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Posts Tagged ‘recession’

The view from the plateau

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life on December 31, 2013 at 1:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As we head into 2014, the view from here is distinctly novel. Finally, after decades of struggle and toil — and thank heaven for some respite! — things are in pretty good shape.

It’s such an odd notion for me, to not have to struggle all the time. It’s felt like a default status.

When you’re as ambitious, driven and competitive as I am, there’s always some new mountain to scale, a new place I need to plant my flag.

I’ve written two well-reviewed works of non-fiction, which for many people is a terrific accomplishment, a mountaintop from which to enjoy the view. But being a New York-based writer means knowing people — some half my age — who have already produced six or ten books, or a TV series or a NYT best-seller or…

It’s difficult to just sit still and enjoy the view.

Time to try.

Evening view from Col de Perjuret on the south...

Evening view from Col de Perjuret on the south edge of the Causse Méjean plateau in the Cevennes, France. Panoram stitched from several shoots. —- (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our apartment, after years of waiting, is finally renovated and an absolute joy to come home to; here’s my blog post, with photos, of the big reveal of our fall kitchen renovation this year.

My husband still has a good job he enjoys, with no imminent threat of losing it, a very real fear we faced in the winter of 2009 when his employer laid off many of its staff. I have a decent list of established clients who want to work with me, even as I still seek new ones almost daily.

We’re in good health and have savings. We have friends. My parents are still alive and fairly healthy. We have no kids or grandkids or nieces or nephews to worry about, (or to enjoy.)

For the moment, (she wrote, praying for more of the same), our lives contain no sweat or drama or conflict, all of which have simply felt normal to me for a long, long time. Operating in crisis mode, as many of you know, is exhausting and distracting:

Between 2000 and 2012, I had four orthopedic surgeries, the most recent being the replacement of my left hip. I waited 2.5 years for the surgery because I was scared of the operation and needed to find the income to allow me to fully rest and recover for a month; freelancers get no paid sick days.

Between 2002 and 2010, my mother, (whose only child I am, and who lives a six-hour flight away), faced multiple major surgeries and months-long hospital stays, first selling a large house and moving into a small apartment and, on a week’s notice in 2010, into a nursing home.

I moved to New York in 1989, to face the first of three recessions since then; the latest one, reaching its nadir between 2007 to 2009, was a terrifying time for us financially, as it still is for millions of Americans.

My step-mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2006 and was dead within 18 months, dying on my husband’s 50th birthday.

So, for a very long time, life felt like trying to swim in rough surf — every time we surfaced for air,  we were thrown back onto the sand, coughing up salty mouthfuls.

Now, grateful but somewhat disoriented to find ourselves on a calm and quiet plateau, we wonder what our next steps are.

How does your life look and feel these days?

Are you looking forward in 2014 to some new travels or adventures?

Expecting or enjoying a new baby or grandchildren?

Coping with your first year of university?

Whatever it is, and wherever you are, I wish all of you  — now almost 8,800 readers worldwide — the very best for 2014!

Rising costs, falling income, and waving at the Rockefeller helicopter

In aging, behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, Money, urban life, US, work on April 25, 2013 at 11:02 am
Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s an honest, powerful and deeply depressing blog post about what American life when your income is falling and costs going through the roof:

Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car.  He drives around 150 miles per day for his job.  And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg.  But it’s not working out like we planned.  With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.

While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her.  “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work.  I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home.  Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.

The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.

I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.

She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.

Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?

For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.

Here’s a powerful recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how work, even for the most highly educated, is changing for the worse:

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.

The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.

Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.

I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.

Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.

Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.

Money - Black and White Money

Money – Black and White Money (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

Stagnant and falling wages for most of us are simply killing our desire, and ability, to get ahead of our monthly basic costs– to save for short or long-term needs, whether retirement, car repair, education, medical bills or (imagine), a vacation.

I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.

So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.

I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.

We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.

And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.

How’s things with you these days financially?

Are you as worried as I am?

Related articles

How about Plans C, D and E?

In aging, behavior, books, business, domestic life, family, immigration, journalism, life, love, Media, US, women on December 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm
University College, south side, University of ...

University College, south side, University of Toronto….My alma mater, (Victoria College, actually.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think many of us have a Plan B — or are already living it.

But how many of you have thought far enough ahead about plans C, D and E?

Here’s a recent blog post chosen for Freshly Pressed by a woman who’s 40, in Toronto, the hometown I left in 1986. In it she discusses how it feels to face a life she did not plan for:

Life sure hasn’t gone the way I planned. That’s an understatement. I thought things would be different. As a kid, I used to think that life got easier as you got older. Now here I am pushing 40 and boy was I wrong about that. The older I get, things seem to get more complicated and every decision I have to make feels like the weight of the world.

