sarah hagi

Unemployed - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Unemployed?” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

I met Sarah through Twitter, which is… I mean… it’s how some people meet. Sarah is one  of those people where everything they tweet is either very smart or very funny and often both. Which, talking about her now, why would I even be talking to Sarah? Just because she’s smart and funny? No. Of course not. We’ll get to that.

But the point is, I did get to talk to Sarah just for this podcast, and before we could even hit record, Sarah told me I would not make her cry. Which is fine because I don’t MAKE people cry! I’m here if you WANT to cry! There’s a difference. But anyway, Sarah let me know it was not going to happen, which is fine, because Sarah is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and I would not mind just having one interview where all I do is laugh.

Sarah is a writer. But she wasn’t always a writer — duh, nobody is. In her early 20s, she was like so many of us, just scraping by, looking for a direction her life could take. Any direction, really. She was in school part time. And she was working — at a call center. 

Sarah: Worst job ever. It was an outbound — I'm sorry, an inbound call center. So people were calling with their problems, Internet problems. I was doing tech support for an Internet service provider.

Nora: So when people called, they're in a good mood. They're having a good day. They're... 

Sarah: Oh, my God. It was… it was the most angry... people you can imagine. And it was mostly also, ah, French people, because it's Canada, and I speak French. So, it was, like, me dealing with, like, angry people from Quebec in my second language and me just being like, well, I don't know what to do. And my hours were 3 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. — it was like a random five days. So that was always fun. So I didn't have much of a social life, because I would wake up at like noon and then I would sit around for an hour and go to work, come home from work and play video games all night. So my life wasn't really going anywhere. 

Here’s the thing: It’s really hard to know what direction to pursue. Like, what if it's the wrong one? What if you overestimate your navigation abilities and you end up a hundred miles up a mountain you’re not sure you even want to climb anymore? That’s the risk we take when we make any decision, which is why it’s sometimes easier NOT make a decision.

So that’s what Sarah does. She doesn’t make any moves. Any decisions. She works. She plays video games. And then, one day, her friend — who is a writer — asks Sarah to contribute something to a blog. And Sarah, who has the time, does! She writes a piece. 

And people like it. And she likes writing it. And she likes the feeling of knowing that people like it. She likes how she feels in general, which is kinda new to her?

Sarah: I was someone at that point, like I had never taken anything in my life seriously. And I was, like, whoa, like, maybe I can do this and it won't be, like, the worst thing ever. And I don't have to work at a call center. 

But she can’t quit YET. That’s bonkers. She’s written one thing. So Sarah keeps writing for her friend’s website. And she keeps going to the call center and answering phone calls from angry French Canadians.

It is hard to want things. And it’s hard for Sarah to want to be a writer, because I mean, it does feel a little bit like a made-up job. How many working, living writers do you know? Not many! I didn’t know any growing up, except my uncle, but he was also a professor at Notre Dame. My dad was a writer, but he wrote infomercials and kept all his short stories in a box that is in the corner of my office, which is where I also keep my own unrealized dreams.

Sarah: I guess, I don't know, I just never thought I could make a living out of it. I never thought I was good enough to do it. It just wasn't something that seemed very practical in the sense that, you know, I grew up in Ottawa, and that's the capital of Canada, where most of my friends, you know... it was like… go to school and then you get, you know, a job placement with the government, and then you end up working for the government, which is great because, you know, it's really stable. The pay is good. 

Writing? Not so much. To Sarah, telling people she wanted to be a writer was like telling people she wanted to be an astronaut or a mermaid. Like, what? Come on. How? 

So Sarah keeps writing in her spare time for her friend’s website and working at the call center. Sitting in a windowless room while strangers yell at you? It takes a toll.

Sarah: I cannot stress enough how draining it was. And my family was kind of like, “Sarah, you can't keep doing this. Like, this is a really crappy job, and like you''re just not happy.” So my mom encouraged me to kind of, like, go see my doctor and talk about, like, maybe I could take some sort of medical leave or stress leave, because she's just like, “You don't like, you're just a blob of a person. Like, I don't know what's wrong with you” type of thing. So I went to the doctor. I got to go on stress leave at work. And... 

Nora: What? That's very Canadian. We don't do that here. We're like, “Oh, you're stressed?” Um, okay. Well, come in. Please keep working.  

