This is a chapter from my new book, Life Begins At Incorporation, which I am releasing in light of TIME’s trolling ass cover story on lazy, entitled Millenials. I don’t live with my parents and will not “save us all.”
"How come all we do is talk about money?" — Richie Rich
The Great Recession officially ended in 2009. How’s everybody doing? Did you need help uncorking the champagne?
Unless you are a one-percenter who followed an errant link on Twitter, you probably aren’t ordering Cristal for the table.
Our economy has been slowly gaining ground since we bottomed out in the 2008 job-pocalypse. That oughta be good for people, right? But, turns out 121 percent of income gains made in the recovery went to the top one percent of the country’s earners. I’m not sure how you can capture more than 100% of something. It sounds kind of greedy to me. An economist at Berkeley got to that number when figuring in the fact that incomes for most everyone else have dropped. Wages are down, household incomes are down, but don’t worry, these are the job creators were talking about. If you don’t have an employment scenario figured out just yet, wait a few minutes. I’m sure some rich guy needs someone to give his shoe-shine 121 percent of their effort.
Jobs, jobs, jobs! They’re everywhere. The problem with all this job-creation is the new jobs are all worse than our previous jobs, which, to be honest weren’t all that rad in the first place. Some jobs, they don’t even pay money, which is still a thing you need some of to live.
My mother spent the recession in multiple jobs, the most recent of which paid federal minimum wage. $7.25, baby! This is the reason why, when I hear well-paid pundits say that no one except high school kids work for minimum wage, I want to fly to their home, poop on their doorstep, and set it on fire.
Stories like my moms are the new normal. Barely scraping by and taking what you can get is the new normal. Having 500 people show up to apply for jobs at Walmart, who pursues a strategy of paying people such low wages that they qualify for government assistance, that’s the new normal. Let Uncle Sam pick up the check!
If the recession taught me anything, it was how to get my dislocated shoulder back in its socket without going to the hospital. (I couldn’t afford the hospital bill, so if you ever need a makeshift sling out of a flannel shirt, look no further.) But what that taught me was how to be scrappy and resourceful in the face of things that suck. I would have traded that life lesson for a secure career with benefits, but I’m trying to squeeze something positive out this mess.
Millennials, or Gen Y, or whatever magazines are calling the youngins these days, were the ones getting the brunt of it in this downturn.
Maligned as a bunch of shiftless, tech-addled children raised to think they’d all get trophies, Millennials are trying to build careers out of the ruins of a job market. Amid a group that’s supposed to be a bunch of entitled kids, all I see around me are young people juggling multiple jobs and unpaid internships while trying to blot their (trigger warning!) student debt from their minds.
Unpaid internships are a particular flaming hoop everyone has to jump through now to land even the most mundane gig. Somewhere along the line this practice went from offering a short, genuinely helpful experience to an experiment in the outer reaches of legal exploitation.
I know people who have worked two years without pay to land a salaried gig or who float from internship to internship while bartending, waiting for something to open up in the field in which they hold a degree.
As the years drag on, the more well-off survive the wage attrition. They are the only ones who can afford working for free.
It might not be as horrendous if the young and paycheckless were graduating with degrees from a public system that leaves students with minimal tuition bills. (Hello, Canada!) As it stands now, student debt has reached a staggering one trillion dollars. One TRILLION dollars! For learning things in schools and there are no good jobs and oh my god I stopped to pour myself a drink since I began typing this sentence.
Lets review: we have lost a decade of economic activity. There are few stable jobs. The cost of education is so high there literally oughta be a law charging for-profit colleges with extortion. It is in this bleak landscape that people are asked to toil away their twenties in underpaid and unpaid positions that used to provide people a living.
Of course, if you’re rich, there’s a separate system. Arianna Huffington has made a name pursuing a debased work-for-free online media model at The Huffington Post. She eventually started auctioning off unpaid internships to the highest bidder—one went for $13,000. “Jumpstart your career in the blogosphere,” the listing read. Hey, she’s got what people want: a tiny pebble of a stepping-stone to an actual career.
That’s what happens when human work is devalued to zero cents an hour and people are willing to endlessly chase the carrot. Exploiters turn their exploiting up to 11.
When I was traveling around Afghanistan writing cartoons about the people I met, an editor at The Huffington Post emailed me about publishing my work on their site. They said I would receive “very prominent placement” and a “link back” to my website. No pay, of course, but a link. Exposure. The currency of the web economy is attention.
I gave ‘em a polite “nope.”
The HuffPo business model is one that works for exactly one person. When Arianna later merged with AOL for a cool $315 million, her unpaid contributors felt duped. There’s your 121 percent of economic gains right there.