Author: A. Hannah Spadafora
This is a meritocracy.
Can’t hack it?
It’s not the system; it’s you.
Capitalism thrives on not good enough so it can sell you the solution and shape you into it’s image. The reality is, however, high turnover from rigged standards and threats to literal human survival relies on this skewered survival of the fittest narrative. This allows companies to kick people out, to avoid providing benefits, to understaff and overwork, to drive people to match the potential capacities of machines by excessively micromanaging time and behavior, and to keep humans as tools while eliminating the most human elements from the business process. The narrative that’s ignored in this scapegoat-the-individual BS is the ways in which unfettered corporate profit under limited ownership is itself a flawed system--to humanity.
In servitude to the tedious detail and bureaucracy comprising the contemporary employment search process, I’ve likely submitted over 1000 job applications over the past 15 years—from begging at the doors of minimum wage McDonalds, years ago, to petitioning my (hopefully) valid candidacy for salaried $30,000-60,000/year positions that directly fit my credentials, professional background, training, and capability for growth.
To this end, I have organized my job-hunting during underemployment and unemployment many times over.[i] Early Craigslist job boards have been supplanted by specialized sites such as Idealist.org and paid-sites like FlexJobs.com. Prior to earning my credentials, job hunting was more physically and temporally demanding; I scoured malls, pounded pavement of busy-streets full of businesses that sat offset train stations, allocated whole days to application collection, and set aside other days to turn them all back in. Like so many seekers out there, I’ve tailored cover letter after cover letter, filing multiple nearly-identical online and paper forms, again and again. I’ve had resumes that were basic chronological lists of each job, functional showcases of related positions arranged by job category, one-pagers with limited space sparking intense inner debate as to which recent and relevant experience most closely match the job applied for, and long Curriculum Vitaes showcasing research, teaching, presentation, publication, and more exclusively academic achievement.
In my most recent advancement in career finding techniques, I went backwards through job advertisements—both for positions that had passed me over and that I had earmarked on my browser bookmark bar—and I made an excel sheet on skills desired by the job poster, then color coded them in categories rating my qualification for them—strong, decent, weak, unfamiliar/non-existent, then ordered them based on priority (my interest/it’s value in the market/it’s frequency in my bookmarked ads/and lastly, my potential for achievement without additional certification costs.) This has helped me get a clearer picture of my strengths, weaknesses, and additional skills necessary to reach my goals. Getting to this point has taken years of repeated upgraded re-do attempts at my resume, cover letter, and skill development focus, as well as many interviews I walked out of un-hired, and even more completely failed, denied, or ignored applications.
A majority of these applications were submitted as an undergraduate suffering nowhere to go, high job instability, and the lowest access to loan assistance—scouring over, re-adapting constantly, and printing out resumes just to hand write the same information into repetitive boxes on repetitive forms; repetitions seeming to echo everything skewered about the lowest level of capitalist employment. It's just awesome (sarcasm) to be locked into ritual before you ever even enter a contract of compensation for your time. Recently, frustrated to no end by the literally 17 different resumes functionally dividing my past experience up--sometimes making my gaps in work history appear longer/more frequent than they lasted (gaps between similar relevant positions failing to show positions worked in the interim that were irrelevant to the particular application)--I created a navigable PDF and website with a clickable table of contents that I hope an HR person will find convenient, impressive, and will save me a load of more BS repetition.
In moments like this, I’ve often wondered, if I could go back in time, taking all the time I've spent stressing over things that weren't going to happen or help--crying, panicking, wondering, feeling pressured by people I owed rent to, or my stomach grumbling--and all the time I’ve spent applying to jobs that rejected me, and replace that time with my own skill, craft, and portfolio expansion, would I, in fact, be more successful at this point? What if I'd spent that time writing manuscripts, creating assemblage art (a goal that I sold the tools for not long after being bought, to afford paying one bill or another), on directing short films or documentaries (a high school mass media/video production/theater influenced dream), on writing articles, attending events, and developing a journalism career (my other consistent goal at the end of high school/declared major at the beginning of college), or getting through college earlier, with more focus, and--money issues aside in this fantasy--already having a PhD/having had more time to build teaching experience, as well as strengthened research and writing skills on an earlier timeline? What if I had been able to spend that time on all the creative and intellectual and activist pursuits that make my nerdy and artsy and bleeding heart happy? Would I, in fact, be more prolific, financially stable, fulfilled, centered?