Sarah: Yeah. So I went on like, I was on employment insurance. And... you know, my doctor was kind of like, “Yeah, you're, like, definitely messed up.” She was like, “Hmmmmm there's something wrong with you.” And it wasn't... it wasn't really like there's something wrong with me. Like, I'm not someone who's... I wasn't diagnosed with, like, depression or anxiety or anything. It was very much situational because of the job, you know? 

Nora: [laughing]  You were diagnosed with having a shitty job. The doctor is like, “Wow…” 

Sarah: [laughing]  I went to the doctor. She's like, “Hmmm, let me look at my book. Your job sucks.”

Nora: [laughing]  “Now, I just ran the numbers. Yeah, it's bad. Your job is very bad.” 

Sarah: [laughing]  “Ah, your blood work came back. You work at a call center.

There’s this really terrible, maddening, gross culture around “pursuing your dreams” where people share stuff on social media or on podcasts or in books that basically implies that if you can’t make your dream happen, it’s a personal shortcoming. Like, if you can’t find the EXTRA HOURS IN THE DAY to just work yourself down to a worthless little nub, you must not want it enough!

But what Sarah finds, once she’s on leave from work, is that being away from that call center and going to therapy and having space in her schedule and in her brain makes it possible for her to even entertain pursuing a dream.

So she does, with all the confidence of a turtle without a shell. Sarah approaches that friend she’s been writing for, and says, basically, “Um, I know I’m like, nothing special and you’re like, very busy but I want to be a freelance writer and I know that’s like, so so dumb and I have no chance but like, would you help me?”

And her very accomplished friend looks at Sarah, who is ON LEAVE FROM HER JOB in a call center...

Sarah: And she was like, “Of course I can help you. Like, I really think you did a great job with that. Like, you know, like I really think you have a good voice, blah blah blah.” Like she was so encouraging, so nice. Shout out, Anna. And then she put me in touch with some people she knew. 

Sarah is added to a Facebook group for women in media, where women post opportunities for one another and help each other out. And in the meantime she’s also required to go to therapy. That’s a requirement for the kind of leave she’s on. And she spends a lot of time talking to her therapist about her job at the call center. 

Sarah: And she made me do this like, kind of like, career test sort of thing... which was really cool. And the… one of the number one things I got was “writer.” And I was like, oh, damn. Maybe this, maybe the science is there and I should be a writer. 

So Sarah tries.  In that Facebook group, an editor for a publication at asks for pitches, and Sarah reaches out with an idea, and it gets picked! Her FIRST PAID piece of writing!

Sarah: It was called, “Yes, I'm Hot In That,” and it was about, um, like it was like one of those kind of like identity pieces that were really cool to do in 2014. And it was like, “Stop asking me if I'm hot in my hijab. Yes, I'm hot in that. Duh! I'm wearing a piece of clothing on my head and it's hot outside.” [laughing] So it's one of those things...

Nora: [laughing]  I really thought it was gonna be like, “Yes, I am as hot as you think — like I am, a, a very attractive person.”

Sarah: [laughing] No it was very, it was very about, much about, ah.. 

Nora: Heat, body heat.

Sarah: My, my body temperature, um. So it's kind of like, just shutting people down for asking invasive questions when the answer's so obvious. And then, you know, from there, you know, Anna connected me with someone else. And so I had like a few bylines under my belt. 

Eventually, Sarah gets a byline in The Guardian, which is a really, really big deal. It’s her name in print AND in the online version of a print newspaper. It’s big.

Sarah: It felt so cool. I was like, “Holy shit.” Like, I made it like. I got paid, like, an okay amount of money to do this. I truly could not believe… it was the coolest thing in the world to me. And it felt so legitimizing like, you know, my family is really supportive. My parents never were like, “What are you doing?” They always like they really believed in me, and they still believe in me. But to me it was kind of like, okay, like they can rest easy, you know, like... maybe this is something that I can do and I can be good at, you know? So it just felt very reassuring to know that, like, oh my God, I was able to do this. This is crazy. 

Sarah starts to get more attention. More work. Every single piece she writes is pitched to a publication, who pays her now either by the word or by the piece. She then invoices for the writing, waits between 30 and 90 days to get paid, and then pays taxes on her own. That is what freelance writing is: It’s contract work. And you need to get a lot of contracts to pay your bills. 

