Not so many years ago, shortly after I left my last full-time position in journalism (as the business editor at U.S. 1), I gave a talk at the Princeton Chamber. I had left full-time employment to go out on my own; forge my own way. Actuate efforts to take it to the next level moving forward, if you will.
I did a few talks, put together a few workshops, networked a lot; schmoozed my way into teaching a writing class or two. One day I got a call from Barbara Figge Fox, a former colleague and fellow ex-editor at U.S. 1. She asked me if I’d like to give a presentation at a monthly Chamber luncheon.
Although I hate to admit this, I can’t remember even a little what my presentation was about. I remember I wore a green shirt and no jacket. Past that, there’s only one thing I really remember about actually being the speaker that day — my introduction to the podium.
It was the first time I’d heard someone rattle off the highlights of my professional life. Two-thirds of the way through, somebody a couple tables over said “Whoa.”
Whoa … I’d never been whoaed in my life. I didn’t know what to do with that. I still don’t. Though, not to sound self-impressed, I get why someone would whoa about what they’d just heard. On paper, read aloud, I came off like The Man. This laundry list of positions, awards, achievements, and dynamic, synergistic, globally actionable paradigm shifts about my core competencies came spilling out through the loudspeaker, and suddenly my then-decadelong career in writing, editing, and journalism felt like it had actually been something more than just a job.
Not so many years later, I still have that shirt and I still don’t have a jacket for it. And I’m still not working anywhere full-time. Occasionally I miss that. The security of it, I mean. Having someone walk over and personally hand me a check for a set amount every other Friday (thanks, Rich) was a blanket it was always nice to wrap myself up in.
I get why people are scared to go out on their own. This isn’t a life for the faint of heart. This is a life in the circus. Since leaving U.S. 1 full-time at the very end of 2011, I’ve moved and traveled; given talks and taught more classes; written books and written cover stories for trade magazines; I even got a job in broadcast journalism, as a reporter for an NPR member station in Texas.
I’ve also had to build debt to pay for a car that’s two long drives away from being taken out into the woods and only one of us comes back. I’ve had to turn down my heat in the winter because of the money it would cost to stay warm. I’ve had to play ping-pong with my medical benefits that I need to pay for myself. I’ve gone long stretches with little work or income (a few summers ago I made $300 — that was over four months). I’ve had to cobble together freelance gigs and work them around my part-time job at the radio station. The work is a lot of fun. The juggling is making my arms tired.
All sarcasm aside, I’m not one for self-inflated corporate buzzphrases. I don’t maximize leverage or bring my A game; I don’t hit the ground running where the rubber hits the road; and I don’t know what to do with the always-updating taxonomy that is the business world, where phrases like “human capital” become the industry standard benchmark.
But I can’t help but turn my ear toward one phrase I keep hearing about: gig economy. That’s the term I hear describing people with lives like mine, lives of circuslike insecurity, presumably involving pantries stocked with antacids and quiet places to cry.
The gig economy seems to refer to jobs like Uber driver or AirBnb host — jobs that aren’t so much jobs as tasks paid per task accomplished. The analogy, of course, comes from the musicians’ life, where while you’re on stage you’re a golden god, and then it’s back to the checkout line at Wal-Mart while you save up enough money to print fliers for your band.
Given all the musicians I’ve interviewed over 17 years now, I have to say, this business model is a little disconcerting to me. For every musician of Elton John-level riches and fabulousness, there’s probably 100,000 musicians staring down the barrel of a starving family and praying they can get work before social services comes to take the kids to a place with a pantry full of food and not Tums.
From some of the major business news outlets — NPR being one of them, Forbes being another — comes the notion that the gig economy will be the reality for nearly half of American workers in the coming decades. Allegedly, this is a good thing. And maybe it is, if you’re young and don’t have the resume to elicit a whoa when you give a talk at a chamber luncheon yet.
But speaking as a guy in the middle of the gig economy for six or so years now, I can tell you, this gig economy thing is not sustainable and it’s not secure. And, frankly, I vote for renaming the gig economy for what it really is: a one-night-stand economy that, frankly, works about as well as it does for anyone who hangs out at bars looking for Ms. Right Now. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you strike out; most times you meet somebody who’ll do, but certainly isn’t someone you’d show pictures of to your friends.
I’m lucky (and grateful) to have ongoing relationships with numerous editors, including the ones at U.S. 1 who let me run my mouth in this space, as well as U.S. 1’s parent company, Community News Service. Without them, my one-night-stand-economy career would look a lot more like someone offering their services for meth in a sketchy neighborhood.
My point for saying that is to offer this word of advice to those in or entering the gig economy with me — career is like a good marriage. Build your relationships and hold onto them. Having solid relationships with employers who like and want your work is endlessly better than the hit-and-quit pace of life in the freelance world.
Just try to think of it like Wayne Newton. He’s paid per gig too. He just has an ongoing relationship with his casino in Las Vegas. And he always remembers to say Danke Schoen.