Being a grown up is hard.

Hell, yes!

I am now at an age that feels absolutely geriatric, 55. Ahead lies a diminishing number of years on this earth, and physical decline. Cool! If I don’t have a few back-up plans (what if I get really sick? what if my husband dies?), I’m toast.

I’m writing this post sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. I came by train from New York on Sunday to compete Monday for a fellowship that, if I win, offers $20,000 for six months to research an issue of interest to me. There are 14 finalists and they’ll pick maybe six.

I have to plan on not winning. Not to be negative, but realistic.

I have so many other ideas I can barely keep track of them all: writing (and I hope selling) two more non-fiction book proposals; three assignments from The New York Times and another which I hope will send me on my next trip; a conference I hope to create next fall; rustling up people to donate their talent for a fund-raiser; planning travel for 2013…

My point is that “planning” your life is truly a fool’s errand, no matter how comforting it appears. You can aim for goals, and likely hit many, if not most. But some you are going to miss.

If you do not grasp this reality, young, you may face a life of tremendous frustration and bitterness.

Some dreams will be snatched out of your grasp. Some people will disappoint you and betray you and lie to you and disappear. Some things are just shitty luck: infertility and/or miscarriage; accidents; disability or chronic illness. You still have to deal!

Here are some of the twists and turns my life took after I chose to leave my hometown of Toronto, age 30:

– Took a newspaper job in Montreal. Hated it! The winter was brutally long, cold and snowy. The crime rate was crazy, and frightening. The paper’s management were…not what I wanted.

– Moved to a small town in New Hampshire to follow the man I planned to marry, an American. I tried harder than I have ever tried in my entire life to make friends, and it proved impossible. He was doing medical training, so he was either gone, exhausted or emotionally withdrawn.

Moved to New York City to make it as a journalist. I was promised a month’s try-out, paid, at Newsweek International. When I called to confirm my start date (after we had moved to NY and bought an apartment and he had changed training programs) they said “Oh, we have an internal candidate. We don’t need you.” I insisted and still did not get the job.

And that’s only the first five years!

My life since 1989 has included a two-year marriage to the doctor; three recessions, four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, losing a few staff jobs, three days in the hospital with pneumonia, dating a convicted criminal…and writing two terrific books, finding a lovely new husband and enjoying my new left hip.

None of this was planned.

Sure, I had some hopes: good journalism jobs (check); get married (check, check); write a book (check, check). So I’m happy with this. But so many things have blown up in my face, metaphorically speaking, along the way as well.

If you are not ready — emotionally, physically and financially — to adapt to whatever life throws at you, you’ll waste a lot of time when things go south in a fog of cognitive dissonance, moaning “What happened?” instead of packing your parachute.

Here’s a great blog post by a young woman writer whose blog I enjoy, about being prepared and knowing she’s not a victim. It is a choice.

How has your life turned out?

As you’d hoped and expected? Or…?

Every 20 minutes an American dies for lack of health insurance: one man’s story

In behavior, culture, Health, journalism, life, Media, Medicine, Money, politics, US on October 19, 2012 at 12:11 am
Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This, from The New York Times:

So why didn’t I get physicals? Why didn’t I get P.S.A. tests? Why didn’t I get examined when I started having trouble urinating? Partly because of the traditional male delinquency about seeing doctors. I had no regular family doctor; typical bachelor guy behavior.

I had plenty of warning signs, and that’s why I feel like a damned fool. I would give anything to have gone to a doctor in, say, October 2011. It fills me with regret. Now I’m struggling with all my might to walk 30 feet down the hallway with the physical therapists holding on to me so I don’t fall. I’ve got all my chips bet on the hope that the radiation treatments that I’m getting daily are going to shrink the tumors that are pressing on my spinal cord so that someday soon I can be back out on the sidewalk enjoying a walk in my neighborhood. That would be the height of joy for me.

The writer of those words, Scott Androes, is now dead. He did not have health insurance so he did not see a doctor when he first noticed the signs of prostate cancer.

When Times’ columnist Nick Kristof yesterday wrote about his friend’s death, he got replies like this one:

“I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.”

Here’s some of Kristof’s column:

I wrote in my last column about my uninsured college roommate, Scott Androes, and his battle with Stage 4 prostate cancer — and a dysfunctional American health care system. I was taken aback by how many readers were savagely unsympathetic.

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

“Your friend made a foolish choice, and actions have consequences,” one reader said in a Twitter message.

As my column noted, Scott had a midlife crisis and left his job in the pension industry to read books and play poker, surviving on part-time work (last year, he earned $13,000). To save money, he skipped health insurance.