But Sarah is paying her bills. She’s making it. And she starts to think maybe she could reach even a little bit higher…

Sarah: So, I mean, in Canada, things are very different in the sense that we don't have as many media companies as you do in the United States. So obviously most of these magazines are based, you know, New York or LA or whatever. Mostly New York. And so this was the Canadian office of a very cool media company. Very cool. And, you know, I applied for the job and I got an interview. I did a couple of interviews and I was like, “Holy shit. Like, I got this job.”

Getting any full-time media job is a big deal. This JOB is a big deal. The kind of job where just SAYING you work there feels like a big deal. Because it is a big deal. It’s a place where you’re a part of pop culture, and you’re creating pop culture. Sarah’s getting a regular paycheck with benefits. She has stories assigned to her. She has business cards. Plus, people there are cool, ya know? It’s not a stuffy, beige cubicle farm!

Sarah: Let me set the scene. It was, like, an old factory. I'm laughing saying this because it's so corny. It was an old factory in, like, a gentrifying neighborhood... this neighborhood in Toronto called Parkdale, which is very, very gentrified now in the last few years. But this was like when it was really getting there. It was this open concept office. There was a bar at the front. I don't drink, so that meant nothing to me. Also, it was insane because the options were like beers and various alcohols. I know what the hell they're called. I remember in the HR orientation type of thing, they were like, “You know, we have like a bit of a work hard play hard mentality here.” [laughing] Which like, looking back is the corniest shit ever. 

Nora: [laughing]  Also red flag. 

Sarah: [laughing]  I don't play hard, nor do I work that hard. I'm just a pretty neutral person. 

So, maybe a little bit corny… but still cool. Sarah loves her job. She loves going to a place every day. She loves the smart people she works with. Even if the guys at the top are a little, ya know...

Sarah: It was very much like, “Hey, guys, like we're a family and... we're in this together and we're like the underdog,” because it started off as like the small magazine that turned into this huge media company. So it was just like a lot of that mindset of like being a part of something bigger that was counterculture, even though all evidence leaned toward it NOT being counterculture at all.

Sarah was writing about all kinds of things, from islamophobia to pop culture. And her writing was really, really popular. She started to grow a following because of the things that she wrote. 

Nearly every company likes to think of themselves as not a company. They want to be a movement, or a values-based organization, or… a family. They want to make sure that the people working there know that they’re not just there to make widgets or content or car parts, but that they are tied into something bigger than themselves. And Sarah’s company is like that. A big, open-concept office. Regular “town hall” meetings with the top leaders talking about the company’s growth and success. But is it really a family? 

Have you met a family? Would you really want to be a part of another one that is also tied to your income? Probably not, right?

We’ll be right back.

We’re back. And Sarah is working at her dream job. Seriously. She gets paid every two weeks to dig into the topics she is interested in. It’s a dream job, but it’s not always dreamy.

Sarah: I also joined at a pretty weird time because it was when the company, you know, employees want to unionize. So they were still going through negotiations, trying to ratify an agreement between, you know, employees and management. And so, slowly the cracks started to appear. So I guess when the unionizing effort started getting more intense and, you know, we were getting more organized and, you know, having these demands.. because they were actually, believe it or not, people who are getting paid far less than me, who were working full-time and who didn't have you didn't have you know, people help them negotiate and try and get more money. And it was insane because we hear these things from, you know, the president of the company during a town hall and he'd be like, “So we just got a million dollars!”  [laughing] Then everyone's like, “Can we have, like, a bowl of snacks?”

There’s always dissonance between perception and reality, especially when you’re working in a capitalist system. As Sarah gets more involved in the union, she starts to realize that there’s a difference between the company doing well, and the people who work there sharing in that success. 

Sarah: And it was starting to become less and less enjoyable working there because we would have these union meetings, and I was getting more involved in the union as well. And we hear what management would kind of think of us in this, you know, roundabout way. For example, the idea of paying people more money came up and someone said, “Well, isn’t it enough that you guys work for blank?” And it was just what, like, you think that's enough? 

Nora: You don't pay your bills with clout.

