The post-employment economy and its discontents

First, a blog note: My Friday Links post will probably be late this week (again). It’s been an exhausting week, and I have a busy weekend planned–so I’ll get to it as soon as I can, but I’m not sure when that will be.

With that out of the way, here are some reflections I’ve been having on the issues I started exploring in my post about millenials and the terrible economy we’ve inherited: one that I’ve best heard described by writer Sarah Kendzior as a post-employment economy.

On a message board discussing both my post and the millenial-bashing one to which I was responding, I read a comment (which unfortunately I can no longer find)  that said, basically, money doesn’t buy happiness–that it’s possible to be happy and have a good life without making much money.

On one hand, there’s a lot of truth to that. On the other hand, in our society, money can buy a lot of things it shouldn’t.

Like the ability to follow a career path that interests you.

To a certain extent, money has always been able to purchase opportunity; but as Alexandra Kimball discovered, it’s a lot more extreme now than it was for our parents and grandparents. Entire professions are closed off to all but the wealthy, as she experienced firsthand: after years of trying to start a career in journalism, she was able to break into the field only after receiving a surprise inheritance.

Or, say, compassion.

Take this incident that Adam Weistein relates in his response to the original piece.

Last weekend my baby had a fever, and we contemplated taking him to the ER, and my first thought was – had to be – “Oh God, that could wipe out our bank account! Maybe he can just ride it out?” Our status in this Big Financial Game had sucked my basic humanity towards my child away for a minute. If I wish for something better, is that me simply being entitled and delusional?

Or kindness. As Molly Crabapple points out in her brilliant, beautifully written, must-read piece about the relationship between art and money:

So much of the difference between the experiences of rich and poor comes down to kindness. Kindness is scarce. Kindness must be bought.

If you have money, you can pay to live in a bubble of politesse. Excellent wine choice, sir. Here’s your gift bag, madam. Often, you don’t have to pay for it. The mere promise that you might will keep you sipping prosecco and deserving of servile attentions. Soon, you think this treatment is earned.

Meanwhile, we treat the poor with casual cruelty. Single moms on welfare have their homes searched by police to make sure they’re not hiding a man in the closet. But it’s too much to ask bankers to justify the bonuses they sucked off the public teat. The poor get stop-and-frisk, drug tests, and constant distrust.

In our current system, money doesn’t just buy things. It buys the right to be treated like a human being.

In our current system, popularity and acclaim rarely translate into money.  Authors who have published multiple books can barely make ends meet. Authors who could write amazing books don’t do so because they can’t afford to. And some people, like Weinstein, have careers that look great on the outside, until you get down to the dirty financial details:

I’ve tempered the hell out of my expectations of work, and I’ve exceeded those expectations crazily to have one interesting, exciting damned career that’s culminated in some leadership roles for national publications. And I’m still poor and in debt and worked beyond the point where it can be managed with my health and my desire to actually see the son I’m helping to raise.

This is the world that my generation has grown up into. One in which hard work and smarts don’t guarantee a meaningful career; a meaningful (or any) career doesn’t guarantee a living wage; and the basic building blocks of a good life are slipping farther and farther away from all but the rich.

Of course, millenials aren’t the only victims of the post-employment economy. We grew up directly into the worst of it, and that will shape the rest of our lives. But people of all ages are suffering.

And I have no tolerance for those who would blame Boomers for their children’s predicament. The vast majority of Boomers have no more control over the economic system than we do. I blame the politicians, the bankers, the 1% of the 1%. I blame power, and the things that people do to keep and consolidate that power.

Last night I came home from my (temporary, no-benefits, low-paying) job and read the most heart-wrenching and infuriating story I’ve read in a long time: that of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year old adjunct professor who died in extreme poverty after losing her job while fighting cancer.

I can’t even begin to explain the depth of my rage that we live in a world where this happens. A world in which a professor can teach for 25 years but never receive health insurance, or retirement benefits, or a salary over $25,000.  A world in which a professor–or anyone–is left to die alone and nearly homeless after decades of hard work.

