Does your job (have to) define you?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s a powerful story about what it’s like to lose a job, and a career, that you love — and turn into someone who, like millions do in many places, just gets up every morning and does his best anyway:

First comes rage. The rage of impotence.

It’s not easy being nobody, especially when you used to be somebody. But times are tough; jobs are scarce. When you’re falling straight down the financial cliff face, you reach out to grab hold of anything available to stop your descent and there, just before you land in a homeless shelter or move in with your sister, is Uber….

I think of Uber as a modern-day version of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Thanks to Uber, I am not poor. I am just . . . nobody.

When I first started driving, I talked to every passenger. I engaged in conversation about the city, life and politics. I told them about my work as a reporter, and as a strip club manager. I felt the need to say, “I’m not really an Uber driver. I am someone too. Just like you!”

Nobody cared.

The writer, John Koopman, used to be a journalist at a major U.S. newspaper — a job, today, that has all the future growth potential of a Zeppelin operator.

More than 30,000 of us, (I was laid off from the New York Daily News in 2006), have in recent years lost well-paid staff jobs at places we liked, doing work we enjoyed with people we respected. Our industry is in chaos, and well-paid newspaper jobs are being replaced with fewer digital ones, often paying far less.

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Many career journalists also make a trade-off, settling for what’s called “psychic income.”

No,  not clairvoyance!

We accept a lower salary — much less than you might think — because we actually enjoy(ed) our daily work. It’s a great way for publishers to get highly educated staffers cheaply and, with few unions left to fight for better wages and conditions, ask them for the moon.

The problem with invisible income is, especially after years or decades of it, that it doesn’t add up to shit — no retirement, no paid-off-mortgage, no fuck-you fund for when (not if) you finally get fired or laid off. Very few people now have a defined-benefit pension, so all that “psychic income” didn’t fill a 401(k) either.

And (surprise!) many of the journalists, like me, who are losing their jobs — some paying $80,000-120,000 year or more — are in their 50s or beyond, and now deemed “too expensive” for anyone else to hire.

So, no new J-job for you, missy!

Back to college to start a shiny new career at 50 or 55 or 60? Not likely.

So, for Koopman, it’s Uber.

For me, it’s freelance, and nowhere near the full-time income I earned 11 years ago, despite all the usual accomplishments.

 

When you lose your job, and your title, and your Big Name Affiliation — no longer able to say “we” about your coworkers and employer — who the hell are you?

 

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My second book, published in 2011

In the fall of 2007, a year out of the News job, I was scared to death and couldn’t gin up enough freelance work.

I took a part-time job at $11/hour as a retail sales associate in an upscale suburban mall near our home. I worked for The North Face, an enormous company that has since bought Timberland.

We sold $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, Connecticut — and never got a penny in commission for the biggest of sales.

I stayed until December 18, 2009, by then grateful to be earning $450/month for blogging, twice my store wages, and finally able to flee.

My feet were killing me — and my soul was dying.

 

You can only be underestimated for so long.

 

I had been “someone”, (a writer, an author, i.e. a person whose work elicited envy), for decades, since college.

Now, like Koopman, I was deemed a peon, in humbled service to shoppers, many of  whom assumed I must be uneducated (untrue), stupid (ditto) and had never traveled further than the mall parking lot (38 countries, for work and pleasure, in better years.)

 

When I opened my mouth to help a customer in French or Spanish, they looked at me like the dog had started singing Aida.

 

Impossible!

This is where Koopman is now.

This is why Koopman — and it’s such deceptive insanity to define your worth by your job title — feels like he’s nothing and nobody.

He’s not.

But in a country relentlessly focused on income, status, work, more income…a low-wage, low-status job marks you as someone with a big fat L for loser on your forehead.

It’s ugly and it’s demeaning and it’s really demoralizing.

