Recently, we at Ministry of Imagery decided to try a different approach. Two of our friends from college work for a gaming company that has three offices between New York and Canada. These friends had “regular” work complaints that were foreign to us: staff meetings, early mornings, occasional bouts of tedium. But they had steady paychecks and weren’t malnourished. When the friend who has a more senior writing position in the company told us that we should apply, we thought it over.
The negative aspects of being a freelancer are many. You don’t have health insurance, so skateboarding is frequently fraught with trepidation about falling and breaking teeth, pelvis, or wrist. You’re never sure if that awesome next job is around the bend, or if all you’ll find in your Inbox is the cyber-equivalent of dust-bunnies with a soundtrack of crickets. If you don’t know the client you’re working for, or if they weren’t referred to you, you can never be sure, really and truly sure, that they will not flake on payment or change the deliverables at the last minute. We’re rarely able to save any money at all, and on the worst months there’s a fear of not making rent or, more likely, rent being made but something else being sacrificed, such as food or the power bill. Being a freelancer is like being a rodeo clown, it’s thankless, dangerous, and fucking exciting. Also, many of us are alcoholics.
We recognize all of these complaints on a daily, high-pitched basis. Simon often conquers stress by sleeping, I am more of the pace-and-wring-hands variety. But even with all of these fairly severe drawbacks to the job, it does suit us. We are able to roll out of bed and start working together. We make our own hours, devise our own quirky systems, and feed off of each other in a way that I can guarantee that no one in a desk job does with their fellow employees. Simon blasts rap and eats Doritos while working, he also has a tendency to take breaks to skate around town or grab a Coke at the bar down the street. I listen to ‘90s dark wave and drink so many cups of tea that, if I were in an office, I’d be the one who had to replace the supplies in the break room. Both of us are able to be somewhat hedonistic, if we don’t feel like talking to people when we work, we shut our doors and stop taking personal calls. If we feel like working naked, or not showering, or rhyming along with Lil’ Kim on our speakers, we can. My friend who works in the gaming company said to me once that she was jealous that I could take a nap. Like, whenever.
But at our age, freelancing feels a little old, not in the sense that the job itself has gotten dull, but that larger things are looming on the horizon. How will either of us ever be able to have a home, or a family, or the ability to take a day off? We just keep hoping that tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow, tomorrow. This gaming gig was like our Daddy Warbucks. We sent our resumes, both of which clearly proved we were qualified both in experience and education. We sent solid dramatic writing samples that illustrated our mastery of the craft we had both studied. And then we waited.
At first we were told that we would likely hear about a decision in three weeks, good or bad. The senior writer then wound up traveling to both offices in the Land of Eh. Three weeks turned into four, turned into six. We sent two polite follow-up letters, that restated our interest.
The writer wrote back, the first time to say he’d know more in a week. The week passed. Then, following our letter ten days later, we were told that the company had instated a hiring freeze in light of the current economic situation. They’d reevaluate all factors in January, and possibly begin hiring then if anything had changed internally or improved on a whole globally. We were still in the running for the pennant, but there was a rain delay. If you’re a baseball fan, you know how this usually works out.
The term hiring freeze has always made me smirk. I imagine corporate HR departments sitting down in their skirt suits and ties and suddenly a blizzard blows through Conference Room 8. Hiring? Frozen.
Among current institutions that are putting the kibosh on new blood are American Express, the Associated Press, and the City of Ithaca, New York. (Other cities, I assume, are doing the same to salvage budgets thrown into a tailspin, and to cope with layoffs brought on by the crisis.) Microsoft was rumored to be putting the smack down on open positions earlier this month, but Bill and company denied it. According to a Watson Wyatt survey, 25% of all U.S. companies were planning hiring freezes in order to deal with the financial crisis.
As much as I’ve read on the Internet and as many hours of Rachel Maddow and Kieth Olbermann that I watch, this email stating that we personally were put on hold indefinitely was the first time I truly felt the gravity of the situation. Sure, going to the grocery store had become a somewhat hilarious expedition lately, as I saw piles of imported produce going for over two to three bucks a piece, with artery-clogging processed foods remaining steady at their pennies-per-pound prices. One of my friends back home was working for a hedge fund and got let go, he’s now working as a personal trainer. (Not as if I believe in waving around where you went to school as some kind of flag of entitlement, but the kid went to Yale and did well.) More than one of my acquaintances has been fired, others have swallowed their pride and moved in with their parents, still others have turned to, shall we say, non-traditional paths to make cash. Things are ugly. But this is the first time I got to look them in the eye.
The maddening part is the lack of hope, which, from what I’ve heard on NPR and CNBC, is what has fueled some of the economic downturn. Not only have we personally lost what we perceived as the only way out of a hand-to-mouth existence, but we’ve also become disillusioned with the idea of things ever changing. Even if Obama is our president next week, that doesn’t mean that the price of apples will magically drop and the shuddered factories will reopen. No one will be able to cast a Walt Disney-like spell, there will be no enchantment where things are immediately reversed and tiny, pastel birds flit around newly opened lending institutions, and dewy-eyed fawns graze peacefully on a positive trading floor. Nope. We know that any sort of recovery is a long way down the pike. And suddenly we realize that we might not make it that long.
As with all things, there is only one way to overcome any feelings of dread, and that’s to put it in perspective. We’ve been working the freelance thing for a while now, and we’re good at it. If there’s work, we’ll get it. A ton of new-comers are soon going to join us, along with the gazillion laid-off newspaper and magazine writers. The pool is growing. So we just have to prove that we’re no longer minnows, but sharks.
(I really wanted to say barracuda, but as evidence to how dire the political climate is right now, I chose the marine life more closely associated with personal injury lawyers and pool hustlers.)
Maybe the best way to deal with it is to quote what they say in AA meetings: this too shall pass. The question is, when?
Stay safe. Happy haunting and job hunting.
You can write to me at AinsleyDrew at gmail dot com. A sincere thanks to all those who donate.
If you’re not in a hiring freeze, feel free to employ us. We’re always looking for work.
Further proof: The Watson-Wyatt PDF “Effect of the Economic Crisis on HR Programs“