I keep coming across disheartening reminders that having a successful career rarely translates into financial stability.
s.e. smith, a writer whose work I’ve followed for years on XOJane and elsewhere on the social justice internets, recently posted a list of tips for freelancers. In the introduction, ou* admitted:
Alas, the fact of the matter is that while I have been freelancing for seven years now, I still don’t have what I would call a wildly stable or successful career, and it’s highly likely that will never realistically happen. The same is true of many freelancers, especially in an economy where intellectual labour is valued less and less, which translates into lower fees for your work or dreaded offers of ‘exposure’ in offer for your free work.
The same day, I came across Susie Cagle’s post Eight years of solitude: on freelance labor, journalism, and survival. And it’s just depressing:
More newspapers and magazines want to profile me and the strange work I do than hire me to actually do it. Other writers and illustrators chastise, how can you complain about getting that kind of promotion? The year I got the most TV and radio spots and magazine write-ups, I made about $17,000.
Even though freelance writing doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons–I do best with external structure and routine, I need to be around people, and I just enjoy writing more when my rent doesn’t depend on it–it hurts to see how little our economy values people with skills and interests similar to mine. It’s incredibly frustrating to see so many people doing such good work but barely making enough to live on.
And then there are the fields where getting a job is near-impossible, no matter how much experience and passion you have, no matter how urgently the work is needed. An anecdote from the book Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (which, by the way, is a great book and you should read it) illustrates this state of affairs perfectly.
Dietz and O’Neill begin their chapter about jobs by describing Deb Wren, an ideal employee: she has a strong work ethic that she developed growing up on a dairy farm, and cares deeply about growing food. She works for a Washington, D.C.-area non-profit in sustainable, local urban agriculture, where she has a wide range of responsibilities from grant-writing to chicken-feeding.
The kicker, of course: Wren is not an employee at all, but a volunteer who works as a babysitter and food server while she pursues her passion through unpaid internships and volunteer work, hoping to find a paid position. She says that jobs in sustainable food systems and land restoration are scarce because the work is not profitable in the conventional sense, and non-profits can’t afford to hire; she knows many young people who would love to work in the field, but can’t find jobs. (Dietz and O’Neill, 127-129).
In a world where climate change is already causing widespread hunger, and it’s only going to get worse, it’s beyond absurd that people can’t find jobs creating sustainable food systems. It’s downright grotesque.
We need, so badly, a green New Deal. The government could pay people to install solar panels, build wind farms (especially off-shore, where they can protect against hurricanes), develop new forms of renewable energy, make homes and businesses more energy-efficient, create urban food forests, work nature into urban landscapes, develop forms of agro-forestry that work for different areas of the world, update and expand public transit, repair decaying infrastructure, protect cities against the extreme weather events that come with climate change… The only theoretical reason not to do this–that the government just doesn’t have enough money–is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. As the Bank of England just admitted, money is just an IOU that banks can create whenever they want–so there’s nothing to stop the government from borrowing as much as it needs to create good jobs doing necessary work.
We need a basic income and shorter working hours to spread work more evenly across the population.
Make no mistake, our system’s extreme prioritizing of profit over people is an act of profound violence.
It is an act of violence that bankers and CEOs make multimillion dollar bonuses while adjunct professors live in homeless shelters, while children go hungry, while half of Americans are living in or near poverty, while workers in the Global South–on whose backs multinational corporations make their profits–are driven to suicide or die in building collapses, while the extraction of the minerals for those corporations’ products bankrolls unspeakable brutality.
It is an act of violence that all but the most privileged find doors closing in their faces at a time when we most desperately need bright, passionate people to deal with the interconnected social and environmental crises we face.
It is an act of violence that fossil fuel companies are selling our children’s futures–our futures–for profit.
It’s time to recognize these acts of violence for what they are. It’s time to say, enough.
We deserve better, all of us.
* s.e. is genderqueer and prefers the pronoun ou.