Dying of Exposure

Over the last twenty years the value of work that is considered "creative" has been devalued considerably, and the definition of what is categorized as "creative" work has been greatly expanded. The cumulative effect, is that most of what "young" people are capable of doing professionally has been reduced to minimum wage level of income ... or less.

As of March 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics triumphantly announced the average wage in the United States had finally rebounded to $23.24/hour, equal to the average wage in 1973. As has become tiresomely common, the professionals of establishment world seems unable to comprehend the simple concept of inflation. $23.24/hour today would be worth $4.06/hour in 1973. For wages truly to have rebounded to 1973 levels the average salary would have to be $133/hour.

What to a Baby Boomer sounds like a nice round starting wage and would have been when they were starting out, $15-25/hour, would have to be $85-143/hour to have kept track with inflation. So remember, the next time you think you're being generous offering a freelancer $15/hour that would equate to $2.62/hour in 1973 ... when minimum wage was $1.60/hour. Was your first job out of college minimum wage? Or had you finally made it when you got that entry level position for $15/hour? Were you a 1099 independent contractor? Were you aware that 1099 "employees" pay almost twice as much in taxes, Medicare, and Social Security because their employer pays nothing? Subtract another $5/hour or more for the additional taxes. Now that 1099 freelancer is making $1.75 in 1973 dollars. Would you have been almost as well off when you graduated college in 1973 going to work in fast food as you would be taking a job in your field?

Over the past two years, I have worked a number of what many would consider to be demeaning and menial jobs. During that same time, an acquaintance of mine has been working as a freelance creative professional, a career I have aspired to as a full-time occupation for more than 20 years. I cautioned her against the pitfalls I had experienced, disrespectful and even hostile treatment by clients, disadvantageous tax status as a 1099 independent contractor, the difficulty in protecting your work from plagiarism. After this two year experiment, the numbers are in. I consistently earned slightly more per hour after taxes working "menial" jobs. She was shocked, since her hourly rate was always technically higher than mine. In the beginning, I had explained to her that charging clients $50/hour was a fair rate given the expenses and additional tax burden of working as a freelancer, and $35/hour was equivalent to most jobs in retail or the service industry. At the end of 2018, I earned nearly $2000 more working 30-40 hours per week at several part-time jobs than she had working often in excess of 40 hours per week as a freelancer.

As young people, and keep in mind I'll be 40 this summer, trying to make rent, feed ourselves and maintain some semblance of a life worth living, it simply most often not sustainable for us to pursue the careers in our chosen fields. When "adults," people in their 40s and older, think of Millennials, they picture us as wide-eyed and inexperienced teens and 20-somethings. Generational names, Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials, are always broad and inaccurate generalizations, but I can't count how many times I've had to point out that Millennials are in their late 20s to late 30s now. Most of us are long done with college, many with graduate school.

Most of the careers that "young people" flocked to over the last 20 years, with promises the job market would be thriving, have collapsed. I would argue those job markets have collapsed not because the skills we have are not needed, but because of mismanagement of our economy, our institutions, and our country by the generations that preceded us. Clearly, the work still needs to be done, the job boards are thick with job postings, frequently offering mediocre pay for job descriptions that require complex and sophisticated skills. Many of the available jobs are not in fact jobs, they are 1099 independent contracting positions offering $15-20/hour rates and expecting whoever takes the position to do 40 hours worth of work and be paid for 20. Somehow, doing more work in less time for a marginal increase in gross pre-tax income is somehow generous. The number of for-profit enterprises seeking "volunteers" to work "for exposure" is so shocking it has become a depressing trope amongst younger workers.

Having heard the same arguments over and over from employers as to why my peers and I should be excited to be taken advantage of for slave wages, performing highly technical work that requires extensive education, training, and experience, I reached the same conclusion as many of my peers ... I'd rather work a menial job than give grifters and con artists the benefit of my skills and education. At risk of once again fanning the flames of intergenerational conflict, older workers who are doing the hiring and contracting seem to have a hard time understanding we've heard it all before. I've seen the cycle repeat itself so many times I've passed from confusion, to anger, to sheer resignation. I don't even get upset when yet another grifter tries the same tired routine, I just sigh and block their number and email address.

Exposure is only worthwhile if it pans out into further work down the line. Clients have learned they even get a worker who insists on being paid to work for free if they simply threaten them once the work is done. The older generation's refusal to learn how to use computers has been weaponized, try to collect after doing work and you might be accused of "taking advantage" of a confused elder. That might sound far fetched, but I actually met someone who went to jail after helping an older man sort out a minor tech problem. Something else went wrong with the customer's PC a few weeks later and rather than work it out, he called the police. So now, not only are you likely to not be paid for your work, you might be rewarded with jail time for trying to help someone who doesn't understand technology. It's not hard to see why so many people my age might be giving up and retreating to "menial" jobs. They don't pay much, but at least they actually pay ... most of the time.

A friend and fellow aspiring designer recently sent me this video, designer Mike Monteiro essentially explaining why all creative professionals needed to "lawyer up" before doing any creative work.

The only thing this demonstrates to me his an older, established professional with the resources to hire an attorney to review every client contract and take them to court for breaking it. While he is probably well meaning, he is utterly out of touch with the reality for millions of young workers, struggling to survive on minimum wage, scrabbling for a few $15/hour 1099 gigs, often not getting paid. With an ever increasing amount of what would have once been considered standard office administrative work being reclassified as "creative" and contracted out to freelancers, essential what Mr. Monteiro is saying is if you want to work, get a lawyer first. That's obviously a nonstarter for a young person with no income or assets.

