For the last three weeks, everyone who knows I live on Wall Street has been asking me about the protests. I’m in an interesting place: I’m local, my friends are protesting, and I’m sure that plenty of my clients are the people being protested.
Actually, there’s a lot more of a gray area than that: there is a huge swath of people who are in agreement that the level of income inequality in this country is untenable, and yet who are angling to be in the top 1% because, well, what else are you supposed to do? Most of us think that if the top 1% were us, we’d be different. That might be true. (I have long espoused the view that one of the best things you can do for feminism is to make a lot of money so that powermongers are scared of you).
In case there is any doubt, the Occupy Wall Street protests are well beyond the point of mocking. Sure, when I see a guy with a didgeridoo and a beard the same size as the rest of his head, I tend to think that that guy could develop a more persuasive persona. But that became pretty much irrelevant when the unions started joining, and ex-Marines showed up in uniform to protect protestors from police brutality. (A humorous note from OccupyWallStreet.org: “OWS will limit drumming on the site to 2 hours per day, between the hours of 11am and 5pm only.”)
I’m away right now, in Virginia, visiting family. On my way here, my mom texted: “Can’t wait to see you. Everyone here is tired and broke.”
To me, it feels like we are at a cultural Rubicon. I certainly get enough letters (firstname.lastname@example.org) from young women in horrible job situations and faced by mounting debt.
That said, my job is to try to frame things positively, and help people navigate in imperfect situations. Here are some ideas.
Austerity is completely acceptable.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still attend business lunches in New York wherein, as a display of corporate largesse, someone orders far too much sushi and lets it get thrown out, and probably neglects to tip the waitress who has to throw out all the sushi, and also at the table is an intern who would really like to take the leftover sushi home but she knows that’s against the social rules so she tries, and probably fails, to make knowing and sympathetic eye contact with the waitress. This is a thing, and it’s gross.
But when unemployed people (among others) are marching on Wall Street, and everyone who has a job is saddled with doing the jobs of those who’ve been laid off, well … if there’s a bright side, it’s that it is now completely socially acceptable to be cheap and work fiendishly.
If you were ever embarrassed to just tell people “I can;t go out because cocktails are expensive and college loans cannot be erased even by bankruptcy,” I think that time is over. (See Bullish: How Talking About Money Can Make You More of It.)
If you want to start a business, I think telling your clients “Actually, there is no office – I run the business out of my apartment to keep costs down” is as acceptable as it has ever been, perhaps even appreciated by clients who value transparency and possibly some cost savings passed down to them. (See Bullish: Starting A Business When You’re Broke.)
That said, if you own Louboutins, I’m pretty sure it’s now less cool to wear them anywhere that’s not a party.
Keep in mind that people who were born with privilege often don’t know how to be cheap and work fiendishly. So if you grew up never having ordered an appetizer in a restaurant in your life (“We’ll eat dessert at home and that’s final!”), then you have a competitive advantage here. (See Bullish: Social Class in the Office and Bullish Life: Be Broke Without Going Crazy.)
“Real jobs” are losing their prestige.
I live on Wall Street because I love the old, Dutch architecture, and because my old apartment near the Port Authority was making me very, very sick. (See Bullish: Preparing for Getting Hit By a Truck.)
But I don’t work on Wall Street, nor do I work “normal” hours, which means that I get to use the gym when it’s empty and have my favorite restaurants all to myself at 2:30pm.
Sometimes, I walk down Wall Street in a sundress, with messy hair, at 9am, to go to Starbucks. Dudes in very crisp dress shirts will sometimes look at me derisively. (Readers of this column are well aware that I am a veritable lady-sloth! Clearly.)
And I think, “Bro! Do you really think you’re winning this one?” You are not in charge of your own schedule. You are rushing to be someplace at the same time as everyone else, because another dude said so. What value does that create? You are part of a bullshit system.
I think the five-day workweek is total crap. I assure you that the five-day workweek and the year-long work system were designed by factory owners who wanted to squeeze many textiles out of the underclass. Actually, what they designed was more of a seven-day workweek that lasted until you died, and a few rounds of labor laws later knocked it down to five days, 40 hours a week. There’s nothing inherently natural or morally good about this system. I think good creative, intellectual, and manual work often occurs on a project basis: a few-month obsession, a very human period of decompression.
