Say hello to Generation DIY

An increasing number of young people are turning to self-employment, and it's no surprise why - working for yourself is the perfect solution to today's job market

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A few months back, I took the plunge and became self-employed. Now, running my own business, I can work on projects and develop ideas I am completely excited and passionate about.  Every day, without question. Flipping fantastic.

What’s more, I can work the hours during the day I want. Total flexibility.  So I can go swimming in the late mornings. Long runs at lunch on other days. I’ve based myself in all sorts of cafes around London, seeing little streets and quaint parks I never knew existed. “You're actually working?”, my girlfriend asks.

Yes, actually, quite a bit. It's seven days a week. But the key is that I have the power to shape my working hours around my leisure and family time.

I join a growing number of young people who are turning to self-employment and starting businesses. This is not just a cyclical trend, or the desperate turning to insecure and sporadic self-employment as a result of the latest recession.

It is a structural trend, with a record seventh of the workforce now in self-employment, and a 7 per cent rise in the number of under-35s in self-employment over the past decade.

Surveys shows that most of those starting micro-businesses do so for positive reasons and are generally satisfied, enjoying the flexibility and opportunity to put their own ideas into action.

To some extent, my generation faces tougher economic conditions than when our parents were our age. Younger workers now earn typically 35 per cent less than an average fifty-something. In 1974, it was only 4 per cent less on average.

The cost of housing. Tuition fees. The normalisation of unpaid internships. All have made prosperity and security harder to attain: between 1995 and 2005, average net wealth fell for those aged 25-24, whereas it tripled for those aged 55-64.

But instead of moaning, descending into ugly fatalism, twentysomethings are – positively – doing something about it. This is Generation DIY. It’s started with self-employment. Self-building homes, much less prevalent here than in other European countries, is gaining traction.

Look at the politics of young people. Generation Y, those born in the 1980s, are more likely to believe in lower taxes, lower welfare spending and deficit reduction than older generations, now and when older generations were younger.

As polling shows, they are more likely to believe social problems such as poverty are the responsibility of individuals rather than government.  This emphasis on personal responsibility extends to social issues too: they are more relaxed about homosexuality, alcohol, drugs and euthanasia. 

Why so much belief in individual choice and effort? A more competitive and tougher economic environment – with the rise in a flexible and globalised labour market – may have made young people believe more in the importance of their own hard work.

They may have internalised values that prevailed under Thatcher and New Labour, including independence and aspiration. Longer periods in education could have contributed too, making them believe more strongly in the importance of the link between individual reward and effort.

Fear not: this individualism need not mean a colder, selfish society. Indeed, in recent years, informal and formal volunteering among 16-34 years has increased. Rather, scepticism with state solutions show a strong dose of fiscal realism, an open-mindedness to new ways of tackling deep-seated problems and a very positive, progressive attitude. Namely, individuals themselves can change their circumstances.

So, let’s welcome Generation DIY. Self-employment is likely to rise in the years ahead as young people want to better combine work, leisure and family. This week, the President of the UK Faculty of Health highlighted growing popularity for less traditional working hours, and the Government has extended the right to request flexible working to all employees.

But young people want more: to decide – not just request – when they work. Creativity and self-expression are becoming just as important than money for employment choices. In the far future, more young people will work longer, and self-employment could well be essential in their path of gradual retirement, as it increasingly it is for today’s babyboomers.

My generation have faced tough circumstances, especially in recent years. But we’re oozing with optimism, and know that job satisfaction often comes from taking power into our own hands.