Over the past 16 months, I’ve written almost 100,000 words, taken thousands of pictures, and worked as a consultant/part-time employee on a variety of different projects. And, after taxes, my take home pay is less than half of what it was when I had a 9-to-5 job.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to tell you this does not add up. But it is the life of being a freelancer, someone whose work is valued but not valuable, at least in terms of what it nets for your family’s bottom line.
At one point, I used to think that words mattered, as did proper grammar and punctuation. Almost 20 years ago, I remember having a heated discussion with one of my staff members over proper sentence structure and comma usage, and being grief stricken when my publisher asked:
“I don’t mean this the wrong way, but do you think that anyone except you gives a s--t about the serial comma?”
It’s times like this when I wonder if he had a point.
I still care passionately about writing and proper grammar, and I care greatly about the people I have worked with since losing my full-time career 16+ months ago. They have, quite literally, helped bail out our family from what could have been a financially devastating situation. I have diligently tried to provide them with quality work in return.
Meanwhile, I have searched for a new career, or a continuation of the one I worked to build over a 30-year period. While I expected it to have some twists and turns, and have tried to learn as much as I can in the process, I didn’t expect to be sitting here as a professional free agent hoping the phone would ring.
And yet, after applying for three more jobs today, here I sit.
On the business side of publishing, everything today is about reaching the niche — the primary target, the decision maker, the person with the purchasing power who can (and will) pull the trigger and keep you (the publisher of said product) safe from harm.
I get it. The media is a business, and you can have the greatest writers and editors in the world, but that won’t matter if you can’t make the bottom line work. When it comes down to it, it’s not about the audience, or the quality of the product you are attempting to produce, but whether you make enough money to produce the next edition.
If the 1970s, the period in which I aged from 5 to 15, was considered the “me” decade, what would you call this one? I’d call it the “selfie” decade, in which the trivial becomes news, the news as we knew it doesn’t matter, and the people who are in charge of finding said “news” are valued more for their ability to make asses out of others or themselves.
Here’s what I find odd: In a life where nothing — and I mean nothing — seems too archane, trivial, or obscure to escape the reality show cameras and trending websites, the fact that I care about the work I do seems to draw a collective “meh” from the mass audience.
As if a mass audience existed anymore.
The reason I became a journalist and professional communicator is because I enjoy talking to people. Everyone has a story to tell, and I have been blessed to hear many people tell theirs. Some are more compelling than others, of course, but each informs us in some way, and I’ve learned a great deal from my professional colleagues and friends in addition to the people I have spoken with while taking notes on my laptop.
All in all, it makes me wonder: Why don’t we tell stories any more? Why don’t we do a better job of listening, or taking the time to listen, to what others have to say? In part, it’s due to our oversaturated society, but it’s also due to the current state of business.
I love the Internet, despite what it has done to the business I love (or vice versa). When something piques my curiosity, for whatever reason, I’m the first to click on the link. Perhaps I don’t read as much as I should about current affairs, in part because they are so depressing as a rule, and I’m not completely up to speed on the latest celebrity gossip that once was confined to the checkout lines in grocery stores.
As the parent of four teens, I care about my family and doing good, interesting work that helps to financially support my family. It's a desire for a work/life balance that I didn't have in my 20s and 30s when I was climbing the professional ladder. And how can we achieve that balance if we're always holding a smartphone, tablet, or laptop in our hands?
I wish someone — anyone — would buck the trend, avoid the resume screen out, and hire employees who do care about the trivial things in life, especially when those trivial things result in quality work. As someone who is approaching 50, I wish my relative value to a hiring manager would not be divided in half so an employer could select two 25-year-olds.
Over the past year, several friends and acquaintances — all men, all around the same age as me — have been laid off. One quickly found a job, but the others have struggled to re-enter today’s workplace from the outside. After spending the last 20-30 years working toward retirement, we’re now trying to find ways to make ends meet for our families.
The advantage to experience — and to a certain degree, age — is that you know what you’re good at, what you can and cannot do, and what sort of difference you can make. The disadvantage to experience in one field is that it does not necessarily translate into another. And while I am willing to learn new things — this dog is not that old, at least professionally — I also have to figure out a way to convince someone to take the risk that I can learn new tricks.
Here is what I would say to any potential employer: Provide me with some direction, some clear answers to my questions, and I’ll make every effort to do you proud. Respect my work ethic and my opinions and I’ll prove that my productivity can exceed those 25 year olds. Pay me a living wage and you’ll get more than you invest.
I guarantee you that.