How to survive the world of work? Develop “individual economic resilience”

By Caitlin Kelly

I still write for them, but for how much longer? Big changes ahead for that paper...
I still write for them, but for how much longer? Big changes ahead for that paper…

Here’s an interesting piece from Quartz.com — a site I’ve written for — about the three essential skills we’ll need to survive the world of work:

The way that work looks, feels, and functions is in the midst of a dramatic shift. Every time we have gone through a major shift in work in the past, we have had to learn new skills to support it. We had to learn the work of agriculture. We had to learn how to work on an assembly line. We had to learn to use typewriters and fax machines.

So the question now becomes, what do we need to learn that will help us thrive in this new world of work today and ten, 20, 30 years from now? From my experience, I see three of the main categories of skills as: problem solving, technology, and self-management.

To which I say — with all due respect — Duh!

At the turn of the 19th century it was the captain of a whaling ship or a carriage driver who had to re-invent immediately as technology changed around them, no matter what their past achievements.

Today, anyone working in what’s quaintly called “legacy media” — i.e. print — is learning to pivot as fast as they possibly can, regardless of their awards, education, age or level of experience. Anyone with enough years and income to completely re-train or upskill is doing so. Those of us with an antipathy to the costs and time demanded to re-credential more formally are tap-dancing quickly.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

In this respect, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family of full-time creative freelancers. My father made documentaries, feature films and television news shows for the BBC, CBC, Disney and others. My late stepmother wrote and edited television dramas and my mother was a print writer, editor and broadcast journalist.

No one ever had a pension to look forward to; negotiating for our full value was standard operating procedure, with agents and accountants a normal part of worklife. We never relied on anyone to “take care” of us financially, so I learned to be really cheap frugal with my income and save as much as possible.

I started my writing career with — yes, really! — a manual typewriter and an answering service. No internet, no Google, no email, no Twitter or Facebook.

I had to develop my “individual economic resilience” while still in college, as my freelance photo and writing work put me through it and paid my bills.

I’ve had, and sometimes really enjoyed having, a steady and healthy paycheck. But I’ve been laid off and I’ve been fired — losing that income overnight, sometimes with no warning.

Full-time freelancers learn how to manage money, or quickly flee self-employment, but learning those three skills is second nature by now. Any freelancer unable to create and sell their skills, over and over, raising their rates whenever possible, is not someone with IER. It comes with the territory.

Having said that…

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A few thoughts on IER:

— How deliciously laissez-faire capitalist! We’re all just “units of labor”, individual mini-cogs in the enormous and rapacious machine of capitalism — hire/fire/repeat.

— How utterly American this is! Cooperation? Co-working? Finding shared solutions through a sense of solidarity with other workers? Snort! Every man for himself, boys  — and devil take the hindmost.

— Can you say “union”? Of course you can’t! Now that American unions are the smallest and weakest in decades — 7 percent private sector and 11 percent of the public sector — it’s a foregone conclusion that The Man owns us, leaving each of us to fight individually for what we feel (or do!) deserve in return for our skills.

— Can you say “confidence?” If not, kiss your ass goodbye. It take some serious chutzpah; (see that soothing phrase above “self management”) to know when, how and how hard to push back against your freelance clients or full-time employer for better wages and working conditions. In a crappy economy, millions of us have lost our jobs, our former earning power and our nerve.

 My biggest problem — the same one faced by millions of American workers in age of record corporate profits?  (See: “problem solving”?)

Stagnant wages.

From the Nov. 14 edition of The New York Times:

“We are adding jobs, but it is still a wageless recovery,” Elise Gould, an economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said, adding that average hourly earnings rose only 0.1 percent in October after no gain in September. “The economy may be growing, but not enough for workers to feel the effects in their paychecks.”

The story received 410 comments, such as:

Joining this story with last week’s about fast-food workers in Denmark earning $20 per hour is an illuminating cultural history lesson. Many of the recently hired workers in the U.S. story are part-timers with no health insurance who are earning below the poverty level. In Denmark, the common interest in maintaining a society that offers a living wage to workers has created a higher scale. While the employers in Denmark are willing to make a little less profit than their U.S. counterparts, they still do make a profit, which combined with the vitality of a work force of decent wage earners pays dividends across the whole society. It’s a matter of choice. In the U.S., maximum profit at all cost rules the land and the workers suffer.

