Grayson Lookner: Reflections on Life in the Sharing Economy & Adjusting to the New Status Quo
Thursday, October 01, 2015 10:42 AM
I never had trouble finding work growing up. Not just because my father owned a restaurant and I had a pretty much guaranteed job there even if I was trying to get fired, but because jobs were everywhere. Some of them were menial jobs, some were seasonal, some had opportunities for advancement and possibly could have evolved into careers had I chosen to pursue them. I was in an advantaged position growing up in a tight-knit community in coastal Maine to immerse myself in a lot of the diverse economic opportunities that were available. I found work even when I wasn’t looking for it. I could use my hands, so someone might ask me to chop and stack firewood some weekend. I knew how to scuba dive and I once got enlisted to dive on moorings in Rockland Harbor. I worked in restaurants, at a boatyard, at the airport in Owls Head, I did a winter at Sugarloaf, and a couple brief stints on schooners all before I left for college in Arizona. These were good gigs and cool learning experiences, but I never planned to make careers out of them. I was of the mind frame that if I kept trying new jobs, inevitably I would find the right fit. Like Goldilocks, I would fall into my niche somewhere. It was bound to happen if I just kept trying.
I was an admittedly immature kid who didn’t need the money. I was more interested in gaining knowledge and experience than I was in a source of income. Whatever the reasons for the job-hopping of my early youth, I never harbored the idea that it would one day be difficult to find work, or that the work that was available wouldn’t provide sufficient income to afford decent housing, food, and medical care. These thoughts just never crossed my mind. I was living in America after all, where hard work is rewarded and a means to getting ahead. Not merely a requirement to survive.
That was all before 2008, when something fundamental about not only the economy, but society in general, shifted. I was in Seattle at the time volunteering with an AmeriCorps program. The full gravity of the shift had not yet occurred to me; it wouldn’t be until several years later that I grasped what the shift really meant. After finishing the AmeriCorps program, I got a job fund-raising with a nonprofit. That barely covered my rent. I was in for a rude awakening.
Since then, and I read more about this every day in the news, the hard-fought-for agreement of generations past — that 40 hours a week of work in a seven-day period would provide sufficient income to survive, and even to take some time off to enjoy life a little bit — has gone out the window. What has replaced it, enabled by mobile technology that was once hearkened as a godsend to make life easier for people, is an insane and insatiable appetite for productivity. Free time, relaxation, and increasingly sleep are all viewed as luxuries, not necessities. You could be being productive right now, after all.
Anyway, I figured once I was through with college, I would find a job that fit my personality and skills, and I have. Unfortunately, all those jobs have been seasonal or temporary gigs. None with benefits, none with long-term potential. I find that I’m always hustling, always keeping an ear to the ground or an eye on craigslist for the next source of income. Half working, half looking for work. It’s exhausting, and I’m not alone.
I talk to many people my age at the leading edge of the millennial bracket (early 30s) who are in the same boat. Working two or three part-time jobs, 40-plus hours a week, cobbling together an income and a survival. Most of us keep a smile on our faces, taking it in stride. It’s just another bump in the road, we’ll get over it, this couldn’t possibly be a permanent arrangement, could it? This isn’t the new status quo; it can’t be. That would mean the death of something fundamental to American culture: hope for a better future.
So we keep on trudging. Most of us are in occupations without unions, and with slim prospects of unionizing due to the nature of the work. We find little value in our jobs aside from a source of income. Secondary are thoughts about contributing to our communities or finding some more abstract meaning in what we spend a large chunk of our waking hours doing.
I found myself in the San Francisco Bay Area in early 2010 pursuing an internship opportunity for learning to install solar panels. I was one of a dozen applicants for two openings, and that had become the norm for any job. I did find part-time work landscaping out there, and I literally sent out hundreds of resumes in the two-month period I was there. I was accustomed to hearing nothing back, not even knowing if the intended employer had received my painstakingly crafted resume or my cover letter that had taken time to compose and contained real thought and a little bit of my authentic self. There was a half-joke circulating in the Bay Area at the time that you needed a PhD to flip hamburgers, except you couldn’t include that in your resume. Since then, I have decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in something I was fairly certain I could use. Every day I read articles about adjunct college professors starving to death at poverty wages or other, highly educated people working menial jobs. I wonder, will ours be a generation of master’s degrees and PhDs flipping hamburgers? Bridled by student debt and utter resignation to the new status quo? Just grateful to have work and to be able to survive in this wealthiest country in the history of the world? What’s it going to take to reorganize a vital labor movement in this country?
I see the seeds of unrest all around me. I wonder when they will sprout.
Grayson Lookner grew up in Camden, now lives in Portland and writes occasional columns for The Free Press.