I’ll never know about what would/could have been, as we all do the best we can in the moment we are in. At the time, I didn’t have the hindsight to know which jobs would take me and which would pass me by. I just had voices screaming guilt trips any time I dared to breathe while un/underemployed, and a desperate need to pay my bills, eat, and survive. I didn’t put these apps in for fun. To start with, my job search wasn't the hope for fulfillment I craved; it was, instead and more often, fear of individual extinction.
This fear wasn’t unfounded. The first time I experienced damaging unemployment and half-homelessness[ii], I was 20 years old (2008, during the hiring freeze.) I'd moved to Atlanta to attend GSU the previous year, and had only worked three ‘formal’ jobs at this point (read: not babysitting)—Toys R Us, Chucky Cheese, and Vector Marketing. I did also have unpaid experience in the high school lab/applied classes in journalism and childcare, too, but none of these things seemed to matter as I scrambled through constant filling out of applications, living off credit and optimism--both of which were subsequently screwed for years afterwards.
The second time I experienced extreme difficulty maintaining sustainable employment that lead to housing instability, I was 21 or 22 (2009 or 2010). Things still hadn’t turned around much, and my string of seasonal jobs had too-long off season pauses--leaving me with direct knowledge of hunger, despite living in a ‘rich country’. I begged friends and family and a few times strangers for slivers of cash, whatever could be spared, sometimes piling up any change I could find in my sofas or on the sidewalk as I passed by, and timing out my small ‘meals’ of half a grilled cheese/bread and toast or the next granola bar—staring at the clock as my stomach rumbled. The ‘meal of the week’, whatever I could get for under $5 or $10 or $20 stretched the slim grocery money last longer—but not being able to have a more balanced diet, increased stomach problems, making it even harder to get a job, stay emotionally/physically stable, and function properly.
Both of these times, I sank into a deep depression. The rejection built up—from jobs applied to continually, in bulk, from people whose help pleas you’ve exasperated—and I spiraled into an inescapable black hole via which all hope and optimism dissipated. Unsure what to do when doors kept being closed, I bounced between friends’ couches across the state of Georgia, as well as one night on a bench, ricocheting every few days back and forth, and trying to still make classes and job hunt while living out of a backpack.
Each time, things only stabilized after a friend taking pity finally offered me a steady couch (or blow up air mattress assembled and dissembled every night and morning)--a home base, if not quite a home, where I could stop spending time in transit and phone begging for someone else to take me in, under continual uncertainty if I’d find a place to sleep--or if I’d have to bench it again, or try a shelter which was notoriously unsafe for women, or end up one of the many people I had met and observed while awaiting buses in the city—the unfortunate ones, people without social networks to help them find solid ground, even for nights here and nights there. [iii]
When you get stuck in a cycle of seasonal job after work-study semester after temporary contract, all with enough breaks in between to make your wallet squirm, job-hunting is an extra job in itself. There is no time to pause to breathe, or feel like the rug isn't going to be cut out from under you in five seconds, again. There is only time to keep searching--both during the interim between jobs and during the job already secured, when it's temporary, seasonal based, or not compensated well-enough for survival. Being that temporary and seasonal based jobs are so common, and easier to lock down around school, health, and other commitments, these lead to a potentially valuable workforce cut out of opportunity due to unseemly resume gaps. Regardless if these gaps occurred for the first time during a literal hiring freeze, when someone was so young to as barely have any type of resume that makes a damn to hiring managers who are only hiring the most competitive applicants on in the first place, there is a perpetual type-casting that pads employer pockets while screwing over workers trapped in this spiral.
Seasonal workers are cheap labor; temporary contracts and high turnover require no benefits, no long-term training, less accountability in management practices, no raises, and no advancement opportunities —the quote-unquote ‘disposable’ labor force, a term indicative of how people on the ground level--literally keeping the organization in motion--are valued. Experiencing this firsthand has granted me a sincerely deep interest in the ways we organize our work, as well as respect for all survivors of the undercurrent of capitalism that continually tries to sweep us off our feet.
The last time I was swept up, I was 24 (2012), thinking that my two earned bachelor degrees would land me a professional position directly following graduation--and maybe even something I liked—but dealing with a fallout of an unpaid stretch of nanny work when I came back from a mostly-student loan funded independent study-abroad research project on religious pilgrimage in Sicily and France. I only bounced a little bit between couches at this point, my friend’s mom offering me the cot in her office room, my friend in the bedroom next door, his parents across the hall, and his little brother downstairs.