How’s your IER?

Crash, burn, recover

By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you failed?

The sort of shit-storm tempting you back into bed for a week, whimpering?

Crash
Crash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some recent challenges include:

— An editor killed my story — which cost me $2,200 in budgeted-for and relied-upon income.

One of the dirty secrets of journalism is that, no matter your skills level, some of your stories get “killed” — i.e. they are commissioned, a contract signed, a fee and deadline agreed upon and the editor can simply flap his or her hand and decide “it doesn’t work.” You don’t get to stiff the airline of its fee if the plane is dirty, crowded or late. You don’t get to pay your plumber, dentist or barber a fraction of their fee because…you feel like it. It’s almost always a surprise and it’s expensive and very few of us can just re-fill a four or five-figure income hole in a flash.

— My book proposal didn’t sell

My agent was upbeat and excited. They always are, at the start. But after the rejections piled up, it became clear to both of us this was a no-go. Editors who loved it, and there were a few, couldn’t sell it to the rest of their staff. I spent a year gathering the information and sources for it, and months writing and polishing it. Tant pis, mes chers, tant pis.

— Another editor decided to turn a 2,000-word story with five sources into…captions

That’s a really crappy first in my career. They’re going to pay the original fee, but there’s another piece to that story — having to explain to my patient and helpful sources I interviewed back in August that all the time they spent being interviewed by me is basically wasted. I was so gobsmacked I didn’t argue the point with the editor. Preserving that relationship has meant sucking up a lot of frustration.

— We got whacked with a surprise income tax bill, a big one

We married in September 2011 and my new husband changed the witholding of his income. To…not enough. Holy shit. Add that pile of debt to the kitchen over-run.

— Journalism’s fees remain stubbornly low, stagnant or falling

Everywhere in journalism today, writing has really become just one more commodity, like gas or orange juice. Cheapest wins. I have to fight harder with every single editor on every assignment for a decent contract and higher fees. I hate feeling embattled. It doesn’t build great client relationships, but feeling taken advantage of doesn’t work either. My costs are rising almost every month, but my income will only rise as much as I position myself and argue effectively for my value.

On the plus side of the ledger:

— My individual coaching and webinars have found favor

This is a new venture and one I’m enjoying. When I lost that $2,200 overnight, I vowed to make it up through my own efforts. The hell with snotty editors. I’ve almost done so, thanks to the enthusiasm of students in Chicago, Connecticut, Brooklyn, upstate New York, New Zealand, Australia, Virginia and San Francisco. Thank you! I’ve missed teaching and the pleasure of helping others. One student told me she was having “aha!” moments. I hope you’ll sign up, too!

– I made a contact with a Very Big Magazine’s top editor, one I’ve wanted to write for for a decade

Some magazines feel like Everest, even to someone with a lot of great experience. They’re career-changers. They pay a lot of money. At a recent lunch with someone I met at a party, I discovered she’s related to a top editor there and I was bold enough to ask for an introduction and she made it.

— Reaching out to new clients in PR has shown me there’s some significant enthusiasm out there for my skills

Of the first three local agencies I contacted, two showed immediate interest.

— I’m trying out new ideas and new markets

Next week, I’m meeting with a younger writer who’s broken into corporate writing and making boatloads of cash from it. It’s an interesting lesson in networking with people much younger, as we’re all working in slightly different says, some more lucrative and less visible, some more prestigious but poorly-paid.

— My agent likes my new book idea

Book ideas are difficult. You have to be able to create a narrative arc with 80,000+ words and be able to persuade a publisher to pony up an advance you can actually live on. But from the embers of the still-cooling rejected proposal came this more focused, more positive iteration of one of the ideas in it. Now I have to go…sigh…write another proposal.

People love to think that writing is a cool, fun easy way to make money. You stay home in your PJs, crank out some copy, then head off to Bali for a few months.

I wish!

The reality is a constant hustle and scramble: for new clients, new markets, negotiating better pay and treatment, finding and wrangling sources for your stories…

Crashing is nasty, (and inevitable.)

But there’s no time to sit and snuffle.

Bills, baby, bills!