Your job, after graduating college, is to work really hard. In 10 years, maybe you can buy a house. It was that austere depiction of life after college that pushed Paul Singh, founder of Disruption Corporation, an asset-management firm in Arlington, Va., toward entrepreneurship.
"Your future isn't in your control if you go down as a salary man," he said during a Wednesday panel discussion at a National Journal and The Atlantic town-hall event on millennials in Richmond, Va., underwritten by Microsoft. "You have more risk than someone who is an entrepreneur. Your futures are not secure."
Today's young adults are well aware that this economy provides no guarantees of steady employment. But while many older millennials (the population born between 1980 and 2000) are now striving to find their way economically, they are also part of a generation concerned with doing good.
In 2012, a full two-thirds of millennials were interested in entrepreneurship, and more than one-quarter (27 percent) were already self-employed, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. That same year, 22 percent of millennials volunteered, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Currently Americorps, a federal program that matches more than 80,000 volunteers a year with nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and faith groups across the country, has five applicants for every volunteer space available.
While a turbulent economy nips at its heels, millennials are coming of age with a foot firmly planted in two camps: service and self-interest. Many young adults are drawn to addressing social problems—and, simultaneously, developing their own careers—by launching businesses or organizations.
Despite the difficult economy, many young people who have volunteered through Americorps are optimistic about their chances for success.
"Whether expressed through starting own business and starting own organization, they feel like 'I can do this,' " said panelist Asim Mishra, of the Corporation for National Community Service, which administers Americorps.
Mark Hanis, director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, who was also on a panel, said that millennials shouldn't overlook opportunities for what he called "intrepreneurship," where one brings an entrepreneurial mentality to an established company or organization.
"Existing institutions ... might need fresh thinking within them. You don't have to start your new company," he said.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who gave the keynote interview at the town-hall, stressed the importance of service to young people regardless what paths their careers take.
Kaine, who said he supports a mandatory year of service for young people, himself took a year off from law school to work in Honduras, where he ran a school that trained carpenters and welders. "I think about it every day," he said. His advice to today's young people? "The things that you do that give to others are the things that are really powerful."