The (price of the) unconventional life

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are in their teens and 20s, in college or university, or probably headed there. Some are thrilled at the prospect of acquiring more formal education, possibly all the way to a Phd or professional degree.

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in g...
Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in graduation/presentation ceremonies of Ph.D’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others, like me, are wary of school, chafing in classrooms, weary of authority. Wondering how else — is it possible? — to acquire the credentials and skills they’ll need to make a living.

This recent blog post, by a student at Brown, one of the U.S.’s  most prestigious and costly universities, asks some serious questions about what “success” looks like:

i have a goal. it’s farfetched, extremely open-ended, and it might be fleeting. my goal is to refocus. my goal is to revisit this idea of being human and reinterpret the meaning of success. success has looked only one way for as long as i’ve known the word: a big house, lots of
money, a nice car. success has been the american dream. as a child of babyboomers, i’ve seen the american dream take hold and manifest itself in a lifestyle that is hard to say no to. it’s a lifestyle of security and certainty. but what i’ve learned is that this lifestyle, as enabling as it may be, has forgotten a lot of things that i find extremely important. it has forgotten how to be simply human and has focused on how to be monetarily prosperous. i’m down with the good life, don’t get me wrong. i’m just thinking that i might have a different path in mind for myself. know i have something else that’s ticking inside of me, and it can’t just sit at in cubicle and work for 8 hours then to go home to frozen potstickers and minute-maid lemonade. it wants to run wild, rampant, and ridiculously free.

I appreciate her passion and her questioning of what constitutes the “good life.”

By the time a student has been admitted to Brown, or any other super-competitive school costing $30-50,000 a year, they’ve likely been groomed from infancy to focus solely or primarily on the achievement of visible, conventional goals.

Everyone they’ve known — in prep school, at summer camp, in their SAT prep classes, on their sports teams — is expected to head in the same direction.

Up.

How about….sideways?

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream
Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream (Photo credit: cesarharada.com)

The problem is, if your parents/friends/family have all bought into the same dream — moremoremoremoremore — it’s lonely and weird to step off the track, let alone figure out a way to do so and not live in a box beneath a bridge.

I attend a church with some very wealthy parishioners, so I’ve seen some of their assumptions of what their children will do. One woman, whose husband and daughter were safely ensconced as corporate attorneys, had a son, 28, who had not even — facepalm! — finished college.

He was not an addict, in prison or chronically ill but unfocused, and had traveled the country doing a variety of odd jobs.

English: This is a diagram depicting the perce...
English: This is a diagram depicting the percentage in US who have no health insurance by age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But her dismay at his wandering was intense, and, to my mind, bizarre. I finally met A., assuming he was a gormless wreck. He was funny, smart, observant, charming, curious about the world. I immediately saw he’d make a terrific journalist.

When I mentioned my idea to a church friend, she gasped in horror, sniffing: “You can’t make a living as a  writer!”

I was furious — and told her how much this reaction offended me.

This, while I was coughing up $1,200 a month for my apartment and an additional $500 every month for market-rate health insurance — a yearly sum of $20,400 before car insurance, gas, groceries, dentist’s, haircuts and the rest of life.

Yes, it’s far from the $150,000 to $300,000+ that a young banker or lawyer can earn. The sort of work that young ‘uns from wealthy precincts are de facto expected to choose.

But it is a living.

It is a life.

If you want to pursue creative, non-corporate work, you will pay the price. You will earn less, far less, than many people you know or meet. You may never own a home, of any shape or size. You may never own a vehicle, or a new one. You may find yourself shopping for most things in thrift or consignment shops or on sale.

To lower your living costs, you might share space with others, or live in a rural area or work several part-time jobs.

It’s fine. It’s a choice.

But it’s a way of life you will rarely, if ever, see fetishized on television or in popular media. It is not a life filled with designer luxury goods or vacations in places your wealthier friends have ever heard of. Your social circle might be much smaller, filled with people who truly share, understand and live the same values as you.

And you may also feel very out of step with your co-hort; many people my age now own multiple homes. They drive $90,000 vehicles and run major companies or organizations.

I recently contacted a young editor about freelancing — the daughter of one of my high school friends.

If I had stayed at that newspaper, my first staff reporting job, I might be her. I might well be her boss.

Yes, that felt extremely disorienting.

But I also relish my creative freedom, deeply grateful for a husband whose union-protected, full-time office job frees me from cubicle life. I’ve had well-paid staff jobs, in offices in Manhattan buildings, working for name-brand publications.

I didn’t especially enjoy them.

Working hard, with steady clients, I make a decent income, enough to save 10-20 percent every year and still enjoy some of the things I love: fresh flowers, pedicures, travel. It’s still far less than I made in 2000; my industry is a mess and pay rates are lower than they were then.

But one-third of Americans are me, now — working freelance, contract, temp. Millions of Americans, certainly my age, will never have a job with a paycheck again. Here’s a searing New York Times story today; make time to read some of the heartbreaking 125 comments and take them to heart.

We have no “benefits” from an employer, no paid sick or vacation days. We have no access to unemployment insurance if our work dries up.

The choices we make affect our lives, now and later. The decisions we make have consequences.

Make them, freely.

But know their costs.