The United States, whose own Declaration of Independence vows “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, has become a shockingly divided place, where far too many of those who have inherited, cheated, conned, off-shored — or yes, fairly earned — their good fortune — are now hammering the oars of their lifeboats against the desperate, clutching, frozen hands of those now dying and drowning in the icy waters of an ongoing recession.

Too many of of those now driving gleaming new luxury vehicles see people like Androes, if they acknowledge them at all, as mere bugs on the windshield, something small and annoying to be ignored or dismissed.

Androes screwed up. He, God forbid, decided to step off the hamster wheel for a while and take life a little easier, something many of us long to do at mid-life. With no wife or kids to support, he was able to do that. But he was not able to afford health insurance, which is sold here like any other consumer product — and which can be brutally expensive. When I was able to get onto my husband’s health plan at work, even unmarried, in 2003, I was then, as a single, healthy woman in my 40s, paying $700 a month.

That meant an overhead, every year, of $8,400 just to avoid medical bankruptcy. Given that my mother has survived five kinds of cancer, I went without many other amusing choices (new clothes, travel, eating out) for years just to be sure I could, and did, get annual mammograms and Pap smears and all the preventive medicine possible to stay healthy.

Many people in the United States now earn $7 to 12/hour, since the two largest sources of new jobs in this country are foodservice and retail, which pay badly, offer only part-time work and no benefits (i.e. employer-subsidized health insurance). They might as well make out their will now. Because they can’t afford regular medical checkups, nor medication nor ongoing counseling to manage their diabetes or heart disease, even if it’s been diagnosed.

A young friend  — sober — fell on a slippery sidewalk, on a steep hill in the rain, and severely damaged one of his knees. He needs surgery that will cost $22,000. His employer, a Christian-based organization, the YMCA, refuses to help.

Yet another writer to Kristof said that people who are destitute medically have all created their own hells, and that’s where they belong:

“Smoking, obesity, drugs, alcohol, noncompliance with medical advice. Extreme age and debility, patients so sick, old, demented, weak, that if families had to pay one-tenth the cost of keeping the poor souls alive, they would instantly see that it was money wasted.”

I am ashamed to live in a country where selfishness is considered normal behavior.

I am appalled by such vicious callousness.

I am sickened by a growing lack of compassion from those who have never known, and utterly dismiss in others, the sting, shame, fear and misery of poverty and desperation.

And you?

How does this make you feel?

What’s your Plan B?

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, family, journalism, life, Media, Money, politics, work on October 10, 2012 at 1:49 am
United (States) Parcel Service.

United (States) Parcel Service. (Photo credit: matt.hintsa)

Van Morrison — one of my faves — has a new album out, Born to Sing: No Plan B.

I’m eager to hear it, but it also made me stop and think…what’s my Plan B?

I have a few, but so far haven’t had to put them into action.

With decent French and Spanish skills, and my interior design training, I feel fairly confident I could pick up a job — albeit likely entry-level — in that field. Worst case, I have a Canadian passport and citizenship and another country in which to legally job-hunt, if necessary.

But I sure don’t want to start a whole new career, which many of my fellow journalists were forced to do after 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008; I’d love to do a story and find out where they have gone. I know one, a man in his 50s, now in culinary school in Florence — but he already owned a home there and has a high-earning spouse, both of which are damn helpful if you have to re-tool, certainly in your 50s or beyond.

As the American economy continues to eject too many people from fields they’re good at and like and pay them well, and thousands of others don’t (yet) have the requisite skills for a new career, whether as an X-ray technician or software designer, it’s a very real and pressing question.

A few days ago, I had a long, lovely breakfast with a good friend, a single woman a bit older than I who needed nine monthswith excellent skills — to land her last job in our field, journalism. In those nine months, she ran through her savings.

After she went home from breakfast, she emailed me: “Laid off.”

Holy shit.

When does this stop?

Will it ever?

If I had kids, which I do not, the only skill I’d suggest they develop to its fullest is the willingness to do whatever it takes to survive economically, pride be damned. I saw an ad this morning in another diner, hiring for waitress, delivery and hostess spots. I called my friend and told her. It’s not her dream job and it’s sure not in her field and God only knows what the pay is like.

But the key word here is hiring.

In 2007, terrified after working so hard through illness I got pneumonia and landed in the hospital for three days with a temperature of 104 and needing an IV, I gave in/up and took a part-time job, selling clothing at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, for $11/hr. No bonus, no commission. Very few raises (like 30 cents an hour.)

I stayed 27 months, finally leaving December 18, 2009. I only left after I was able to replace that income with something else, then as a paid blogger for True/Slant, earning $400 a month without having to stand on my feet for seven hours. (That gig abruptly ended five months later when Forbes bought it and fired almost every one of us who had created the audience that made it attractive. Doncha love it?)

