Jack of All Trades, Master of the W9, Who Said Freedom Isn't Free?
REFLECTIONS ON THE NEW FANTASIES OF WORK
A few months ago, I realized a number of my friends had done something I had never considered. They each had an iPhone note with a list of everyone they had ever slept with. Bumper to bumper on the 101, I quickly made my own list of exes: a few high school experiments gone awry, “guy with the wolf tattoo,” current b. It was less than revelatory.
My phone chimed. “Your previous Wag! client wants a walk ASAP, 3.74 miles from your current location.” Bonesy, the blind goldendoodle, would have to find someone else. I was exhausted from having walked him at midnight the night before. “Walked” is, I suppose, the wrong word. When I went to pick him up from his West Hollywood penthouse studio, his owner instructed me that it was fine to just sit outside the apartment building with Bonesy on the leash. “Honestly, my boyfriend is going to be here any minute, and I just can’t do it with the dog watching, you know?” I was coming from a job cooking microwavable breakfast sandwiches in the stockroom of a Studio City coffee shop en route to babysit in Malibu before throttling myself back across the valley to make it to Cheetahs in Thai Town. East Hollywood if you’re a realtor, Los Feliz if you’re trying to feel better about yourself.
“Adult entertainment with killer food and drinks to boot,” according to an online review. The only killer food at Cheetahs that I could personally attest to was the single donut I was reliably tipped by a Sunday evening regular. I never have time for dinner on Sundays, but I don’t worry knowing I will receive my maple glazed and a stiff gin and tonic, if I flirt with the DJ, shortly after applying fake eyelashes.
I put my hand on the DJ’s shoulder. “That shirt looks great on you. How was your week?” I made up a sexy lie about doing a sexy photoshoot on a sexy beach, so happy that I got to spend a little time doing my favorite sexy fake hobby, surfing. “Thanks for the donut.” I took a sexy bite. “See you later!” The gin and tonic soon followed. I sauntered into the dressing room. The first time you catch a reflection of yourself in a faux-denim bikini with black vinyl platform boots eating a donut at nine o’clock, you can’t help but wonder—how did I get here?
I unlocked my phone and saw the list of hookups of varying significance. Without a thought, I started a new note: Nanny, Line Cook, Event Planner, Telemarketer, Salesperson, Preschool Teacher, Digital Media Assistant, Furniture Store Clerk, Carpenter, Hostess, Gallery Monitor, Office Assistant, Illustrator, Research Assistant, Design Associate, Mentor, Cook, Dog Walker. I hesitated. Exotic Dancer. Wait, I knew I was forgetting something—Artist.
Just a year earlier, I had the kind of job that got eyebrow raises and nods of approval from my friends’ moms. It was the embodiment of what was promised to my generation if we followed in the footsteps of our parents. I worked hard in high school, got into a great college, landed a stellar internship, and was offered a full time job that started the Monday after graduation. I am referring to job number fifteen: research assistant. The problem with this job—health insurance, paid vacation, and promise of recommendation letters to top medical schools considered—was that it made me absolutely miserable. I thought that the security of the benefits would provide me with the resources to do the one thing I was truly passionate about: painting. In reality, it left me drained, bitter, and without the most valuable asset of all—my own time. One mishandled case of sexual harassment later, I was out the door.
Job number sixteen, Design Associate, was slightly better. It was four days a week instead of five. It seemed creative enough. The pay was good and afforded me my own swanky apartment and painting studio in downtown Boston. Actually, the pay was too good. I spent too much time sitting on my new employee-discounted designer furniture and drinking fourteen-dollar cocktails to get any real work done.This is perhaps where it gets interesting, as this is the moment I realized that my “job” was separate from my “work.”
So, I did what I do best—gave my two weeks notice. Three weeks later, I was in a Los Angeles apartment with two friends, a few suitcases of clothing, an easel, a handcrafted walnut bed, and a promise to myself that I would never have a “real job” ever again.
As I see it, there are three kinds of work: jobs, gigs, and personal projects. Jobs have schedules and predetermined pay rates. Good jobs have salaries and benefits. Gigs are not scheduled. They come and go on demand and the pay changes like the weather. A “personal project” is a term that I first encountered amongst my older sister’s Williamsburg buddies. Personal projects do not pay, at least not at first.
Thankfully, I’m not the only person I know who forwent the corporate ladder in search of the self-actualization rollercoaster via the “personal project.”