Jose and I have a glory wall, I’m both embarrassed and proud to admit. We were very lucky, because we both had well-paid staff jobs at major newspapers for years, he for 31 at the New York Times.

glorywall

 

The glory wall is the pile of laminated press credentials you get, and proudly collect, when you cover the biggest stories — political conventions and inaugurations, the Olympics (he did two, as a photographer), Presidents (he covered three).

I met Queen Elizabeth and covered a Papal visit as well.

Those glossy credentials publicly and visibly define you as someone with a good job and challenging, coveted assignments.

When you no longer have a lanyard or press pass or credential…you’re persona non grata. You can’t just cross police lines anymore, (as you can with an official city-issued press pass.) You’re not of the Times or with the News.

 

You’re…just you.

 

This has been a rough year, (and many other writers I know), so much so that I suffered persistent stomach pain for weeks and went for a check-up.

The pains have, fortunately, subsided, no doubt caused by work-related stress.

My doctor reminded me, kindly, what I already knew — you can’t assign your value, and your mental and physical health in this world to worldly success, a job, a title, a salary, an income.

But we do.

 

16 thoughts on “Does your job (have to) define you?

  1. You have to self-invent, Caitlin. You have no choice. You know as well as I and thousands of others that it’s a cold, cruel world out there. I self-invented. I adapted to my situation and environment. I learned French and did secretarial work for years in law firms. Then I became a paralegal. Now I work as a translator-paralegal in the legal department of a small investment bank (in Paris).

    But the point is that this was not my career path AT ALL. Like you, I too knew the heydays of the past (we’ll never see those golden years ever again.) When my dear father was alive, I worked in the small publishing company that he founded (in Toronto.) He then died, suddenly. My older sister took over. I was shut out. Then my mother died. That’s when my sister swung into action to plunder my mother’s bank accounts and rob me of my rightful, small inheritance.

    From Paris where I was working as a secretary, I had to hire (and fire) lawyers, take unpaid time off work, pay for legal fees and countless airline tickets and, ultimately, take my own sister (my sole sibling) to court. (It’s all in my book, due out end of year.)

    Re-invent. We have no choice. Another example – my friend, Monique, found herself fired at the age of 60. She turned her apartment into a B&B. She tacked on guided tours of Paris. Now she’s running a lucrative small business.

    1. Thanks for sharing.

      Sorry to hear about your nasty family — I have no doubt it will be very ugly when my father dies, leaving whatever he has left then to four children by four women, 2 of whom have never met and 2 of whom dislike one another intensely — and none of whom grew up together.

      It’s one thing to “reinvent” in your 30s or 40s. NO ONE is going to hire FT a woman over 50 who wants/needs to do something different for a decent income when they can, and will, choose a qualified/experienced 30 year old cheaply. I’ll figure something out. I always have.

      1. A word of advice from someone who went through Wills-Probate-Power of Attorney, etc. following the death of parents: get it all sorted out before your father dies! Have a dialogue with your dad (while he’s still alive) and voice your concerns. Because once he’s gone, it can be disastrous (I hope it won’t be for you).

      2. I already have…we haven’t even spoken since Christmas, after the latest dust-up. In my family, it’s all-estrangement-all-the-time.

        I have no idea how it will play out (I know the bare outlines of what he plans) but expect it to be bizarre, given the mess of relationships and dislike among the 4 adult children.

  2. Thank you for this post, Caitlin, and for brightlining the John Koopman story. His piece is basically my life story. Except my “that sounds fun” job after being laid off by Big Media during the recession was writing agricultre reports in South Dakota, not managing a strip club and the vomit I’m now cleaning up is my own kids’ not an Uber passenger’s. But the anger, self-doubt, disbelief — that’s all the same.

    Your and Koopman’s frustration and disillusionment at becoming an anybody after feeling like a somebody rings true. As someone who for years was *of The New York Times* and *at USA Today*, I have a glory wall, too. It is a little painful and embarrassing to look at these days, because I never thought my decision to efficently wait out the recession by having children back-to-back would mean that 5 years later I am locked out of power lanyards and consistently negged on jobs in the industry I love. Jobs that are, as you point out, less prestigious and lower paying than any I had before. Some women my age wring their hands about their advancing fertility and the deadline of childbirth, some opting to freeze their eggs. I am wringing my hands about my waning personal income and the deadline on my professional life. I wish I could have frozen my career!