Sarah: Exactly. And the thing is also: Having a job as a staff writer somewhere, you become a very public person.I use my... my Twitter is public. You know, I use it for work. That's how I get most of my jobs still. But you become this representative of this company in this weird roundabout way, where what you do and the popularity you get, you know, helps a company in this huge way. They get more hits, they get more clicks, whatever. So I'm in this position and other publicly facing members — and even people who are producing things and creating things at the company — you know, we're in this position where we're helping out the company so much, you know, giving it a name, writing these pieces that are going viral. And, you know, sometimes that would get me a ton of abuse online. And it's kind of like, okay, so I'm going through all this for this company that doesn't care about me at all. 

Sarah: It still felt amazing. I was like, listen, this is my dream job. Like, this is what I wanted. This is like, you know, you… you were reminded that people didn't get this job easily, you know? That hundreds of people would apply, and that you were a lucky person for having this job. So in my mind, I was like, “You know what? I still get to come to work. I get to do this thing that I'm so passionate about and love so much. And that is very rewarding.” You know, I wrote things that I was very proud of when I worked there that have, you know, opened so many doors for me. I got this huge audience. And to me, that was like, wow, like, you know, even if my pay isn't great and the office is like this part of town where I have to, like, commute for an hour, like... I was so very much, you know, proud to work there, happy to work there. It felt…  it really did become a part of my identity in a way that I didn't want to make it that way. Like, I wasn't like, “This is... this is who I am now!” But it really just became such a key part of who I was for the time I worked there.

And we’ll be right back. 

We’re back. And in spite of it all Sarah does still love her dream job. It’s not just what she does, it is who she is. And from what she hears at those town hall meetings, the company is doing really well.

But a lot of other companies are experiencing layoffs. Big media companies are cutting back on their writing staff because they’re doing the now infamous “pivot to video.” 

Sarah: They had an amazing editorial team, some of some amazing freakin writers, and they laid them all off because they want to focus on video content, which Facebook, as we now know, was inflating numbers for videos that were being posted on Facebook, making these companies think, “Hey, we can be making so much more money on Facebook because millions of people are watching these videos.” In reality, millions of people had seen the videos in the sense that they were, like, scrolling through it or like they watched two seconds of it. But basically, the numbers were greatly inflated. So all these companies were like, “Yes, we will do this now.”

The people at Sarah’s company can see these layoffs in other places. And they also DO have a video unit at their company. So the writing teams are naturally a little nervous. And then one day...

Sarah: We got called to an emergency town hall, which is, you know, not… not great. Town halls are very much like, “Hey guys, we got pizza.” But this was very much like... everyone should be scared right now. And one of the executives was like, “So... we're going to be laying people off.” I'm sure he tried having more tact than that, but that's very much how it sounded. And he was like, “You know, the company's laying off whatever percentage amount of people worldwide, which means it'll be like, maybe 10 to 15 people in Toronto. This isn't something we want to do, but like it's necessary for the company's growth.” Meanwhile, for months we’ve been hearing about how well we're doing. So we're kind of like, what? 

Nora: Yeah. What does it mean to grow? And WHO grows?

Sarah: Yeah! And we’re like, ‘What is what's happening right now?” And then he said something which was so funny. He was like, “You know, my door is always open to talk. Just... get in touch with my assistant.” [laughing]

Nora: [laughing] “My door is actually it's more... it's literally closed. But if you..”.

Sarah: [laughing] It was so stupid. Um, so I was a staff writer. I was one of the last people to be hired. But I wasn't sure if, like... no one knew what was gonna happen. You know? Everyone’s like, “I’m probably going to get laid off,” and people are like, “Oh no, not you!” 

Nora: Not you! Also this does remind me that this is just such a family thing. Every quarter, my family gets together and says, you know, “In order to grow, someone’s gotta go… and it’s not personal…” 

Sarah: I do this with my friend group all the time!

All around the office, people are speculating about what’s going to happen, who’s going to get laid off. Which, you know, is just like a family. Every quarter, my family gets together and decides which of us just isn’t cutting it. Maybe you do that with your friend group, too? Just… you know, crunch the numbers and someone’s gotta go… not personal, just last one in, first one out. 

Jokes aside though, through the unionizing, Sarah’s company had all gotten better pay… and this strange new element to potential layoffs called “bumping.” 