This was supposed to be a short stay as the other times were—three months, maximum—and she helped me seek jobs and apartments, as well as attended my bachelor’s graduation ceremony and kindly bought me two professional skirts and a professional blazer as a congratulations/good luck getting a job present. It turned into over nine months, during which, at various times, I was welcome and/or a source of tension. I was desperately trying to relieve the pressure by finding steady work and saving up money, but it took some time. Eventually, again, I secured a job—two jobs at local Atlanta restaurants, though they flared my health issues up —and a dirt cheap rent price of a room in an old, somewhat disheveled, 'fixer-upper' house that held 5-10 roommates at any given time (an average of 7-9 people, most of the time). This preceded my entrance to grad school, which I thankfully had time and support to apply to during the time spent with my friend’s family.
Despite a wealth of living and working experiences during these struggles, the maximum amount of money I’ve earned in one year was somewhere near $20,000-ish, during two years of graduate school—a mixture of income and loans doubling my debt from my previous two undergraduate degrees that I failed to find a real career with following graduation. Due to this, during grad school, I flocked to the doctor and dentist for the first time in about a decade. I ran out of money before I had real answers--and before having a proper dental cleaning, as a crown I required for one tooth consumed my entire budget for the dentist (delaying to 2018/another two years, frustratingly). I also updated some of my wardrobe for the first time since I was a teenager via a mix of thrift store and offline bought items, in an attempt to move my style from grunge to elegant-on-a-budget—an act of anxiety intended to add professional camouflage to my closet that would support my efforts to enter a post-graduate career as a teacher, researcher, program assistant, or office associate. My goal was to not put on another ugly uniform for a sweat-and-take-other’s-flack-all day, too tired to move on your day off, undercompensated, highly micromanaged, mere job.
Over the years when poverty would pause, such as, primarily climbing above it’s wall in graduate school and while paying relatively cheap rent, I gave myself permission to occasionally do things (always with fret, and calculations of entry fees / benefit, and transit costs if I didn't have a monthly Marta pass at the time/later uber costs—to take advantage of student discounts and freebies to the High Museum, the Botanical Gardens, and less than a handful of bigger Fox theater/Cobb Civic Center shows, to check out much cheaper (free, if you volunteer as a docent!) local theater/art gallery shows, and to take transit on my day off to swim at the campus in-door poor, to take the severely discounted campus exercise classes[v] ($20 for a full 18 week semester/less than $2/lesson.) This latter amazing deal taught me salsa, ballroom, and belly dancing, gave me motivation to practice yoga and Tai Chi [vi], a drop in cycle class or two to pass the time, and sparked an epiphany that I was not made for pilates (failed, rejected, and refunded by the drop date.) I also had transit-fund leeway and proximity ease of attending the free events (lecture events, special department symposiums, comedy shows, drag shows) and clubs (on poetry, philosophy, politics, and queerness) held on campus. I did these things not as consistently as I would have liked, but enjoyed them whenever I found time around unpredictable work schedules, classes, and health to drop in on and off over years, and/or schedule regular semester-here, semester-there attendance. Had I not been more inundated with interconnected struggles (health, housing) that always seem to tie back to finances, I feel like I could have been more steady in attendance, had more time to build closer relationships with connections met[vi.ii], and perhaps taken on a role of more responsibility. But paid work, life need, and unending fatigue take everything under capitalism, and I was grateful for the discounted rates as an undergrad and grad student that made some degree of life possible. I also think they should be guaranteed for alumni (hint hint, nudge nudge; planning and budgetary committees-please make this happen.[vi.iii])
Outside of the balanced, slightly growth oriented years of graduate school, and the other intermittent times where I could breathe for five seconds on anxiety over survival, and even further, on occasion, have at least a few uncanny nights of life that joy depletion steals too often--the maximum I’ve ever made in a year is about $15,000 take-home-the last two years being one of the more stable times I’ve had in life, though the work itself is a bit boring and uncreative. My first two years out of grad school, I made less than this per year teaching college as a part-time adjunct, though almost the same when you added in my side gigs of tutoring, selling used books online, and unpaid summers scrambling together rent by working back in restaurant roles that stressed my health conditions. Despite this rather low 'high-achievement' of my last two years whooping around-$15,000 take home fortune, the $600 taxes I owe for claiming myself twice last year—because my paychecks are so low to begin with—is looming in its October extension, as are my own goals of retaking the GRE, applying for PhD programs (and the funding that would be necessary to accept admission), and/or moving back to Atlanta or another city in January, when my next lease term is up (again). [vii]
The debt from tax pales in comparison to debt from student loans, though--and the interest. My student loan debt has doubled sheerly from interest; a fact I find ridiculous--that the interest now equals what I borrowed. I thought I was being as conservative about borrowing as I could, considering how many times the gaps between one job’s season ending and securing the next position (always trying for non-seasonal positions, but taking what I could get)—this left my finances (and bills, debts, access to basic needs) in shortfall. I borrowed $65,000 over 9 years and three degrees. The idea that I owe $130,000 because of interest is absurd and mind boggling, especially since the interest keeps the debt climbing, and $15,000/year that I own in take home pay is just enough to breathe, eat, and work from home on, and not much else in the way of debt repayment, health care usage, or living life.