    So along comes reinvention. Go back to school, they say. Revamp your brand, they say. Corporations/Government/Non-Profits always need writers, they say. And its true. But the tenacious and difficult part of me that made me a good reporter makes it that much harder for me to give up being a good reporter. There is no acceptable peer profession. If I can’t write, I figure, might as well just be a mom. Or work at a mall. Or drive an Uber.

    Your post and Koopman’s piece have reminded me we are not defined by our business, but by our work. Sure we have lost jobs, sat out opportunity, struggled to move forward professionally, but as you say, “you’re…just you.” My tender mercy is that, like you and Koopman, I am a writer, whether anyone else knows it or not. This is all material and the only way out is to write.

    1. Thanks so much for this, Anna…(Jose says hello!!!)

      And you, I know, are decades younger than ! 🙂

      That you’re having difficulty with this industry is heart-breaking as my assumption is always that the 30s and 40-somethings are sure to get back in. It’s really become a game of musical chairs, with fewer and fewer chairs available.

      And I’m happy to write for people outside of journalism, but, as you know, there’s a shared sense (at best) of mission one can’t replicate through branded content or writing about…other stuff.

      Hope we both find a way through!

  3. One thing stood out for me here. The Olympics. I worked as a temporary secretary during the 1984 Olympics. I loved it. I was so proud. I kept my paperweight a long time. I felt like I was a major part of the Olympics. I still remember that feeling. As an Admin. Assistant to lawyers and promoters I have mingled with higher ups and celebrities. But maybe because I have had to work at these jobs in order to just survive from paycheck to paycheck I’ve always been aware that I am just who I am. So, being retired and still broke I find it’s ok because I am just who I am. I have always been somebody. With and without a job. Somehow I cannot identify with being defined by a job. If I did I would really be depressed because now I am sixty-nine (shh!) and I am not trying to go back to school! All females are somebody! I hope I didn’t miss the point here.

    1. Thanks for sharing this…I know what a powerful feeling it can be to feel a part of something big(ger) and I miss it; freelance work is extremely isolating and can be very lonely. The Olympics! Very cool.

      I think it’s essential to know our value as human beings, not simply as economic units. I’m glad you know that. 🙂

  4. When I had to retire from the teaching job that I love and in which I excelled (chronic fatigue made it impossible to keep working), I struggled. Since I had an income from disability, the money part wasn’t a big worry. The challenge was, as you point out, self-definition. What is the first thing people ask you when they meet you? “What do you do for a living?” For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a ready answer to that question that didn’t involve the word “former.”

    I was “too young” to be retired, so people always responded with some version of how lucky I was to have all this free time. I smiled and agreed, not wanting to explain that having to redefine myself not only as a former professional but as a disabled former professional didn’t feel very freeing. I wanted nothing more than to be back in the classroom.

    I contemplated how I would handle future encounters with these well-intended but off-the-mark people. My Buddhist lessons came in handy. I remembered that I’m a “human being” not a “human doing.” My actions (work) are not me. Even if I could accept that truth (which wasn’t always easy knowing the world was happening without me contributing to it in any meaningful way according to my definition of “meaningful”), that didn’t help me answer the inevitable question of “what am I doing with all my free time?” So I decided on an answer that was true and stopped further inquiries: “I’m in the process of becoming.” I wasn’t being snarky or purposefully elusive. I was being as honest as possible. In 2006 when I retired, I didn’t know what life held for me or what transformations I might engage in. I just knew that another chapter of my life as I knew it had ended, but the story wasn’t finished.

    Ten years later, I’m still in the process of becoming. I now understand that I always was. 🙂

      1. I think of it this way: everyone has their “stuff” to deal with in this life. Compared to a lot of other people’s “stuff,” mine isn’t so bad! 🙂

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