A world in which compassion, as Weinstein and Crabapple so eloquently observed, is reserved for the rich.

I hate that this is the world we live in.

Right now, I’m too angry and sad and bone-deep exhausted to say much more.

I want change. I don’t know where to find the energy to start fighting, while I’m still trying to stay afloat myself.

8 thoughts on “The post-employment economy and its discontents

  1. My only thought when reading the Crabapple article is what does one do when they don’t have the “safety net of loving middle class parents” or the looks to “fuck rich men” or “head straight for the Naked Girl jobs”?
    I get what she is saying, but I can’t relate to her I guess. I hate this world we live in too, and it’s awful to be both smart AND poor..and I don’t mean early 20’s struggling en route to better things poor. I mean, living like that in your 30’s because the only jobs available are part time or less. Assuming you are in good enough health to even work at all.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point. Those are definitely not options available for everyone…most people just end up having to work food service or retail to make ends meet.

      And yes it is awful. There’s so struggling on route to better things anymore, because there are no better things. 😦

  2. Ugh, I hate the phrase “money doesn’t buy happiness”. On the face if it, it’s true. And for people who already have a certain amount of money, it’s a good tempering statement to remind people to be happy with what they have.

    But that’s just it. It’s a good statement for people who already have some money. Not wealthy people necessarily, but people who are basically financially secure. Heh. Although increasingly, it seems basic financial security is becoming something only a privileged few get to enjoy.

    When you haven’t eaten fresh fruit, fish or vegetables in months because you can’t afford them. When the hot tap on your bath broke a year ago and you’ve been siphoning hot water from the sink ever since. When you no longer own a single item of clothing that isn’t holey, patched, faded or worn by three people before you. When it’s November and you’re having to choose between having enough electricity to keep you warm or eating. When late-payment fees for bills have become so regular a recurrence that you now budget them into your monthly expenses. When you get a letter telling you that a particular bill is going to increase by £3 a month and you burst into tears because you have absolutely no idea where that money is going to come from and you just got your budget working okay and you feel so lost and down.

    Then? A little extra money can actually buy a lot of happiness.

    The other half and I are unemployed. We don’t want to be. We’re applying every day for as many jobs as we can and having to compete with 50+ people for every vacancy. Recently my other half was in tears when he had to turn down a job opportunity because it turned out, although they didn’t tell him in the job ad or through two interviews, that there was NO wage, that it was commission-only, which could leave us working full time, and still unable to even basically pay the rent. His aunt’s response was “but why is he applying for those sort of jobs?”. She didn’t get that, when every job you see is a zero-hour or part-time or temporary vacancy, any full time, permanent job looks like a dream opportunity. I was recently amazed when I asked my parents and in-laws for advice in writing a thanks-for-the-interview follow up courtesy email and none of them knew how to help… because none of them had ever had to write one, or been expected to do the pre-internet equivalent of letter or phone call – not once, in their working lives.

    I think we do have vastly different perspectives on how life is right now. The way things worked when our parents were jobseekers and just establishing their careers is different in not just the big ways… but lots of invisible, unexpected little ways that can make it more difficult to discuss these things and not end up at cross purposes.

    I don’t blame boomers for the situation – but it can be frustrating to when so many of them seem to have no idea at all what this is like, and a lot of the millenials-are-entitled articles seem to be written by or for people who identify with that generation, which is why I think a lot of people are reacting by throwing it back at them. You go through all this hardship, all this invisible struggle, and then someone in political office who got free education, a job-for-life, a pension plan and a living wage at your age turns around and tries to claim that food banks are a waste of resources because the poor just need to get “better at budgeting”. It’s easy to see why people lash out, although it doesn’t forgive the attitude.

    • Ugh, your situation sounds awful, and I hope that you and your partner find jobs soon. Definitely, when you don’t have enough to live on, a little extra money can buy happiness–and major relief from stress.

      Yeah, that makes sense…I agree that it’s easy to see why people lash out at Boomers even though it’s not actually their fault. It is really frustrating when they don’t get it!

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