A while back I was sitting with my father in St. Louis, lamenting the end of my head writer gig with BET's "Don't Sleep" and having to retreat back to the homestead when the conversation was interrupted by a phone call from my friend and old NYC roommate. The conversation was short (because my dad and I were going pretty deep and I wanted to get back to it), and afterwards I remarked that my ex-roomie was looking for work and had been out-of-work for a year. Then my father said, "Man, do any of your friends have a job?"
July's unemployment numbers were a touch on the shady side as Mother Jones reveals here. Sure, unemployment is "down," but actually employment numbers remain flat, meaning a lot of people are still unemployed, but their unemployment insurance ran out or they gave up looking for work. Because unemployment numbers only count people who file and I've got a few friends who haven't seen an unemployment check in a year or more.
All my closest friends (save one) are unemployed, some recently and others going on years without a job. And some are single, others divorced, some have kids, others are child-free, everyone has a degree or two, some have written books, some have worked for some large firms and in high-powered places, but all of us are unemployed, living the unemployed life of filing for unemployment assistance, applying for jobs, waiting for phone calls that never come, going through interviews where you, your friends and everyone else you know is up for the same gig and then none of you get it because it's about who you know and even though you know everybody you also know no one at the place you just applied.
The only thing we have going for us is that none of us are addled with college debt. Credit card, housing and other kinds of debt, sure. But hey, no student loans. Going to Budget University does have some perks, at least in my case.
Whatever work any of us can get is "freelance." And "freelance" is great if you can cobble together enough freelance jobs, ghost-writing deals, Macys sweater folding gigs to cover the rent. My friend, author Amy Alexander, calls us all "The Cobbler Class." All of us overly educated trying to put together enough projects and temp jobs to stay above water until the writer's market changes for the better. All of us trying to create patchwork careers out of nothing because the jobs we used to have either don't exist anymore or there are so few positions left that it's a dogfight to get to be senior associate editor at No Name Magazine paying an illustrious $35,000 per year.
I guess some of us could go back to school, learn a new trade, but then there's that being student debt free part that no one wants to ruin while unemployed. So short of us all marrying rich tomorrow, it's back to trolling the internet, friends, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mediabistro and all our employed second cousins twice removed for a clue, a tip, a hook-up, a gig, a something that pays sooner rather than later.
Remember when I was a daily reporter in Bakersfield, Calif. for five years until I left ahead of the looming lay-offs. And how I couldn't appreciate that period of steady employment because I spent most of my 20s fighting depression and Bipolar Disorder. That was the moment, after I left The Californian, I entered the Cobbler Class, 2007, where I took freelance jobs, found jobs that were seasonal, lasted only at places long enough for the non-profit to run out of money and lay me off or long enough for the TV show to make it on air only to not get renewed for a second season. My only steady constant was blacksnob.com and the work it helps generate. Everything else seemed to last for six months, then crumble due to forces beyond my control. And I wondered, is this my new life? At first, it was terrifying, but it's amazing what you can get used to. Since the economy tanked in 2008-2009 I have had a job for half a year every year, with my unemployed portion of the year supported by freelance work, unemployment insurance and whatever ad revenue I could generate from the blog. Let's just say, it's not the most predictable, let alone most stable way to make income.
I'd love, more than anything, to be a writer again somewhere, full-time, like I was in my 20s, still maintaining this blog but to be able pull a reliable, not-going-anywhere, won't-suddenly-disappear-or-downsize, job. TV show or web site, newspaper or magazine, I'm just tired of the $100 per story freelancer lifestyle. A life where I have an easier time getting on CNN than getting a steady job because the job I always wanted doesn't really exist anymore. Nobody is looking for a black, female Dave Barry, writing a syndicated newspaper column because ... what newspapers? What columns? Columns are content for the web and they're $100 per story now, not a full-time gig with benefits.
This blog, arguably, is the best thing that ever happened to me professionally, but at the same time, even when I was updating it six times a day, it wasn't always profitable. It made some money, but it was really more of a platform, a way for me to communicate, a way for me to do what I loved even if I was stuck in a job or position I hated. The blog was the constant. I knew I could write. I knew I was funny. And I knew I could get readers. But everything else was cobbled together.
Still, at least I (and by proxy my unemployed friends) could cobble. I don't know what people who only have one skill set do, or people who don't have experience or don't have degrees, or who worked at one place for a billion years to get laid off at 55 and find that no one wants to hire anyone older than 45. All of us, every last one of us, believe in our talent and ability. We just don't believe there's a market to support it anymore. Or at least not this month. Maybe next month will be better.