Plan B is never enough. We all, now, need Plans C-Z.

I was able to write a book about that experience, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, and interviewed many others nationwide in the retail industry as well. I also got some cash from CBS, who optioned it for a sitcom, which did not happen.

It looked like a Plan B might have shown up, unbidden, as a creative consultant on that show, which would have guaranteed me a  nice four figures every month. Didn’t happen. (It’s being read now by three film/TV agents and I’m pretty optimistic someone else will pick it up.)

I’ve gained some income as a paid speaker since then, but haven’t been able to win the consulting gigs I’d hoped. (Turns out the retail industry has more “consultants” than a dog has fleas, and they all guard their lucrative turf jealously.)

So the success of any Plan B, (or C-Z), hinges on a number of factors:

– Can you segue into another industry, transferring some of your skills, at anywhere near your current earning power?

– If not, how much of a hit can you take and for how long? Forever?

– How much time have you got, really, to learn an entirely new set of skills? Days, weeks, months or years?

– Who is going to pay all your bills, and those of your dependents, as you do?

– Who’s going to pay your tuition or training fees?

– How supportive of this is your partner or spouse? What if it means, as it often does now in this recession, losing 50% or more of your previous income?

– How will you fund your retirement if this is the case?

– What about age discrimination? Everyone over 40 faces it and anyone over 55 is toast.

– How much physical stamina do you have for grueling jobs like retail or waitressing? (Foodservice and retail are the two single largest sources of new jobs in America, yet both at extremely low wages.)

– Do you need to sell your home and/or move to a new area? What if you lose that job?

Have you had to move to Plan B, or beyond?

What did you do?

If you did have to, what would it look like?

Did I choose the wrong country?

In aging, behavior, business, cities, Crime, culture, immigration, life, news, urban life, US, work, world on July 26, 2012 at 12:05 am
Globe

Globe (Photo credit: stevecadman)

How interesting to see that Canada — where I was born, raised and lived until 1988 — now has a higher per-capita wealth than the United States; $363,202 in assets to the average American’s total of $319,970.

From the website Daily Finance:

Indeed, the crash in U.S. home prices means that Canadians own real estate that is on average worth $140,000 more than that held by Americans. They also own twice as much property and have nearly four times as much equity in it after mortgages are taken into account.

One small bright spot for residents of the beleaguered U.S.: Americans still have greater liquid assets than Canadians. But even this statistic serves mainly to underscore the magnitude of the housing market catastrophe.

Public policy may be in part to blame: As The Globe and Mail points out, “Canadian leaders rejected mortgage interest deductibility,” making it somewhat harder for citizens to get so deep into mortgage debt. Moreover, subprime mortgages — those ignes fatui of the American economy — did not catch on in Canada the way they did here.

All of which leaves our “thrifty, socialist neighbors to the north” — who have long eschewed both the dynamism and the risk of the American system in favor of higher taxes, greater regulation and a sturdier social safety net — looking pretty clever right now.

Having survived three (so far) recessions in the U.S. since moving here, I’ve often questioned my decision. But I’ve also met some of my professional goals here, and more easily in a nation whose population is 10 times larger, than would have been possible at home, where about ten people in my industry got the best jobs and clung to them for decades.

I’ve married two Americans, one wretched, one not. I’ve survived being a crime victim here twice and the subject of a $1 million lawsuit from a minor car accident. Instructive!

Canadians are generally much more risk-averse, which I find boring and annoying (if, yes, more fiscally prudent.) Americans, for better or worse, are generally excited to try new things and less freaked out by failure. I like this a lot, and it’s one reason I came and stuck around. But it also assumes — which isn’t true for so many people here now – you can actually afford to fail.

Without a toxic mortgage I kept my home and built equity; the U.S. mortgage interest tax deduction (thank heaven) was a real help to me as a single freelancer.

The “American dream” of home ownership is typical of a major difference between the two nations — because it has long been such a powerful part of how Americans view their lives, no politician (even if it would have been wise to do so) dared mess with it.

And so bankers made out, literally, like bandits, selling the most appallingly toxic mortgages to people with no clue what they were getting into.

Canadians don’t have a “Canadian dream”, at least none I’ve ever heard as part of the standard cultural conversation.

The CDO crisis, fueled by greed on both sides and fed by the oxygen of enormous profits on one side and the illicit thrill of actually buying a house with 0% down, almost left the financial system here DOA. If you want to watch a real thriller, which really explains it, rent the terrific films Too Big to Fail and Inside Job.