Los Angeles and New York have always been full of artists, musicians, actors, photographers, designers, dancers, and models chasing their dreams. People flocked to these large cities in the middle of the twentieth century when the rent was reasonable and the cities were full of space and community. Working part time as a server, barista, delivery person, janitor, or personal assistant and still having money and time left to pursue one’s true goals was completely within reach. But the game has changed. Between 1980 and 2014, the average Los Angeles rent increased by fifty-five percent, while the average income only increased by thirteen percent—the highest discrepancy of any city in the country. There was a time when the pay from a part-time job was enough to sustain a person who spent the majority of their time pursuing their own projects. But, in an era of a worsening housing crisis and relatively stagnant wages, “enough” is increasingly out of reach. Many are frantic to pick up a few extra dollars however they can.
Thankfully, along with increased financial pressure came increased opportunities to find gigs. Gigs are nothing new. Childcare such as babysitting or nannying, for example, has always operated in this way. Technology has simply opened up a number of new opportunities for on-demand service. There’s Uber, and then there’s an Uber for just about everything else—food delivery, grocery shopping, and car washing, just to name a few.
When I first heard about these new gigs, they sounded too good to be true. The Craigslist ads and email blasts were full of promises of simple applications, unlimited and flexible hours, and even signing bonuses. Then, the marketing team really stepped it up a notch. We’re all going somewhere. We’re all working towards something. We have people to see, possibilities to pursue, and moments, big and small, to live, one sultry voiced narrator reminds us in a recent Uber video advertisement. What’s your destination? A second video shows a montage of family members taking Ubers through a meadow to watch a young couple get engaged in an oddly remote and anonymous home. The better way to get there. A third is an absurd compilation of shots panning across couples doing backflips over cars and salsa dancing in the streets. Make Your Move. The message here is simple: whether as a customer or an employee, freedom, self-determination, and your own personal brand of joie de vivre are available for download in the App Store.
The new gig economy is far from perfect. It does not provide a reliable source of income, which can be especially difficult for those with dependents, high healthcare costs, or student debt. Due to the competitive nature of the gig economy, which often pits workers against each other in a race to the bottom for wages, and an oversupply of underemployed jobseekers, workers can easily end up in purgatory waiting for the next gig, without any compensation. There’s no guarantee of a minimum wage, and there is a gaping lack of workers rights and protections, which means an increased risk of unsafe work environments and discrimination.
In reality, the fantasy of a job providing someone with freedom remains just that, a fantasy. For the vast majority of Americans, work is pursued in order to provide basic necessities for ourselves and for our dependents. As such, we are tethered to the omnipresent obligation to clock hours in order to receive the next paycheck. Whether we are doing it at a desk from nine to five, or on our phones 24/7, the situation remains the same.
If this sounds exhausting and overwhelming, that’s because it is. I would never suggest this type of work, or have the energy to pursue it myself, if I wasn’t one of the many Angelenos delusional enough to believe that my personal project is not only the key to my own fulfillment, but that one day it might turn out to be culturally significant and financially lucrative as well. Every day I make the choice to work in this way because it gives me the ability to pursue my passion as vigorously as possible. For me, living and painting in Los Angeles is a dream come true, even with the fine print* of what that really entails. I spent years fantasizing about waking up with a palm tree outside my window and an easel by my side. The new fantasy of work is the ideal of self-determination when it comes to our career identities, rather than the stable career track pursued by the previous generation. This means risk, but also liberty: never before has it been so easy to update our Instagram bios, start a Squarespace, and feel legitimate enough to introduce ourselves as one type or another of creative professional.
If you are satisfied with your full-time job, don’t leave it to do other people’s errands. If you have rich and generous parents funding your first mixtape, don’t question it. If you have had some early success with your light installations, or experimental ballet, or enamel pin shop, congratulations. But, if you find yourself feeling the same way I did a year ago—with not enough hours in the day to do the one thing that matters to you—than I encourage you to change.Throw all your eggs in the air and see which ones land in the basket.
The astutely aware may have noticed that the original list included a mere twenty jobs. Since then, I have added a few new gigs: Actor, Substitute Teacher, and Writer. Voilà.
Written by Adrienne Sacks
John Houck is a Los Angeles-based photographer and painter. His work will be featured in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. 2018 biennial exhibition.
“When I started making art in earnest, I was transitioning from working in the world of software development. Writing and thinking in the formal language of software ordered my life and thoughts in a precise way. My initial work reflected this rigid engineering mindset; there is always a right answer and you know when you’ve solved something. Making art is antithetical to this approach, as it’s all about being vulnerable and there is never an objectively correct answer. Through the work of psychoanalysis, I slowly began to speak the language of free association. This opened up an entire world of play that was sequestered in my former life as a software engineer. I’m now better at tolerating the nonsense that arises through being playful in the studio and more trusting of the magical thoughts and works that can emerge when I’m not trying to solve anything. As the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott says, ‘It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.’ My transition from one career to another was only possible by rediscovering play.” -John Houck