Sarah: The concept of bumping is… say, I was there, and there was someone else who was a more junior employee or started later than me who I had seniority over in some way, and I was able to do their job based on my skills at my job. They would have presented the option to me to say, “Hey, Sarah. James... also has a similar job to you and you actually are able to bump him if you want to get his job instead. So he will lose his job, but you will still have a job.” And some people were presented with that option... and had this 48-hour period of having to choose whether or not they were going to do that and let that employee... and then HR would let that employee know that Monday, "Hey, just so you know, you actually got laid off because so-and-so took your job. 

Nora: Which is, OK, so… as any organization goes, like, this is... this takes all of, like, let's talk about family, this takes all of the responsibility off the people who are in charge and puts it on, like, individuals who have very little power. So they can basically just boing flip all of it to be like, “Well actually, we didn't lay you off. Sarah did. Sarah laid you off. What a bitch. Right?” 

Sarah: I mean, here's the thing. It's like, some people were presented that option, and I did talk to someone who was seriously considering it, because it was like... that person was like... “I need a job.” And it, and it seems so cruel when you're on the outside thinking of like, who could do that to someone — that's disgusting. Like, what a psycho person. What kind of psychopath would be like, “Actually, I'm going to take your job.” But like, when you're so desperate and you feel like your job is so scarce and, like, you can't get that job again, or you'll be pushed back into freelancing, the world of freelancing, which is the worst... it seems like an option. You know, like it seems like a real option. And I know it seems cruel, but like when you're in that moment, I feel like it's like... really hard to judge someone for wanting to do that. To my knowledge, no one actually did that. But there is someone I know who was agonizing over that decision and they wanted to. And then they were like, “Yeah. And then I have to go into work and everyone knows I did that? And everyone looks at me like I'm some kind of rat?”

Nora: That's the real cruelty, I think, is to put a person through that, which is such an impossible, like... nobody wins in that situation. And especially if you... if the choice was between me, with my four children and being the only person in our family with an income, or... you know, someone junior who doesn't have any kids? I'd be like… “Well, see ya!”

Sarah and her colleagues have been told this could take a week, maybe more. So every day, they wake up and go to work, not sure if it’s going to be their last day. For days, Sarah wakes up, goes to work, and does not get laid off.

Sarah: I remember it was a few days before my birthday and my — two of my best work friends who are still my very, very good friends wanted to do a nice birthday thing for me. I didn't know this. Also, one of my colleagues made me lunch that day. And I am on my computer, it’s like 11 a.m. and I'm on Slack. And I get a message from my manager, who's like, “Hey, can you come— ” And this is an open concept office. All the walls are made of glass. So if someone asks you to come to room four, which is the most faraway room, you know shit's going down, because they don't want anyone… they don’t want anyone to see what's happening.

Sarah: So I go to the office and it's the HR guy, the union president and my boss, and I know my boss didn't know this was happening because he was just…  like, looked distraught. Like, I've never — he was a very calm guy and I've never seen him look so, like, frazzled ever. So I later found out he only found out who is getting laid off that morning as well. So they're like, “Sara, you know, you're getting laid off. This has nothing to do with your performance. This has nothing to do with you as an employee, but, you know, this is how it goes. You're the most junior person on the team. Blah blah blah.” And then I was like, okay, like... just waiting for the HR guy to shut up. And then I was like, “Okay, can I like, say goodbye?” And he was like, “No, we're going to need you out of here in like five minutes.” It was like Big Brother, like the big brother house.

Nora: Just like a family. 

Sarah: Just like a family.

Sarah is at the bottom of the list here, so there’s nobody for her to bump. So Sarah leaves with no goodbyes.

Sarah: don't know what to compare that heartbreak to. Like, I've never been in love, so maybe that's kind of worse. But it really did feel like this very long period of mourning, and just, like, total sadness and like... just being feeling so alone because I just was like, all I have is myself right now. Like all I have are my own abilities, I'm the only one who can advocate for myself. I'm the only one who can hustle for myself. It was truly just like, that's it, you know? I did get a very meager severance. It was not amazing. So that wasn't very much to live off. And I was just like, again, like I had no idea what to do. I was like now I'm supposed to freelance again? Something I thought I wouldn't have to do again unless I chose to for so long? And I couldn't get into that mindset of even wanting to produce or create anything. So I'd spent like a few weeks watching Lord of the Rings...