While Americans, once more, are this week mourning the latest massacre of civilians attending a film near Denver by a deranged shooter armed with four guns, urban Canadians in Toronto are also confronting a shocking level of gun violence; ironically, Jessica Ghawi, a young sports reporter, had just escaped a shooting in June at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a huge downtown mall, when she was killed in Aurora.

I wrote my first book about American women and guns, which one critic called “groundbreaking and invaluable”, my goal to understand, and explain, why Americans are so deeply attached to private firearms ownership.

But another recent shooting in Toronto claimed the lives of two people and when I went to check that story, yet another shooting had occurred since then.

So — which country is the better choice?

It’s an ongoing question for ex-patriates like myself, some of whom have husbands or wives or partners and children and jobs they value in the United States (or vice versa.) After the horror of 9/11, many of my Canadian friends urged me to “come home”, even though I’d already lived in the U.S. since January 1988.

While he loves Canada and would be happy to live there, my husband has a great job in New York City, which offers a pension we will both need. As an author and freelance writer, I can, theoretically, work from anywhere.

Both my countries have strengths and weaknesses.

The reasons we each choose to move, or stay, are multi-factorial: friends, work, climate, proximity to (or blessed distance from) family, excellent medical care and insurance, history, geography, a spiritual community, a landscape we love, a sense of history or shared culture…

Here’s a recent radio interview with Paul Martin, former Canadian Prime Minister, with Brian Lehrer, one of my favorite interviewers, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He does a great job explaining the differences in public policy-making between the two countries.

If you’ve left your native country to try another, how’s it working out for you?

If you’ve moved to the U.S., do you (ever) regret it?

Do you plan to move elsewhere?

Why?

What’s freelance writing for a living really like?

In books, business, journalism, Media, work on July 10, 2012 at 12:13 am

My summer office

I recently read this blog post by a man who hasn’t held any writing job more than two years.

And David Handelman is no deadbeat:

When Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing in 2003, I was the only writer of 11 who immediately cleared out my office. I didn’t want to have to go back to fetch things later if I was let go. As it turned out, eight of us weren’t asked back.

The experience — and, I’m sure, my then-recent divorce — taught me it’s better to assume a job isn’t going to last, and be pleasantly surprised when it does, than presuming the opposite and being caught without a parachute.

As I look around me, more people of my generation seem to be in the same boat. Whether it’s editors who pinball from one job to another, college professors who are forever “adjunct” instead of tenured, newspeople who jump from network to network, it feels like there’s little security. I just happen to be one of the more extreme versions.

I lost my last staff job in June 2006, at the age of 50.

After sending out 48 resumes — with no reply — my heart just wasn’t in it. Like many people, I hate job-hunting. I do not interview very well when on the other side of the questions.

I returned to working freelance, picking up the pace with some long-time clients and finding new ones.

Then the recession hit, slashing my income to 25 percent of my staff salary. Major (i.e. well-paying) magazines were disappearing or cutting their freelance budgets.

My income is, thank heaven, steadily rising, now 50 percent of my old salary. But many print pay rates are lower now, and the costs of living a lot higher so, like many freelancers, I’m running to stay in place.

Bear in mind that some people have several regular columns and/or an advanced degree (allowing them to teach), or write for film or television or do corporate work, (all much more lucrative), none of which I’ve yet tried.

So what’s the freelance life like?

You do need to write well, as American novelist Francine Prose’s book, “Reading Like A Writer”, points out.

Kelly James-Enger, an American friend, colleague and savvy and successful freelancer, has published several helpful books on how to write freelance for a living. Her blog is also filled with good tips.

The one thing you never ever do is make shit up — like the two interns recently fired for outright fabrication, one of them working for The Wall Street Journal. If editors can’t trust you, you’re toast.

It’s a non-stop hustle.

My current income comes from:

Newspaper articles. I write for The New York Times as often as I can find an editor willing to assign, usually 3-6 times a year.

– Magazine articles. I don’t do a lot of magazine work these days. It’s often a hassle of multiple, unpaid revisions and the top rate — once $3/wd is usually, at best, $2/wd, meaning a check of $5,000+ is very difficult to attain when most pieces run at 700 to 1,200 words. Editors only pay you after they’re happy, so I try to work only with editors who like what I submit initially.

Web writing. I recently picked up my first-ever steady gig, writing a personal finance blog for Canadians.

Photo editing. I began my photography career at 17 selling three cover photos to a Toronto magazine and have since had my work published in Time, the Times and the Washington Post, among others. I also studied interior design, so am doing slideshows for HGTV.com, a wholly new way to finally integrate my skills.

Editing others’ work. People come to me to read and critique their own writing. Last year I edited a thriller translated from Spanish, sections of a business book and a few chapters of a memoir. (I charge $150-200/hour.)

