How To Talk About The Gig Economy At Parties
On side hustles and making a living.
It first happened just a week or two after I plunged into the murky swimming pool of existential uncertainty & side-hustles that is participation in the gig economy. A stranger at a party asked me what I do. I fumbled to explain that I was sort of unemployed and sort of writing and doing translating projects and other stuff.
“But what do you do?” he asked, bemused.
“I used to work at an NGO with migrants,” I tried.
“But what are you?” he asked. He wouldn’t stop repeating that.
To placate him, finally, I said I was a writer. He was probably in his late 20s; I think he was an architect or a web developer or a graphic designer. He worked at a firm with an office where he went every day. That is lovely and honorable. It suggests a kind of consistency — in routine and in identity — that I do think I’d enjoy having. To many, that sort of work is also enormously morally superior to my bohemian depravity of all-night pitch-writing benders, unpredictable income sources and occasional workday brunches. This, for me, is the gig economy, where you do a bit of everything & never know what you will do next & don’t know how to tell people what you do. When you do what you love you’ll never work a day or rest a day. When you don’t know what you do, you’ll never rest a day, either.
When I tell people I’m a writer, they almost always think it’s cool. They think I have special powers. That’s why I sometimes tell people I am a writer; it’s also why I sometimes avoid it. I am not sure what people imagine when they hear the word “writer.” It is probably not picking up dog poop or teaching Chinese children English over the internet at 4AM. It is definitely not sitting on the only piece of furniture in my apartment having emotional breakdowns over an overdraft fee triggered by an Uber ride. I am a writer, though, in the sense that it is the most aspirational of the various things I do to make money. It is the thing I’d most like to do at the exclusion of other things. In my limited experience, those other things constitute about 60% of being a writer. In my experience, only about 5% of being a writer is actually writing, and, additionally, only about 50% of my income is from writing.
When people ask me what I do, I have to remind myself that they are not necessarily interested in what I do to make money — or, at least, not in all the things that I do. Someone recently asked me at a party what I do when I’m not writing. Feeling deeply found out, I immediately listed off my other lucrative endeavors: I translate things and take care of dogs and children and I’m trying to start teaching English, I said. Moments later I realized what a weird, guilty answer that was, and they confirmed that they weren’t, indeed, asking how else I make money. I reveal my imposter syndrome too quickly: fewer people than I think, probably, realize how rare it is to subsist as a writer.
Fewer people still overcome their imposter syndrome enough to tell people they’re writers, so it ends up easy to convince people. I prefer to identify as a writer than as a journalist partly because people demand less proof. If I say I’m a journalist, they’ll ask about my publications, my projects, my bylines. “Writer” has a greater mystique: I could easily be writing never-to-be-published poems in a garret all day and eating my trust fund. I’m not, but for all they know, I could be. At times it feels like being asked what I want to be when I grow up, which it basically is, and which I still don’t know.
A job serves as a heuristic for an identity. People don’t ask each other what they do because they care, as I learned, about their income sources, but about how they structure their lives and who they are. When I tell people I’m a writer, I’m applying a heuristic to my everydays and my aspirations. It feels dishonest at times, because that heuristic usually also gets at the source of your paychecks. I don’t ask strangers at parties to disclose their trust funds, though. You know that saying about dressing for the job you want? In the gig economy, maybe it’s this: tell people you have the job you want, not the one you have. Or, better, perhaps: tell people you have the job that you want most of all the ones you have.
Of course, identity crises are by no means the worst feature of the gig economy. It’s not even up there. It is a feature, though, and it’s also a product of the current US economy, where contingent workers play an increasing role in the workforce. I no longer really assume that people I meet have a single, full-time, stable job, and, anyway, there are more interesting questions to ask at a party. As Jia Tolentino recently noted on newyorker.com, the economy in which we currently find ourselves celebrates the frenetic agglomeration of side-hustles and 24–7 money-making schemes. Our culture also shames those things, though: baby boomers love to sneer at millennials who can’t find “a real job.” Do I not have a real job? Do I have many real jobs? Do I have no job?
I’m deeply privileged to have energy to expend worrying about what to tell people at parties about what I do, rather than spending that time worrying about what I can do to make money. (Don’t worry, though: I do find plenty of time for the latter.) Ultimately, I might not be able to give a satisfactory answer even if I did have a full-time office job: maybe I’d still want to tell people I’m a writer. Surely I’d be having identity crises of a different sort. Thanks to the current state of the safety net in the US, though, I still might have a comparable level of financial stability. The advocacy group Young Invincibles recently found that young adults in the US today earn 20% less than their 1989 counterparts. Student debt, for me and for others, increasingly hampers the prospect of achieving financial stability. Social security won’t be here for my generation in the way it was for baby boomers, so, gig economy or not, I’ll likely work until I drop dead, sans health insurance and social security, at the age of 85. Financial stability & identity crises aside, though, I do, currently, like my life. I would enjoy knowing how I’ll pay rent in two months, but, at least at this moment, I enjoy writing a little bit more, and I don’t mind doing other things. If we’re heading to hell in a hand basket full of debt & side-hustles, we might as well have an occasional weekday brunch on the way out.