), Cosart represents a current movement among recent (and not-so-recent) college graduates who are entering jobs that have nothing to do with their degree(s), or with a traditional four-year college at all. Generation Y is not one that leaves college to head straight for the embrace of the corporation that will keep them until retirement; people now in their mid-twenties will most likely change careers several times throughout their life. They are also delaying getting married and having children, deferrals that make it less appealing or necessary to immediately seek out a career-track job.
"I know someone who went to an Ivy League school and then became a mailman," Robbins says. "People are starting to realize that college isn’t a direct segue to the ‘real world.’"
TIME IS MONEY. SO IS MONEY.
For many college grads following this path, the appeal is both more money and more free time. While their newly graduated classmates work 50 hours per week to earn $25,000$45,000 per year in typical post-BA employment, grads who take jobs that don’t require degrees (such as in the service industry) can earn much more.
That’s why Bert Ladner slings sushi to the Gucci-clad Financial District masses instead of using his degree in finance from San Francisco State University to be an entry-level accountant. In an ironic twist, he says, "I’ll definitely be waiting tables until I pay off my student loans. It would be impossible to pay those off on an entry-level salary."
It’s hard to track a server’s average "salary" pay varies widely from restaurant to restaurant (and temperament to temperament) but it’s estimated that a server could make $60,000 per year in a high-end restaurant. Ladner makes as much as $50,000.
Even better, he says, the lack of a set salary provides greater control over how much you make. "Need more money? Pick up an extra shift," Ladner says.
These jobs also provide more freedom about how you spend your time. Servers, aestheticians, and massage therapists all have control over the balance between money and time and many seem to value the latter even more than the former.
"Quality of life is the top priority for the new generation for twentysomethings," explains Robbins. "It ranks higher than salary or prestige."
Some say this proves that Generation Y, widely considered to be navel-gazing, fun-loving, and responsibility-shirking, isn’t self-indulgent and lazy. It’s just that they’ve abandoned a Gordon Gecko-esque pursuit of status for a greater sense of equilibrium in life.
Another reason that service jobs seem to appeal to grads more than office jobs do is the increased level of human interaction.
"A trend I see a lot is students joining us after a few years in an office," says Rocky Hall of the San Francisco School of Massage. "In those jobs, they get tired of communicating electronically through e-mail, phone conferences, et cetera. They crave a genuine sense of connection with other people, which they find through massage."
Michelle Hamer, director of admissions for Miss Marty’s School of Beauty, agrees. "In a corporate world, it’s all done over e-mail and phone. There is an electronic wall between people. We are the last profession to touch people."
And even if grads aren’t actually touching people, they are meeting, talking to, and potentially spending social time with people they wouldn’t see in office jobs both the clients they meet on the job and the friends they have more time for afterwards.
Riley Salant-Pearce says this is the benefit of waiting tables (he declined to name the restaurant). After earning his degree in biology from University of California, San Diego and guiding tours in Ecuador for a year, he found himself serving when he moved to San Francisco. Now, it’s hard for him to imagine doing a science job.
"I love the freedom of a restaurant job. I see my friends in 9-to-5 engineering and science-related jobs, and it’s too restrictive. They’re not having any fun. I make an equal amount of money, but I only work four nights a week," says Salant-Pearce, who estimates he makes about $40 an hour. "I make enough to live comfortably in San Francisco. Better than that, I can take time off to enjoy it."
He also likes the social environment of working in the service industry. "The restaurant was a great way to meet people," he says. "We all go out together when we get off. I realized I’m just too social to work in a lab."
Another selling point is that the interaction in these types of jobs tends to be of a happier, more relaxed sort. More often than not, those in the corporate world are stressed-out people dealing with other stressed-out people during work hours. The service industry sees those same corporate drones, but with their ties loosened at the bar or completely removed at the spa. Waiters and beauticians are salespeople, true, but they’re selling you something you already want. People want to buy drinks, eat lavish meals, enjoy massages, haircuts, and facials. This makes these industries sustainable.
"Beauty is a recession-proof industry," Hamer says. "People are always going to get their hair done. We maintain every other profession."
WHAT I COULD’VE BEEN
Yet many of these twentysomethings are consumed with self-doubt about "wasting" their college degrees. "Guilt does cause conflict for twentysomethings," Robbins says. "How do I weigh doing what I love with making enough money? A big part of that is image, thinking people judge them. It can take a big leap of faith to say, ‘You know what? This is how I’d like my life to be.’"
Christine Hassler, author of 20 Something Manifesto (New World), has been there. "After graduating from college, I became a successful Hollywood agent. By my mid-twenties, I had my own assistant," she says. "Agents are salespeople, and I don’t like sales. I was a nerd in high school, and the entertainment industry was the adult version of the popular crowd. I didn’t feel passionate about what I was doing. Now that I’m older, I realize that passion doesn’t come from external circumstances. But back then, I just felt lost."
So she decided to become a personal trainer.
"But I still felt lost. With all that education, I was counting to 12 in a gym all day. When people would ask what I did, I’d say, ‘I used to be an agent in Hollywood.’ I didn’t give value to personal training because it was frowned upon," she said.
Experts say part of getting over the guilt of having nondegree jobs is understanding they’re not just fun, easy, and carefree. Succeeding in them may not require a traditional degree, but they do require a certain amount of smarts and/or skill.
"Cosmetology requires an artistic background. You have to know people’s face shapes and what colors work on them," Hamer says. "Aestheticians approach skin from a medical perspective; they nurture and heal people with bad skin. And not everyone can do it. To be good, you have to be articulate and speak well to sell your product."
Cosart, who has been an aesthetician for three years, says she is "just now getting to the point where I’m really proud of it, where I’m not a little ashamed that this is what I’m doing with my college degree."
At the same time, Cosart is realizing that if she ever does want to rejoin the career track, it’ll take more than a BA to get her there. Since bachelor of arts degrees have become a dime a dozen, many twentysomethings feel pressure to get more advanced degrees to earn the prestige a BA might once have given them and to distinguish themselves from the bachelor’s-holding lumpen. Cosart figures she’ll eventually go back to school, though she’s not sure what she’ll focus on. But if she does, she knows she’s learned a valuable lesson from this time outside the white-collar world.
"I’m grateful to have figured out early in life that in choosing a career, you must decide what you want your life to feel like, not what you want it to look like," she said. "Some people live for stress. I know because I listen their Blackberries buzz in their purses every 30 seconds even as I meticulously work the stress out of their pores and their shoulders. I’m not cut out for that, and I often wonder if they are."