Not me, well, not really, except that in the last three years particularly, as the wheels came off the health, almost any work was too much.
At any rate, I’m one of the lilies of the field, in that my work is not essential to continued life or civilization. Maybe. I’m not as sure of it as I once was.
When I was young and raised in a socialist ethos, I was told the important thing was to “be good for something” i.e. to do something useful for society. It was one of the things that kept me from even considering writing as a career. It wasn’t “useful”. Translating actually promoted commerce.
This is all bullsh*t more or less, because what you are compelled to do can’t be measured in utilitarian ways, and when you have a vocation, you have a vocation. Sure, if I’d stayed in Portugal I’d probably be writing in the evenings, after work, but I’d also probably be teaching and have more time off. Maybe.
None of the paths not trodden matters, though, because here I am, where I am. And where I am is as a writer of fiction. And I might think it’s good for nothing, except I get these letters saying I helped people through chemo, or helped them combat depression, or… So I’m no longer sure book writing is useless and “just for fun.” And, btw, guys, if any of you reads this blog, you’ve made me bawl like a baby when I get your emails. One doesn’t know as one flings stories into the seemingly silent void when they hit. Finding particularly that stories I wrote while ill or dragging or just because I’d promised were someone’s life-rope is astonishing and more than a little humbling.
As to those of you for whom Sword and Blood — aka oh, Sarah Hoyt, no (yes, I’m doing the sequels, geesh) — is your bedside book, we need to talk. You might not be living right. (I wrote it in a deep pit of depression.)
But I came across something or other this week that made me sort of drop back in wonder and realize something: everyone still employed is overworked. That applies to writers too, as the “still employed” is a fast-shrinking label, at least for old pros.
Sure in my case “overworked” is not by my standards, but the fact I have things stacked up into the foreseeable future because I took two years off to moving and being very ill is kind of odd, for a mere midlister.
People with more conventional jobs — my husband, my friends — on the other hand literally have more work than they can set their hands to. A lot of them have two jobs, or are doing other things on the side.
Part of this is the socialist economy. No, really. What happens is that employing someone becomes so expensive you refine cost-to-work so much only the most competent stay on.
And even the competent get laid off as they get older because they’re either not as fast, or are perceived not to be as fast.
What this means is that the people still employed are all — every one I know, at least — shouldering the work of three, while the other two are unemployed and can’t get in.
And we’re not talking massive differences in efficiency (sometimes it’s just luck) just that when you pile on required benefits and protections for workers (all in the best intentions) you make it impossible for the businesses to keep on even “slightly maybe less effective” workers.
My best friend from childhood married a French man, and the last time I talked to her we had a political disagreement. Must have been 12? years ago. (Yeah, I miss her.) You see, her son was demonstrating against new French laws that made it easier to fire someone. While he was unemployed, as were most youth. They were unemployed because the French companies couldn’t fire people who weren’t any good, not once they’d got in.
The kid viewed it as the protections he’d have once he got in. But of course, what such a policy of “can’t be fired” did what our tenure does. People would work hard at internships or whatever, but when they were hired they could relax. Which explains the vibrant French economy. Never mind.
The thing is that these rule for “protecting workers” sound good. Minimum wage is a lovely idea, particularly when you’re young and stupid and think you’ll never rise above it. But you don’t see the other end, where with minimum wage and mandated benefits, you’re costing that employer $30 an hour for… well… if you’re only worth “minimum wage” are you worth $30? Or will they just hire one person instead of three, and make that one do the work of three?
Much of the much ballyhooed ‘end of work’ is based on the idea that people are now permanently unemployed because of the increase in automation and blah blah blah. And it’s stupid. No, guys, listen, it’s rock bottom stupid.
Not only isn’t our automation that advanced — it’s not, you know? — but even in things where machines made us much more efficient, there wasn’t a real drop in positions. Not from that. I mean, I started work when everyone who was anyone had a secretary, though junior members of a company might share one. They were needed because no executive could type. I taught myself to type so I could write faster, but seriously, no one would teach me, because “you’ll have a secretary.”
Ironically I tried to get a job as a secretary in the US, and what held me back was the lack of short hand. (I was stupid and never demanded they test me. I could write at the rate college professors talked, so I probably could have done it, in my own horrible handwriting, but fast enough.) Who even does short hand now? And where are all those unemployed secretaries?
Computers genuinely displaced a lot of the work secretaries do, so how come there aren’t despondent secretaries roaming the streets?
Well computers also increased communications, and video conferences, and allowed people to work faster, which means they need executive assistants to do different work, like scheduling and organizing, and screening emails. But they are still there.
That’s the nature of automation. It changes what you do. It makes you more efficient. It allows you to try a different angle.
Unemployment is not the result of automation or efficiency. Sure, each wave of automation and different technology hurt people. And some were too old to change/adapt.
But most of them, in the prime working age, just adapt, change.
The permanently unemployed? those are victims of socialism whose (well intended?) mandates make it impossible to hire anyone who isn’t working at peak efficiency and doing the work of three (at least) people.
This means you only get employed in your prime working years, btw, and anyone who is older, or has health issues gets sidelined. And don’t ask me how we’re supposed to train the young if we can’t hire them short of peak efficiency. Unpaid internships, I guess.
The funny thing is that those peculiarities get blamed on the heartlessness of capitalism.
The other funny thing is that being that overworked burns you out fast, which means Atlas is shrugging with increasing frequency and at increasingly early ages. Fatigue, illness, aging… No one is a machine.
And the people who would have followed? Well, they never got that beginner job when they were at less than peak efficiency.
Worse, as people find themselves unable to break into the working world or flung out at an early age, they get scared and demand more and more protections and more and more help. Which burdens the few still working even more.
What can’t go on won’t, but there’s a lot of ruin in a country. Western Europe has been playing this tune for a good 30 years. Don’t look down. It’s a long, long way to fall.
Or we can be Americans. We can step off, we can go around, we can build over, build around, build under.
We can make use of real efficiencies, of real innovation, to do our job better and in a different way.
I have a suspicion the only way to circumvent this is a future of entrepeneurs and contractors. Which is scary when you can see the wrong side of fifty within spitting distance.
Even in publishing, where we’ve always been contractors, I’m looking at indie and thinking I have to find time to do that TOO because well… it paid me double what my traditional books did, and besides it’s… it’s safer to have the belt and suspenders. The last two years of peak INefficiency scared me, and showed me how quickly a traditional career can die. (Thank heavens for bestselling friends and collaborations.) But indie careers are never dead. You can always revive them with a new book.
And for the rest of you, I suspect there are other paths you can take too. If you look. In your particularly situation. (I know of a few of them.)
Yes, this means working even harder when you’re already overworked. Yes, it means the horribly scary prospect of braving entrepreneurship (even for writers. Witchfinder scared me so much I delayed publishing it for six months.) But it means you can’t be flung off and discarded. And it means that the ridiculous laws that are supposed to take care of you, but are really killing commerce and so by extension you, will become moot. No one can demand you give yourself minimum wage. They can, alas, demand you guy yourself health insurance and pay both sides of social security. BUT it’s still different, when you’re working for yourself.
We’re overworked and tired. We’re sidelined or pushed. But we must shamble into the future.
Build your path as you go. Be not afraid.
There’ll be pie in the sky by and by. To get there you just have to walk through fire.