Writing books. My last advance payment on “Malled” came in in April 2012. Time to sell the next book!

Speaking engagements. I’ve addressed three retail conferences so far, with my next one at the University of Minnesota on October 30.

Television option rights. My retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was optioned by CBS as a sitcom and a pilot script written. Like most pilot scripts, it didn’t make the cut. But I got some cash for the option, a one-time payment.

I’d ideally like to add a few more reliable revenue streams, like teaching writing at a college and/or holding my own writing workshops.

If you want, or need, to earn your living freelance, it takes almost daily client relationship building. And each client — unlike your one or two bosses at a staff job — has a different personality, billing cycle, narrative style. You have to adapt constantly.

And, yes, you need to be on LinkedIn; here’s why.

If you want to sell books to commercial publishers, you’ll need to find (and manage) an agent. If your work has value to film or television, you’ll be working with another agent, (who will claim even more of your income) and you might, (as I did), also pay an entertainment lawyer to review your agent-negotiated but possibly dense and incomprehensible contracts.

Freelancing also means a major shift in how you conceptualize work and labor — you’re selling time, talent and skills. They’re not “giving” you a job.

And financial success relies less on office politics (none), than your ability to find, nurture and retain profitable clients, while spotting or quickly shedding the PITAs (pain in the asses.)

People fantasize wildly about how great it is to manage your own time. It’s pleasant indeed to work, as I’m writing this, in a T-shirt and shorts in the cool morning on my balcony in silence.

But the only paycheck you get is the one you did the work successfully, and invoiced for; people with weekly paychecks too easily forget to make sure you also get yours in a timely manner.

Which is why when people offer you “exposure” instead of cold, hard cash for your skills, you must chuckle audibly at their naievete — and remind them that “exposure” is not yet accepted as legal tender anywhere.

You also have to man up enough to ask for more money on a regular basis — because some people with “real” jobs still get raises, bonuses, promotions and commission.

Freelancers only get what they are willing and able to negotiate — and your “value” is a highly subjective and relative term.

And, sadly, you’ll have to deal effectively with cheats and deadbeats.

I live near New York but have hired lawyers in Vancouver, Canada and Kansas City, Missouri to successfully sue two such publishers who, like some of their ilk, assume freelancers are weak, powerless, naive or too nice (hah!) to come after them.

After one in-flight magazine’s editor tried to wriggle out of paying me, I wrote to the airline CEO — and was sent a free ticket to anywhere they flew.

I’ve also hired assistants, who help to keep me productive. Freelancing brings with it a fair amount of administrative work but I don’t need to be the one doing it. I recently filled that position — with five offers within minutes — by posting it on Facebook.

Here’s an excellent blog if you work freelance in any capacity.

Do you freelance for a living?

How’s it going?

Related articles

What Did You Expect?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, Money, women on November 13, 2011 at 3:48 am
Eeyore's in the Alps, Chamonix, France

Eeyores in the Alps...not sure why they're there! Image by nikoretro via Flickr

Our expectations can be our worst enemy.

Here’s a recent blog post by Tim Egan, a former New York Times reporter:

What we talk about when we talk about tomorrow is the great fear that our kids will never find their way, now that opportunity is just another word for no. By we, I mean parents of a certain age.

I fell into one of these conversations a few weeks ago with a mother of two grown children, both boys, both graduates from terrific universities, both shackled to college loans as heavy as a ship’s anchor.

Her sons jumped from commencement to the real world full of springy confidence. But now, two years after graduation, after hundreds of rejections, after their resumes bounced back like boomerangs to the head, they were living at home, and every day brought another dent to their self-confidence.

“What do I tell them?” she asked. You can’t lie. You can’t remind them how special there are, because that was part of the problem. The hope reflex seems phony. I was at a loss to say anything beyond an expression of sympathy.

Later, though, I thought of something obvious: self-worth should never be tied to net worth.

I grew up in a family whose unspoken rules included:

Don’t ask for help. We won’t lend you a dime. Don’t show weakness. Or fear. Or doubt.

i.e. Don’t expect much (of us)!

I also learned, age eight, in boarding school and summer camp, (the isolation wards of privilege), to keep most of my feelings, certainly the darker bits, to myself.

I’m not an Eeeyore, who thinks everything is all going to turn out really badly.  But I do, given this lousy economy that just won’t get better any time soon, expect the wolf to appear at the door, metaphorically speaking. My husband and I are 54, have no advanced degrees and still both work in a field — print journalism — in total chaos.

If we don’t expect some ugly moments ahead, we’re not paying attention!

I didn’t used to think like this.

