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.

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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.