None of these things are quite in my cobbled together, scraping-by budget. This is admittedly not helped by the fact that burnout from repetition led to the ill choice to breathe a little, for a minute, to take a few less hours each week on repetition (and TV) and a few more to launch this webzine and research project which are unfunded at the moment outside of my own funds supporting the webspace/domain/e-mail. My emotions and soul feel better, but the numbers in my bank account are symbols showing me I've shifted my priorities in ways not approved by the rat race. [Come on, Friday payday! ]
If this isn't emblematic of a problematic world--that work feels like a forced chore rather than an eagerly anticipated chance to live your passion on a daily basis--than I don't know what is. The question is, how do we build this differently, in what circumstances is it okay to be apart of other's plans, tools for the boring repetition, and at what point do we declare fulfillment of one's own dreams a necessity to psychological health? Lastly, too, how do we compensate all the labor that goes into fulfilling the visions of an organization or business in a fair way, when we're all fulfilling our own visions or stepping into somebody else's? How much is a plan worth, in comparison to those who execute it?
I’m now nearly 32, and news stories about an upcoming repeat recession terrify me, even three degrees and a much longer and more professional resume later from the first time I underwent hardship. I’ve been more steadily employed in the last six to seven years (I have two paid jobs right now, plus this unpaid venture of The Conscious World which includes The Meaningful Work Project--an attempt to hear others stories on this same topic.). Even so, I still have applied for an estimate of about 200 jobs over this 'stable' past 7 years—a few of these jobs panning out landing me just with my head barely above paying-bills water (and, when they've panned out not quite in the knick of time, leading me to more personal debts to pay back, that have eaten the extra income I could have had if the gap hadn't occurred.) Now that I have a Master’s Degree, my career search is littered with polite rejection letters, stressing the overflow of competitive applicants and limited position availability, rather than ghosted submissions, but the answer is ultimately often still the same--No. I have thus spent over the majority of my life working but have rarely crossed above the poverty level—and even when I have, it has not been by much. This is not for lack of trying, but money, health, and stiff competition frequently intertwine and curtail my efforts to rise above success-obstructing patterns, at times leaving me far below the poverty level, and at other times, just barely floating above water.
Some reasons for this have to do with me. I’m a dreamer, a stubborn idealist, and often a failed Buddhist--I desire to do something meaningful, and some days have trouble hiding my misery and dissatisfaction when I'm stuck doing something I find frustrating and pointless, or feel like I'm contributing to an exploitative system that screws on-the-ground workers over. I don't want any job; I want an awesome one that I can try to be awesome at. Repetition doesn't make me feel awesome; it makes me feel stifled. I try to find contentment, to change the narrative, and get my head in the game in ways that allow me to grasp a sense of purpose to the functions I fulfill--I like talking with people, helping people, hearing others stories. It gets me out of the house (previous jobs, as currently I'm a reclusive remote workaholic.) I like payday, as I've been trained to, Pavlov's dog anticipating the bell ring with drool. My success at this can be inconsistent, however; particularly on bad days, at jobs where I've had to regularly face tedium and/or unpleasant coworkers and/or unhappy customers. Give me something I love, and I'll give it my all, paid or not; give me something I don't, and I'll do it, but my tongue may bleed from how much I bite it.
I'm not always helped by being somewhat of an overeager achiever, either--’extra’ as one of my former students introduced me to the term[vi.i]. This is great in leadership roles; less so when you're an over trained philosopher desperate to be in a lead position, naturally curious and trying to show initiative all at once, asking questions on why things are the ways they are, and sometimes being asked to chill out or step out with the hindsight of wondering if your questions are the reasons why (while your anxiety disorder screams, 'Chill? What do you mean chill? We're trying to understand things better, so we can make things better! I have to know!') [viii].
The other major struggle involves handling seemingly unceasing health interruption that affect my sleep, digestion, breathing, energy, sense of time/direction, focus, pain level, coordination, mood, and physical endurance[ix]. The irony is when people tell you to take on less--stepping forward provides fulfillment that can staunch despair; being able to flexibly work can keep the talents of those with health, family, other work, or other needs from going to waste. Health care and the funds to use it also should be required, or preferably universal. Everything can be worked around, but the system rarely works around people.
