Creating Jobs: Taking it Personally

I don't usually write about politics (except for yesterday, sort of), but I'm starting to take this unemployment epidemic of ours personally. And President Obama's speech didn't do much to buoy my spirits.

Maybe Douglas Rushkoff is right: Maybe jobs are sooo 20th century. Maybe, as he suggests in his CNN article, "Are jobs obsolete?", we should just exchange creative information products online (I'll buy your e-book if you buy mine).

But until I can earn a living selling e-books (or, hey, blog posts), then I need people to hire me as a writer and web content strategy consultant. And for the past 18 months, let's just say, no one has been beating down my door.

I haven't been unemployed (except for three months last year). But I've been underemployed, and sporadically employed, and it's wearing me down. In 2010, I made less than half of what I made in 2009, and I'm not on track to do much better in 2011. This, after years of steady career and salary growth. It's pretty depressing.

Let me back up. I started freelancing in 2006 after six and a half years on the editorial team of PBS.org. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do next (it's hard to see around the corner, career-wise, when you're ensconced in a huge organization), so I thought, "I'll freelance for a while as I figure it out." Turned out, I loved freelancing, so I stuck with it, and for the next four years, my consulting business thrived. I had a steady stream of mostly interesting clients (primarily nonprofits and indie media companies), and I adored the lifestyle, which allowed for mid-day yoga classes and blog posts, and most importantly, not having to wear a bra (sorry guys).

Then, in early 2010, things started to sour. I made the critical freelancer error of putting all my eggs in one client's basket. In February, I realized, "Hey, I better start lining up some more projects for when this contract ends in June." So I started putting out feelers. And more feelers. And submitting proposals. And more proposals. Nothing. This had never happened before. Usually, when I reached out to my network, someone bit, or referred me to someone who bit.... there was biting. This time: nothing.

June came and went. Then July. Then August. Thank god I'm married, and my husband's business was thriving, because otherwise, I would've been screwed. I would have temped, I guess, or gotten a job at Starbucks if it came to it. But as a freelancer, I wasn't eligible for unemployment benefits. No work = no pay, period.

Sure, freedom comes with a price. In exchange for the lifestyle I'd enjoyed as a freelancer, now I was experiencing the dark side of my chosen path. Anyone who's been self-employed for a while will tell you that business ebbs and flows -- there's feast and famine. I had feasted for years, and now it was my turn to be hungry (metaphorically, of course... which I realize makes me so much more fortunate than most).

I actually felt very Zen about it at first, but less so as the months wore on. Finally, in September, I got a small project, and then another, but they were neither challenging nor lucrative; under normal circumstances, I would have passed on both of them, but now I didn't have that luxury.

By the beginning of 2011, I was exhausted from the constant, mostly fruitless hustle of trying to scare up more work. I interviewed for a couple full-time jobs, but the salaries I was offered were almost half what I used to make (way back in '09), and far below what I felt I was worth. I had to believe there was a better option.

Now it's September, and I'm not so sure a better option exists. People just aren't hiring, and when they do hire, they pay so much less than I used to make. It eats away at your ego, when people keep offering you so much less than you've come to think you're worth -- you start to doubt your own value, no matter how much self-confidence you have. I increasingly feel like my former career is just a mirage, getting blurrier and blurrier with distance.

This is one person's story about the recession, and as painful as it's been, I do know how tremendously fortunate I am compared to millions -- millions -- of my fellow Americans. My husband is gainfully employed (though it's definitely been stressful to go from being equal earners to such unequal ones). I have a roof over my head, food to eat, healthcare, and savings in the bank -- savings that have certainly dwindled in the past 18 months, but not been erased.

People are suffering so much worse, and it breaks my heart every day to think of their stories. And I'm sorry, but President Obama's speech wasn't enough. It wasn't right. It was too little, too late. His cheerful tone really pissed me off. So you know where I'm coming from, I'm a registered Independent with a track record of voting 100% Democrat, so I'm not coming at this as an Obama basher, ready to hate everything he says or does. And I didn't expect that in one speech, he could wave his magic wand and get our economy back on track. But his upbeat tone made me feel like he didn't understand the suffering so many people are experiencing. And listening to his breezy, expensive promises, I just thought, "How on earth are we going to afford THAT?" We're trillions of dollars in debt. I wanted a serious, empathetic speech that laid out a clear and specific strategy for job creation, and instead, I felt like I was at a pep rally for America.

I share a lot of personal information on this blog, and am comfortable doing so, but I feel pretty vulnerable sharing these details about my career and finances. Still, I wanted to share my story. People say to me, "Maybe it's time to give up freelancing." I'm actually talking to someone right now about a prospective full-time job, which could be very cool if it works out. But if a full-time job is ever a promise, it certainly isn't one in this economy. Being on someone's payroll might create more of an illusion of permanence, but there are no guarantees; and as several of my friends have experienced directly, "last hired" often means "first fired."

I'm sorry to be so depressing. I guess if there's a silver lining in all this, it's that I'm learning not to equate salary with self worth (something I didn't realize I was doing until the salary was gone).

I've written before on this blog, and elsewhere, about the importance of finding work you love. I believe deeply in aligning your work with your life's purpose. Maybe another silver lining is that this whole experience will push me further toward achieving this vision. I can't hang back, enjoying the fruits of a freelance lifestyle while a client pays me a nice salary, fitting things I love into the in-between places in my life. Maybe the silver lining will be that the things I love will take center stage.

How about you? How has the recession affected you on a personal level? And what, if any, silver linings have you found?