I'm sure the rebuttal would be that younger "creative" workers need to do agency work to build up to working independently. In my experience, agencies are no different than any other 1099 gig, except they pay even less. One agency hired an acquaintance of mine, a 19 year-old "web designer," to build a WordPress site for a client. They billed the client in excess of $15,000 for the build. They paid him less than $200, at $9/hour as a 1099 independent contractor. The clients would rather do business with the agencies because they give some sense of "legitimacy," while the work is being done by the same worker. Rather than connecting clients with creative professionals, the agencies are serving as an intermediary that can freely impose an arbitrary 1500% markup on the service and an arbitrary 80% tax on the person who actually does the work. At a reasonable rate of $50/hour a web designer could build the same website for the same client for $1000, pay his rent, and maybe even take his girlfriend out for a burger.

So my rebuttal to Mr. Monteiro is simply, if you're a young creative professional, don't do business with anyone with whom you need a contract to enforce a simple and mutually beneficial business arrangement. Go clean toilets, go flip burgers, go squat in a warehouse, but do NOT give these grifters the benefit of your skills and hard work. Don't help them fix their Microsoft Outlook, don't hook up their printers, don't help them set up their Facebook pages. The fact is, most of them can't do any of it. If they can't afford to pay competent and skilled workers a living wage for competent and skilled work, their business models are broken.

So, what is a creative professional? The definition used to include photographers, videographers, artists, musicians, designers ... but it's expanded rather rapidly to include anyone who uses a computer fluently but isn't a programmer. For simplicity's sake, I often refer to myself as a graphic designer, but in actuality my workflow whenever I'm doing anything creative will include writing, editing, proofreading, graphic design, photography, photo editing, video editing, audio editing, musical composition, some light HTML/CSS, constantly flipping between various social media platforms and web service applications. In academia, these fields are increasingly merging under the heading of "new media." Whether you came to new media as a designer, as a composer, or as a filmmaker, the actual task load for people in our "field" involves doing many different types of task, many of which would be considered routine office administrative work in any other era. We use project management techniques to keep track of what we're doing and when, and coordinate with other workers. We maintain spreadsheets and databases. We compose formal business correspondence. I would estimate that at least half of what I and my partner do would simply be general office work in any other era. Somehow, because it includes some "creative" aspects, it's been enveloped by the general sense that the "creative" is somehow superfluous, unnecessary, and thus we should be happy to do it for free because it's "fun." If it's fun, and it's making someone else money, it's work. Whether or not we enjoy what we do has nothing to do with our hourly rate.

You may detect a degree of frustration in what I'm saying, and that's accurate, but you have to understand that I came to this with a desire to help the older generation. I specifically set out to build a career for myself helping older people better understand how younger people work, and helping younger people understand how they needed to approach the older generation. At this point, I've seen a great many young people I know personally fall to great misfortune and tragedy because of a lack of good faith on behalf of the older generation. I've buried far more friends than anyone my age should ever have had to, and many of them before I was 30. The older generation has capital; it has lawyers; it gleefully sues for breach of contract over any detail they can tease out of vague contractual language. They extort; they threaten; they use their positions as respected members of the community to impose state violence to terrify and control young workers who challenge them. Younger workers are terrorized, demoralized, impoverished, and depressed. I am in no way exaggerating when I say this attitude degenerates into some extremely dark territory very quickly. And somehow ... talking about it, tweeting about it, writing blog articles almost nobody reads about how young people are being pressured, extorted, bullied, and threatened into unsurvivable circumstances, is considered threatening and dangerous. Let's me be clear, if you're affluent and comfortable and someone tweeting about the socioeconomic situation that faces them is so threatening to you that you feel the need to go on the offensive and destroy that person, you are not being threatened, you're the threat. It's like a grown man who weighs 250 pounds beating a six year-old to a pulp because the kid gave him the finger.

I shouldn't have to point out that this is affecting young people across all socioeconomic backgrounds for it to be taken seriously. It affects young people of all races. It affects the children of affluent white suburbanites. We never consider anything a problem in this country unless it affects white kids, so let's be clear, this is affecting your sons and daughters. Your kid, who got that "great" job in the city working for some magazine or marketing firm, who assures you they're doing fine ... is probably being slowly pushed in the direction of having to do something unsavory to survive. They probably won't say, they probably feel like it's their own personal failing, they don't want you to worry about them. This isn't just happening to someone else's kids, it's happening to most of them.

Despite all this, our generation still wants to help. We still want to work; we just want to be paid for it. It shouldn't be necessary to point out, but it probably is, that if we were paid for what we do we would spend that money on homes, home improvements, cars, eating out, everything else established older workers bemoan that our generation is "destroying." The current course is demonstrably unsustainable, and the number of young people being pushed towards political radicalization by their desperation is growing. If put our generation in the position of being slowly bled dry, or acting out in some final act of defiance, a significant number are going to chose the latter.

I would truly love nothing more than to become able to support myself and thrive doing what I feel I was born to do. I love my work; I miss it terribly. People urge me to be creative, but all I can think is that if I'm able to create something worthwhile it will simply be stolen from me by grifters. I will have spent the precious few hours I have in a day for sleep doing something which did nothing to contribute to my immediate survival, and the financial gain will have gone to someone who is nothing but a vampire. I consider writing to be creative, but writing about anything but this dreadful status quo will doubtless be plagiarized by blog spammers. While I can only relate my experiences and the experiences others have related to me, I'm quite certain this goes far beyond my anecdotes. The young cannot survive without the investment of our elders, the elders cannot survive without the vitality, energy, creativity, and talent of the young. We live together, or we die together.

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