This capitalist narrative stigmatizes steady-employment difficulties during unfortunate times of life as a result of individual flaw. It’s the counterpart to the consumerist narrative used in sales pitches: innovation either discovers ways to fix problems that are already there, or creates a problem to swoop in with a solution. The prime example of this is every decade of skin care, fitness, and makeup advertisements for women (and, increasingly for men) picking a different body part to make people feel bad about the aging or swelling of—but, fear not; if you buy the right brand you can stop nature itself. 'Don't you feel ugly? No? Well now you do, and we can save you from it.' [ix.i] It’s the labor version reflecting the consumerist advertisement strategy--an adage clearly adapted if not quite spoken: It’s not the system; it’s you.
Due to this set up, however, people adapt to being set on repeat, are separated from the better side of the innovative impulse, and, to be Marxist about it, successfully alienated from equal fruits to their labor, while others are able to reach the elite sphere of creators--those who plan, rather than those used as tools in others plans. We adapt to the idea that our passions should be hobbies and our work, meaningful or not, should be the prioritized activity.
The judgment of whether something is meaningful is subjective (more than the poverty line is, though, cough.) There’s less wrong with that when there is choice, however. How do we define choice in a system where desperation-influenced compromises ensure you can eat and pay rent? What about when there are no good choices, or none of your choices result in the intended effect--simply due to numbers of the market (jobs open, jobs supplied)? There are choices outside the seeker as to the skills on the market that are valued, both in terms of being well-funded and well-paid. It’s okay to do meaningless work if you choose to; some feel like it's fine, so long as they live life outside of work--but what is meaning, what is choice, what is fine?
We must remember that capitalism’s prescient role is to describe flaws we wouldn’t know we have, were it not for the powerful rhetoric about individual rather than organizational flaw that keeps businesses profitable and individuals at the lowest levels impoverished. To build an economic system around meaning, we must also build one around first around valuing labor for it’s worth, and valuing people that give that labor, by more secure offerings of work, better pay and benefits for seasonal employees, more loyalty to workers interests, and more organized ways to ensure everyone can have continuous stability of income despite shifts in work flow. Only by uplifting the downtrodden and suppressing the excessive do we reorganize successfully, for the people. We only all win by tossing the stick and sharing the carrot.
To volunteer to be interviewed about your own search for meaningful work, quest for wealth and purpose alignment, and connected triumphs and struggles, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Spadafora is the founder/editor of The Conscious World, and is currently researching economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social anthropologist (M.A.), continental philosopher (B.A.), comparative religion scholar (B.A.) and journalist (HS; English minor) with experience in research, teaching, tutoring, writing, non-profit, office, sales, service industry, graduate, and editorial assistant roles. Projects in the works include both creative and non-fiction manuscripts; these are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly.
[i] I’m ever finding new avenues to rejection, neglect to reply and denial of entry! (Hah. Hah. Cries.)
[ii] Half-homeless: the term the food stamp application gives to unintended couch surfing between any couch that will take you, and thus living out of a bag and moving every few days.
[iii] Due to coordination and endurance difficulties related to health, I’ve never owned a car.
[v] Also taken as an undergrad, on and off. Difficulties with these also pointed to and exacerbated health conditions, free-clinic doctor advice having been to exercise more, which led to a few scary injuries/increased falls and problems [see: MG] [see: ix]
[vi] the Tai-Chi class I missed 80% of because it was my day off from school-classes (but made myself feel better about by practicing at home via YouTube.)
[vi.i] a 'bug-a-boo' as a frustratingly disorganized former manager somehow 20 years older than me and still embarrassingly using that term put it once.
[vi.ii] maintain connections with some old friends better, too. Though our entire generation is busy and on Facebook, also thanks to the way current work structures shape everyone's lives.
[vi.iii] except, alumni centers without the students. [no offense to students. just. boundaries and space considerations]
[vii] (hopefully, for a job upgrade, or if another remote position, with work sustainable enough to live in areas accessible without a car/without a huge car share bill (Uber/Lyft), or difficulties with long walks between public transit due to health conditions [see: ix]
[viii] , and, in some settings, refusing to put up with the BS people think they can heap on you because you ‘look nice’ (in restaurant: nice=weak.)
[ix] (intermittent flares of gastrointestinal issues; migraines, sleep phase delay, asthma, ADHD, Myasthenia Gravis, dyspraxia, depression, and anxiety [partial list], with symptom and life instability/stress/rest imbalance links.)
[ix.i] See Susan Douglass, Where The Girls Are for a more in depth examination of media depictions of concerns on physical appearance under this interpretive framework of advertising and the make-up/slim down beauty industry.