Friday, October 5, 2012

I'm Unemployed And You Can Be Too!

Quit your day job. The American Dream is dead and there is nothing to be gained in trying to hump the corpse.

Things are changing in America. Deep fundamental change. I truly feel that while this change may be painful and even devastating in the short term, it's something that has to happen for all of us to get to the next stage, whatever that happens to be.  Part of that change is jobs, careers, employment and what it all means for us at a deep level.  What I'm writing about today is how we need to start looking at our 9-5 life in a different way than our parents did if we're going to make it through to this next stage.

I got laid off back in March. It was a great job. Shit for bosses, but a good company with wonderful people. I'd put my heart into that company in a way I'd done for very few other jobs. Like many people now, I'm among the unemployed.  While I'm still marginally looking for a job (read: punch in, punch out, get a pay check), what I'm looking more for now is a way to exchange skills that I have for resources and experiences.  That may sound like a thin distinction or something from a Portlandia skit, but give me a minute to explain.

All around us are signs that the idea of working for an "American Company" for twenty or twenty-five years, putting our kids through college, owning a home and then retiring on a cushy pension is one that isn't just unattainable, but perhaps wasn't really in reach to begin with. It was one that was sold to us, and perhaps given to a lucky few boomers, but was never really sustainable.

How many of us out there have a good idea of what's going to happen to us twenty years from now? How about ten even?  Are you sure that company you work for will still exist? Do you trust the stock market with your 401K? Do you think banks are looking out for you and would be on your side in an emergency?

Hopefully the preceding questions had you either shaking your head, snorting in derision or maybe even crying.  Because the truth is, if you aren't a millionaire right now, this system is rigged against you. The safety nets we think are below us are far thinner, weaker, and more full of holes than we realize.  Your job is less secure, your health insurance less valuable, your home is worth less and your voice carries less distance.

I'm not going to get into politics in this article today. It's too broad for this topic. Instead, I want to focus on what I think I'm moving towards, where I think I'm changing my life and see if any of it strikes a cord for you. If even one of you says, 'hmm, interesting,' then I've done my job here.

When I got laid off in March, I had a small one bedroom basement apartment that I was renting. I owned my 1996 Honda Civic, I had roughly $10000 in personal belongings, about $9000 in total debt (a little more than half being student loans), about $2500 in the bank and about $3000 in available credit.  Including all of my rent and expenditures, I wasn't going to last long without an income. I was laid off with 48 hours notice. I'd gotten a raise and a promotion back in November so I certainly didn't expect to be let go the way I was.

So, there I was with no job. I scrambled to update my resume and get the word out that I was looking for work. I began applying everywhere I thought I could get my foot in the door. I'm sure most of you know this dance.  I got a few auto-replies, a couple of phone interviews, one face to face. That was it.

I'd been down this road before.  When I arrived back in L.A. after hurricane Katrina it took me a very long time to find work. In the meantime, I'd picked up doing any kind of freelance video and film work that I could. It helped cushion me along the way, but I always felt like I was treading water with weights on my legs. I wasn't really doing anything but slowing down my own drowning.

Being back in that same predicament and feeling it so fiercely,  I decided to take a step back and come at things from a different direction. That led me to a Pandora's box of increasingly radical ideas and I realized that I was on the precipice of a completely new paradigm in my life. A part of my brain screamed, "But, you're 41! This is not the time to be making extreme changes! This is the time you're supposed to be buying a house! Splurging on a motorcycle! Doing that sort of  'Planning' that adults do!"

Then, I just said "Fuck it." With the decision that my life was not going to be normal, with the realization that I was not ever going to own a home or have a retirement or do any of the things in the Baby Boomers Brochure of Life, I was suddenly free to start my own new path.

The first thing I did was swallow my pride and take up the very generous offer my lovely lady made me to move in with her.  Once I'd agreed to do that, I also decided that a good chunk of what was weighing me down in life was the sheer volume of physical possessions.  You might think that the sum of what can fit in a one bedroom apartment isn't significant, but that's exactly what I'm talking about when I say that our concept of what's important and necessary is all out of whack.

I sold almost everything I own.  I'm not exaggerating.  Couches, TV's, computers, desks, my bed, books, dishes, all of it.  What I kept had to fall into one of two categories: Functional or Irreplaceable. Functional meant clothes (a very trimmed down wardrobe) and toiletries, my car and my camera.  Irreplaceable meant a couple pieces of art, a box of old photos, memorabilia and important paperwork like taxes.  That's it. It all fit into four large plastic tubs, three of which now reside in my lady's attic.

I took the money I got from selling all of those possessions and purchased a new Ultrabook and a new camera and some gear for it.  These items serve as both my connection to the outside world and a way for me to theoretically earn money anywhere I go.

Since then, there's a lightness that has come over me. I've been more prolific with my writing and photography, I've been wanting to engage with my fellow human beings more than ever, and I've gotten a sense of wonder and excitement about the world back that I'd lost for quite a while.  Things aren't perfect by any means. I have no health insurance. My savings and unemployment will run out by years end. If things were to somehow go badly with my partner and she kicked me out, I'm not sure where I'd sleep or go.  As dreadful as those things may sound though, they don't weigh on me at all. Not one bit.

Once you stop running on the treadmill and more importantly, once you stop trying to get back on to the treadmill and you then catch your breath and look around, you realize that much of the work you were doing wasn't for control of your life, but for the illusion of control.  We're all so desperate for that illusion that we're willing to sacrifice a lot of reality for it.  For me, the cost was just getting too high.

So what happens next? I don't know. I'm enjoying doing things with photography, video and writing. I may do some traveling, work abroad or possibly even ex-pat to another country. I don't really feel like an "American" any longer, just a person on a planet full of neat places, fun things and other people. I want the rest of my life to feel like a series of interconnected surprises rather than a chain of poorly pre-scripted events.

Regardless, I'm better off than I was when I was pinning my hopes on finding that 'one job' that I'd have for the rest of my adult life that would somehow see me through retirement and old age.  I just don't believe that the Coca Cola's, the Walmart's, the Google's of the world will be around for us thirty years from now.  We, as a society, will have given them the best parts of our lives and have nothing to show for it but a second mortgage.

There's this joke I heard. It's about 'West Coast' people. It's said that they are kind of weird and different from others because they came from the kind of stock of people who, once they'd escaped Europe and had migrated across the ocean to the colonies, they got there and said, 'Hmm, this isn't really far enough away from civilization for us' and they wandered off West, away from the settlers.  I'd like to think that maybe a bit of that spirit is living on in me.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Nice! I'm jealous.