- - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Late last year, I moved to Haiti. Here, in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I have seen young Haitians answer joblessness with the spirit of enterprise. Too bad they can’t export some of it back to the U.S. There, too many of their unemployed counterparts are economically inert, held back by a sense of entitlement.

I was living in Washington a little more than a year ago when I joined the swelling ranks of unemployed young Americans. The first month was an unexamined vacation. It wasn’t until a friend invited me to brunch that I began to question our emerging mentality. He was stopping by Whole Foods to buy crackers and organic cheese with his food stamps. In what mixed-up world, I wondered, are food stamps meant for organic brunching cheese?

Soon, I began to notice that while my unemployed peers were looking for jobs, they weren’t about to settle for just any job. Summer was approaching, but no one was applying for summer jobs. Few had bothered applying for low-level service sector jobs. Their job searches seemed to be more about looking for openings worthy of themselves than looking for ways to make themselves worthy of the few available openings.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a cohort sometimes labeled Generation Me, an emerging class of young people is reluctant to spend eight hours a day at a job unless they find their work interesting, challenging and meaningful. With continuing high unemployment and jobs for younger workers especially scarce, however, landing that perfect position is nearly impossible. In the meantime, all too many among this generation’s unemployed are generally content to drink vodka in the park, plan elaborate barbecues and host trendy - and effectively state-subsidized - brunches. Funemployment, they call it.

Here in Haiti, as in the U.S., unemployment is rampant. Unlike in the U.S., funemployment is nonexistent.

The options that Americans take for granted are unavailable to Haiti’s unemployed. Here, only a lucky few have savings, and the idea of government-sponsored welfare is laughable. But, making a virtue of necessity, Haitians have figured out how to use the capitalist system in a way that many Americans of my generation never learned. They are embracing entrepreneurship. But here entrepreneurs don’t have MBAs and they don’t secure start-up financing from venture capitalists. Many, in fact, are barely making ends meet.

At any time of day, groups of young men stand alert on the streets of Port-au-Prince, ready to wash vehicles, help drivers parallel park or sell individual cigarettes from a pack. Pierre Peterson is one of these men. Mr. Peterson was working as a disc jockey when the earthquake hit. His livelihood was destroyed with his equipment. He started waiting outside restaurants and bars, offering to guard people’s cars while they enjoyed the venues.

“For me,” Mr. Peterson affirms, “it is about working itself.” He doesn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur, but he certainly took the initiative to create economic opportunity for himself.

“To find a job is not easy,” John Colas says earnestly as he takes apart a dented cell phone. When he left school in 2002, he could not find formal employment. Undiscouraged, he noticed that cell phones had become more prominent in Haiti since Comtel’s launch in 1999, but there were few phone technicians. “It was the perfect moment to make more money fixing cell phones,” Mr. Colas says. He set up shop under an umbrella on Rue Darguin and has been a successful street technician ever since.

This work ethic and entrepreneurialism isn’t limited to those without any opportunity.

Gason Aloude was working as a housekeeper eight years ago, but her salary wasn’t enough to support her husband and three children. She quit her job, took her paycheck to town and bought produce to resell piecemeal. Today, Mrs. Aloude’s small business is enough to keep her family, which has grown to include five children, afloat.

“When you work in the house, the money your boss gives you is very small,” she explains. “When you are an entrepreneur, you make more money. You can help yourself. You can help your family.”

These examples of initiative, creativity and resilience from Haiti illustrate a useful lesson for those unemployed young Americans waiting passively for their dream job to materialize on a favorite job board: They don’t need to give up on the perfect job, but they may need to give up on finding it in the formal employment market.

Not unlike many of his peers in the U.S., Josef Palermo purposefully embraced funemployment. “I felt like my work … just wasnt having the overall impact I came to D.C. to make,” he says. That was January of last year. In contrast to his peers, Mr. Palermo didn’t limit himself to pursuing the perfect job. Instead, he developed a hodgepodge of projects that might take him from unemployed to self-employed.

Today, he works as a social media consultant, freelances as a designer and has launched the Columbia Heights Arts Foundation. “I was reminded by a friend that when people don’t have something, they’ll create it. I truly believe that I’m doing just that.”

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