During my senior year of college, I attended the Women, Action, and the Media: WAM! conference here in Boston, hoping to find career ideas and opportunities. Instead, I found there were plenty of people doing good work, but few making a living–and most of the latter had put in years of unpaid or barely-paid work to get there. Few organizations offered entry-level jobs with a living wage and a clear career path. The only way I could see to get into most positions was to work unpaid internships, or start your own project on top of working full-time elsewhere, and keep doing it until either it became profitable or you gained enough experience to apply for one of the few jobs available.
And this was before the global financial crisis of 2008.
Throughout the nearly seven years (!) since I graduated, I’ve been constantly researching jobs and careers and alternative life paths, trying to find a good fit. Every time I come across someone doing work that sounds appealing to me, something I could see myself doing, I look at how they’re doing it. And almost always, it involves a superhuman amount of work, an amount of hustling that I just don’t have in me, an extra source of income, or all of the above.
One recent example: I read Paradise Lot, a book about the how the author and a friend built a permaculture garden on a small urban lot in Western Massachusetts. Permaculture appeals to me immensely, and I still hope to learn it someday, perhaps while WWOOFing if I can ever make it work. But through much of the time described in the book, not only was the author designing his own garden, but he was also working at a local grassroots organization and writing a permaculture encyclopedia–while also recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
Another example: Heather Corinna of Scarleteen, a site that provides comprehensive sexuality education to young people, recently wrote that the site will go on strike unless they receive enough donations to make their work sustainable. Corinna writes that she has been working for 15 years without a living wage, often while working multiple other jobs at the same time, because she cares so deeply about the work–but she can no longer keep that up. And, as she notes, she’s not the only one; a lack of funding and jobs is endemic in the field. I’ve seen this firsthand: one of my friends is trained as a sex educator, but she’s in the same position I am, taking whatever administrative/clerical temp jobs she can find to make ends meet.
I thought about going into sex ed, briefly, when I was interning in the media and communications department at Planned Parenthood (also during my senior year of college). And then I saw there were no jobs.
It’s easy not to realize how many doors have quietly closed, until suddenly you see them all.
While I’m grappling with my set of closed doors, I can’t help but notice that most of my friends who have stable, well-paying jobs work in male-dominated industries like computer programming. The few jobs our society still values are those done by men, and that makes me angry as hell.
Recently on Facebook, one of my older friends urged me to follow my dreams. She did, and it worked for her–20 years ago. I know she meant well, and I appreciate the encouragement; but when I look too closely at dreams that might have been mine, all I see is, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, the tunnel at the end of the light.
And while this lack of opportunity is painfully new to me–a white, middle-class American whose parents and grandparents were mostly upwardly mobile–it’s been a reality for too many people for too long.
I want this to change. I need it to.
If I were queen for a day and could institute one economic policy, it would be a basic income, a living stipend for all that’s not tied to employment. Unlike raising the minimum wage, or fighting for higher wages within a specific industry, it would make it possible for everyone to get by: whether or not they can find a job, whether or not they’re able to work full-time, whether or not the job market values their skills at any particular moment.
It would give us the freedom to do whatever work the world needs, regardless of whether it’s immediately (or ever) profitable–things like sex ed and permaculture. I know that no one policy can be a panacea for a problem this big; but a basic income is the best solution I can think of, and I’m going to keep shouting about it from the rooftops in the hope that someday, somehow it’ll become a reality.
In the meantime, I will be trying to come to terms with my closed doors, with my frustration at older people who just don’t get it, with my rage at a job market that systematically devalues all but a privileged, mostly-male few. I will be right here, trying to figure out what it means to live in the post-employment economy.