Guy Kawasaki, a venture capitalist and the author of an entrepreneurial handbook called The Art of the Start, says the idea of becoming one’s own boss tends to bewitch workers in their 30s, when they’ve reached a sort of plateau. “When you’re in your 20s and you’re trying to get your first job, you’re worried about subsistence,” he says. “And when you’re in your 40s, you’re worried about your kids and your parents. So there’s this window between about 25 and 40 where you’ve got to do it. That’s the only time.”
Another way to think about it: To be a punk-rock puppeteer in your 20s is cool; to be a punk-rock puppeteer in your late 30s is . . . complicated. Consider Eric Junker, who spent much of the nineties making art, traveling, living off freelance graphic-design work, and pouncing upon West Coast audiences with a troupe called Monkey Pete’s Puppet Theater. Puppetry can be said to offer many joys, but alas, fiscal security is not one of them. “Part of it was just looking down the barrel of turning 40 and realizing I might want to put some money in the bank, and I might want to have a car that started every day when I turned the key,” Junker says. “I was living in a studio that was above a funky bodega that seemed to attract a lot of rodents, and I was just getting a little worn out by that. I wanted some comfort.” When Junker found out that a close friend with plenty of business experience, Jeff Wagner, was looking for work, the two teamed up and formed what would become Wagner/Junker, a hot Los Angeles marketing, advertising, and PR firm. Voilà—cool new job, plus instant status overhaul. As Junker might tell you, many career transformers are simply sensing the skin-prickling chill of what sociologist C. Wright Mills once referred to as “status panic.” If you’re not sure what status panic feels like, go to your next college reunion, have a Sam Adams with the dude who just made a billion dollars selling silly little ringtones, and see if you’re still convinced it was a wise use of your time to spend the past 15 years fussing around with a dissertation on Derrida. Especially if you’re still a renter.
All you need to do if you want to induce the itch and drool of status panic in a cubicle drone is to repeat the following mantra: Google, MySpace, YouTube, Starbucks, Yahoo, eBay. In spite of the stock market’s bumpy ride over the past seven years, entrepreneurs continue to change the way the world does business—making gazillions of dollars in the process and wrapping a rosy halo around the word risk. For a generation that sees Office Space as the last word on corporate values, few syllables strike the ear with such ambrosial allure as “equity” and “freedom.”