I moved to the United States from my native Canada in 1988, filled with optimism and excitement at this most excellent new adventure. I was blessed with relative youth and a good education, smart, skilled, healthy and hardworking.

My expectations, then reasonable enough, included: my career would, as it had, continue to thrive, I’d quickly and easily make good new friends, I’d build a supportive professional network and my fiance and I would marry and enjoy a long life together. Without those, would I have left everything I knew behind?

How tough could it be?

Hah!

I arrived just in time for the first — of three within 20 years — recessions, the first then the worst-ever in my field. The New York Times then offered two full pages every single Sunday of classified ads under my heading, “editorial.” Within a few short years, that shrank to a dozen at most, usually three or four. So I cold-called more than 150 people, trying to win my first local job.

I finally found one after six months; today that would be quick. Then, it was a soul-searing eternity, one that deeply dinged my initial self-confidence. It was not a fun job or workplace, and paid $5,000 a less a year than I had earned in Montreal two years earlier.

That vaunted American upward mobility? Not so much.

I married a physician in 1992, legitimately expecting a long, shared life of material ease: travel, a larger home, comforts we’d both worked hard for. Instead, he was out the door within two years, re-married within another year to a woman whose salary was four times mine.

Thanks to a pre-nup I’d demanded, (after examining New York’s medieval family law provisions for a woman with a college degree and no kids – i.e. nothing!), I was able to remain in my home.

The guillotine speed and brutality of New York’s labor laws — employment at will — left me stunned. Workers were, and are, utterly vulnerable to the tiniest whims of their bosses, who fire anyone they please as quickly and often as they order a deli sandwich, and with about as much consequence.

It’s all been…highly instructive.

Now, I’ve significantly lowered my expectations, and focus on keeping the wolf at bay. He’s not, thank God, howling and scratching at the door, as he is now for millions of scared, angry, broke Americans, bewildered by their ill fortune.

Maybe I can keep him at the elevator…

Here’s Seth Godin, from a recent blog post:

Perhaps it’s worth considering no expectations. Intense effort followed by an acceptance of what you get in return. It doesn’t make good TV, but it’s a discipline that can turn you into a professional.

What do you expect from your life?

Has it changed over time?


The American Dream? Really?

In business, History, life, news, politics, US on October 13, 2011 at 12:03 am
Differences in national income equality around...

Map of the Gini coefficient...purple countries are a mess! Image via Wikipedia

Great essay in the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

For many Americans, the recession began well before 2007, and it’s far from over. It’s become a lost decade of fading opportunity for workers, longer and more frequent bouts of joblessness and declining family incomes.

Obscured by the housing bubble and cheap credit, the well-being of working Americans was already threatened by powerful structural forces when the Great Recession hit. Technology supplanted routine work of all kinds, leaving millions with skills that employers no longer need. Offshoring of work to China and India destroyed millions of labour-intensive factory jobs. Low interest rates artificially pumped up wealth and consumption, but didn’t steer enough investment into the roots of the economy.

Now, more than eight million jobs are gone, and the country is looking at the stark prospect of several more years of unusually high unemployment. Roughly half of the 14 million unemployed Americans have now been out of work for more than six months.

And for the first time on record, family incomes are actually falling. New figures this week from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the median income for working-age households fell 10 per cent between 2000 and 2010, even as women worked more hours.

In 1912, an Italian statistician and sociologist named Corrado Gini created the Gini coefficient to measure differences in income.

Here’s a recent piece from The Atlantic on income inequality:

The U.S., in purple with a Gini coefficient of 0.450, ranks near the extreme end of the inequality scale. Looking for the other countries marked in purple gives you a quick sense of countries with comparable income inequality, and it’s an unflattering list: Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, Ecuador. A number are currently embroiled in or just emerging from deeply destabilizing conflicts, some of them linked to income inequality: Mexico, Côte d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Serbia.

Canadians never had a “Canadian dream” so we/they don’t do a lot of hand-wringing over the loss of it. They’re used to higher taxes and lower salaries. They don’t have a constitution offering the promise — or the tantalizing lure of — happiness.

Here’s a powerful blog post about how utterly unequal salaries and wages have become in the U.S.

Here’s a lucid blog post from Open Salon on why Americans, still, remain shockingly docile in the face of this insanity.

I loved this post from The Washington Post:

But this is why I’m taking Occupy Wall Street — or, perhaps more specifically, the ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ movement — seriously. There are a lot of people who are getting an unusually raw deal right now. There is a small group of people who are getting an unusually good deal right now. That doesn’t sound to me like a stable equilibrium.

The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy — work hard, play by the rules, get ahead — has been broken, and they want to see it restored.

