This week I’ve thrown myself back into freelance work with a fervor that I thought I had forgotten. It helped to take a long break, work some consistent jobs, and build up my portfolio, but I was laid off from one of my (multiple) jobs a few weeks ago, and I’m finding that I need to aggressively pursue individual contracts in order to put food in my mouth. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this — I work at a pretty insane pace, and can handle multiple projects if I’m properly motivated, but if I lose enthusiasm for this kind of work, my productivity and subsequent pay drops off dramatically. If I stop to think for too long about what I’m doing, I have a tendency to get bored and frustrated, so I try to maintain a zen-like state of thinking and not thinking and churn out all of my work-related writing without dwelling on it overmuch.
What I’ve come to realize is that this is the new normal for American workers. I don’t need to talk about inequality here — everyone knows that we’ve re-entered a bizarre neo-Gilded Age where wealthy trust fundees look down on the working people from the cavernous cabins of their gold-plated zepplins, slurping caviar from the naked chests of inconceivably expensive prostitutes. No, what I want to talk about is hustle. If it weren’t bad enough that our jobs pay less proportionally than they used to, they also require more work in the first place. Worker productivity is at an all-time high, but without a commensurate increase in wages, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. Automation and technology means that more tasks can be piled on the overworked typing fingers of office drones, allowing management to trim the fat and boost profits. Employers know that they can pick and choose from the vast swathes of desperate, unemployed Americans, and there is no incentive to share the wealth. Even academia has transformed — the majority of teaching is done by adjunct professors, some of whom work for less than minimum wage and have to supplement their meager income with food stamps.
And that’s just full-time workers. Freelancers, who already suffer from a lack of benefits, job security, and, well, respect, are being pushed harder and harder to produce as the market becomes saturated with wannabes and part-timers who don’t need the income. Prices have been driven down, all types of content are completely over-saturated, and everyone with a keyboard a few brain cells to rub together suddenly thinks that they can write, effectively devaluing the work of a freelance writer. Since millennials are the ones who lost out on the whole ‘having a job’ thing, many of them are having to turn to freelance, contract, or part-time work to make ends meet, which is tough pill to swallow after the initial indignity of absent opportunity.
As usual, this takes place inside the toxic narrative of American boostrapping, with politicians from both sides of the aisle offering helpful advice like, “Start your own business!” or “Do some unpaid work to gain experience”, as if that’s helpful advice to anyone with student loans and a ballooning rent check. Freelancers like me have to diversify to an almost absurd degree in order to stay profitable. It’s not enough to be a good writer, you have to be a good writer, marketer, programmer, and graphic designer. I mean, I started a YouTube channel and have been teaching myself Photoshop just to stay competitive. I mean, the last interview I had ended with the guy on the other end of the table asking me how many Twitter followers I had.
This is good and bad. Perhaps the new ‘man of letters’ is someone who can juggle the many self-aggrandizing corners of the internet and make him or herself into a paragon of popularity, standing astride the social media landscape like a colossus of never-ending content. Me, I just wanted to write stories, but I’m willing to do more if that’s what it takes. This new hustle can’t be good for everyone though, and I’m worried about the people that it’s going to leave behind — the meticulous ones, the hyper-focused, the marginalized, the discerning aesthete. This hustle century is partly the fault of employers and advertisers, and partly our fault for rabidly consuming their content.
I’d love to present a solution, but I’m afraid I’ve got work to do.