Some people thrive on five-day, forty-hour jobs, of course, and we also live in a country in which having such a job is our main way of obtaining health insurance. And yes, such jobs are “stable,” except for the part where you get laid off with no warning. And those who have not been laid off are often put into increasingly draining and degrading situations, doing the jobs of laid-off coworkers and having little leverage to negotiate.
The remedy here is vigilant action:
I strongly encourage everyone to develop multiple income streams –see Bullish: Run Your Career Like a Business.
I also encourage employees to make sure that your job needs you more than you need your job. How do you do that? Sell things even when it’s “not your job” to sell. Calculate your Return-on-Employee and make sure that you more than justify your own salary. If you’re angling for a raise, see to it that you are generating the money your raise is supposed to come out of.
In Bullish: Responding to Disappointment with Awesomeness, I wrote about how the solution to worrying is to make mutually exclusive plans. You should have a plan in your back pocket for what happens if you lose your job or can’t get a job at all. That plan should be awesome. Fantastically awesome. If you have in your back pocket that, in case of joblessness, you will teach English in Asia, or backpack, or finally become a yoga instructor, or live in your car while pitching your business idea to venture capitalists, then it’s pretty hard for a company to make you their doormat.
Should you take any job you can get?
The other day, on my way to a date, I was hit on by a garbageman, who paused from his job long enough to smile broadly, wave, and tell me I looked nice. It was actually a really polite come-on, and I said “Thank you” and smiled back. Dude’s job is way more secure than any of ours. Just saying.
John Lees on the HBR blog writes of the current job market:
In a noisy market it’s harder for the right employer and candidate to meet, but there are genuine opportunities out there: organizations are looking for enthusiastic and capable people and don’t know how to find them. But the mass market doesn’t work for candidates or employers — every appointment is a niche appointment. The right jobs are even harder to find. They are unlikely to be advertised. Often what you need is the right conversation at the moment a decision-maker has an unsolved problem or an opportunity.
If networking for “niche appointments” seems impossible or overwhelming, there are other options – apparently, prominent neck tattoos are a “recession status symbol” and signal a “rejection of the rat race.”
Given the milieu, there’s nothing wrong with taking a crap job to pay your bills, as long as you have some other plan in place (see Bullish: You Can Start A Business By Tuesday). You know what’s in my back pocket? Actually, I have quite a few back pockets, but one to-do item is finally taking the personal trainer exam I have all those books for. (I used to look like this and can do so again should that be a good strategic move.)
If you’re in a dead-end job or have some unemployment-related free time, I’d like to toss out there the fact that most important job skills can be obtained without a degree (in fact, see this frightening infographic about the student loan racket – do not head back to grad school unless you’re sure that that’s the best or only path to the next level for you).
Every day, ambitious people buy books on programming Android apps, and they learn search engine optimization, and read boring documents about optimizing Google AdWords spends, and they teach themselves Excel and they learn to read financial statements, and they volunteer to teach literacy to non-native speakers at the library and they learn to cook from television shows. All of these things are much, much easier to turn into money later than are most of the things you have to pay to learn about in college. Having no money for college is absolutely no excuse for not developing your skills.
The vast majority of modern Americans do not have the patience, concentration, or focus to learn on their own. If you can learn skills from books, trust me, you’re ahead of the vast majority of basically everyone.
Wealth is not inherently bad.
Let me end on this note – as Rob Wheeler on the HBR blog writes about OWS:
“The lesson our society and our politicians need to take … is that American capitalism is both Steve Jobs and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Business, big business, and capitalism are good to the extent that they function in a system that doles out rewards for the creation of value. And they fail when rewards are given independent of the value that institutions create.”
Fortunately, we have not yet reached a point of post-apocalyptic wars over water and canned goods in this country; there are always opportunities for those who create value. And it’s totally possible to strive for wealth and still pursue justice (for instance, paying your taxes is a great start!)
Here’s something both adorable and wonderful: the We are the 1% blog features millionaires who stand with the protestors. Some of them are holding signs that say “Please tax us more.” This fills me with love and kitten-kisses.
I hope you’re feeling galvanized. I absolutely believe that you can fight for justice, and also navigate strategically and awesomely within a suboptimal system.
originally published The Grindstone