As for the Wall Street protestors, writes William Rivers Pitt:

They’re staying put, with many more on the way – to New York as well as every major city from sea to shining sea –  and none of them are going anywhere else until people like you are taken from your citadels in handcuffs and made to pay for the ongoing rape of what was once quaintly called the American Dream…a dream that used to be something other than a dated metaphor, and can be something true and real and genuine once again, but only after we pave you under, and walk over you, on our way to a better, brighter future.

And here’s one of the smartest pieces I have ever read, originally published in a magazine written by academics, on how Americans keeping choosing to focus on gender as a safe(r) proxy for class when discussing the fallout of each recession. History matters!

Here are some photos of the protest on Wall Street, chosen for Freshly Pressed.

How do you feel about the American dream these days?

How’s it working for you?

Break The Rules Already!

In behavior, business, life, politics, women on October 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm
Steve Jobs shows off iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worl...

What if he'd played nicely? Followed others rules? Image via Wikipedia

If there is a phrase that truly sets my teeth on edge it’s this one:

“But I played by the rules.”

This week the world, literally, mourned the untimely death of someone who broke just about any rule he encountered, Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Here’s an Apple video that beautifully sums it up, with images of iconoclasts from Callas to Ford to Gandhi to Picasso, all powerful reminders that rules are made to be broken.

If Steve Jobs had “played by the rules” I wouldn’t be writing this on a Mac desktop or check my email on an Iphone or Iouch. We need, more than, ever cage rattlers like him.

Did you create those rules? Did you have a say in creating them? Did you think they were smart or useful or truly fit your life?

I do not mean: breaking the law, behaving unethically or immorally, cheating or lying.

I do mean: figure it out for yourself, question authority, ask why, investigate, challenge.

My worldview, like all of ours’, is a direct outgrowth of the family in which I was raised. Only my brothers and I attended university.

My parents, who did not, (my Dad eventually finished his degree in his 70s),  never “held a job” or eagerly, patiently and politely awaited the standard rewards of a pension, paid vacation or job-linked benefits. Instead, all of us work for ourselves, invent businesses, hire agents to represent our interests and attorneys to review their work.

My father, still alive at 82, was an award-winning film-maker, a director of television and documentaries and feature films. My mother was a journalist and my step-mother wrote for television.

We had steak years and hamburger years. We never counted on things remaining the same. I grew up learning to save and to invest, in my own skills as much as in any faith — if any — in “the system.”

This notion that “playing by the rules” will win you the game is utter madness. It works beautifully to keep entire populations hopeful, polite, eager to accept whatever terrible working conditions and wages are offered.

A friend’s husband, a man in his late 30s, recently applied for a retail job. He was offered $9 an hour. We live in New York — it would have cost him $8 in tolls simply to drive from his home to his new job.

Which is why thousands of fed-up, worn-out Americans are now occupying Wall Street and other locations; here’s a link to several writers there on the ground.

Because too many of today’s American “rules” work only to further the obscene gains of the already wealthy, not for millions of the rest of us.

These are rules that, we all know now, are deeply and consistently enriching a small, narrow slice of the population. The wealthy do not need to buy their 6th or 7th home on the fruits of our cheap, benefits-free, employed-at-will labors.

If you really hate being screwed by the rules, stop following them with such unquestioning, docile obedience. The “game” is only possible when people keep showing up to play as usual…

Teach yourself and your kids how to acquire and use and sell effectively, freelance when necessary, a wide range of skills, whether how to fix a toilet, soothe an elder or speak Mandarin. Don’t keep buying into the costly and misleading notion that we have to pay others a ton of dough to teach us stuff. To acquire “credentials” that — funny thing — now seem to have no market value at all.

If you don’t want to keep getting screwed by the system, you’ve got to change your MO.

I love this recent, helpful and inspiring blog post by a woman who lives in rural England about turning desperation into inspiration.

The only rules I know that have really helped me?

Hustle. Every single day. (Read Seth Godin’s blog.)

Moderate your material demands to live (safely) with the lowest possible overhead, which gives you the creative freedom to try new (ad)ventures without the fear of losing your home or nutrition. Teach your family to do likewise; drive an old car, or none at all.

Create and nurture networks of people who love, trust and respect your value(s) and skills.

Work with the best and smartest people who will return your calls and emails.

Give 150 percent effort when necessary and 75 percent when possible. (Many of your competitors are offering 50 percent, believing it to be more.)

Save money — to keep your “f–k-you fund” topped up, so if you find yourself in an untenable situation related to your income stream, you can afford to leave and seek something better. It might well mean working for yourself instead. 

Save a ton of money, (and invest it wisely), even if your income goes up.

Eschew debt.

Break some damn rules!

Make your own!

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