Nora: That'll fill a week. That'll fill a couple weeks. OK. 

Sarah: You'd be surprised, Nora. You'd be surprised how much Lord of the Rings special, like, extended edition you can watch. It is like my ultimate comfort movie. And I was just sobbing my eyes out at their struggle, you know, like it just became so personal for me. [laughing] Like, I could honestly tear up thinking about Lord of the Rings now. Like Frodo, he just has this ring, and he just has to destroy it. But everyone wants it. 

Nora: [laughing] Yeah. He's carrying something invisible that only he feels the weight of. Kind of like you are carrying the weight of this layoff and only you feel the weight of it. I see the parallels. 

Sarah: I'm honestly getting chills thinking about it. I'm... I'm so embarrassed right now. But there's — at the end of the Two Towers second movie… [laughing] shit's really hitting the fan like it is, just.... like no one is doing well in that movie. Like, I remember just listening to Sam’s speech to the end of Two Towers about how, like, you know, there's always gonna be… it was like the most inspirational, truly the most inspirational shit I've ever heard in my life. And I’m just like crying, like, things do get better and like, there's gonna be another day. That movie that messed me up. 

Meanwhile, while Sarah is watching LOTR movies back to back to back, all of Sarah’s friends and colleagues and admirers are on Twitter hyping her up. HIRE SARAH! SARAH IS THE BEST! I think I retweeted one of those things. And that’s well-intentioned and it’s kind and it’s generous and it also does nothing. Because you can’t get hired for a full-time job that doesn’t exist. 

So, Sarah is back into the fire of freelancing. A little Frodo, maybe a Samwise. 

An important note about freelance writing: Most people CANNOT MAKE A LIVING DOING  IT. In fact, The Guardian — that newspaper where Sarah had her first thrilling byline — recently published an article called “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer If You Can Afford It,” because most writers only make about $6,000 a year from writing.

The year I got my first paying byline — which was like 400 dollars — I was astonished. “Oh my god, I’m so rich.” And then I realized that in order to actually pay my bills, I’d have to write 10 articles a month, because some places only paid me $250, or $25, or no dollars. And even then, I’d have to take out my own taxes and set them aside, and I needed another form of income to make that work. Two forms. Sometimes three.

Sarah: It's weird because there was this huge gap of like people seeing the things they do that seem very impressive and which, you know are, I guess because, you know, I had to work to get here and, you know. But then it's kind of like, yeah, but I'm still, like, kind of broke all the time... and I'm doing a lot better now. So it was... it has been a weird few years of me very much realizing a lot of things about myself and employment and what, you know, my place in the world and kind of like, you know, there have been so many times where I was like, you don't have to have your dream job, you know, like you don't have to be a writer. And, you know, people on the Internet have kindly told me that as well. And it's kind of like, why am I so arrogant that I feel like I deserve this... dream job that, you know, isn't very practical and doesn't make much sense… and I think I deserve to get paid a living wage?

How dare she! HOW DARE SHE! How dare ANY OF US!

Sarah makes it work. She supplements her writing income by picking up other jobs that are adjacent to writing. She does her best.

Sarah: I did a lot of copywriting. I did voiceover work for this... you know, this video series, you know, I got paid to do these talks sometimes, and I was like... I really have been hustling. It was a real true hustle, you know what I mean? 

I do know what she means, and so do a lot of people. Our colleagues at Marketplace teamed up with Edison Research to look into the gig economy, and Sarah is not alone. A quarter of American adults work in the gig economy — Uber, Door Dash, day workers. And those workers tend to be living gig to gig, without a financial cushion, so they score much higher on an anxiety index than workers with more traditional jobs. For writers, part-time freelancing is the norm, and nearly one-third of those freelancers earn less than $20 an hour. 

Sarah does make it work. She IS working. She IS making money.

Sarah: But at the same time, you're like, should I be doing this? Like... can I do this? Is this even responsible as an adult to do this? Like, what am I sacrificing in my life that I'm just putting myself through this weird game that is freelancing. My friend, who's a union organizer for the National Writers Union, she told me, you know, like... “Freelancing shouldn't be the punishment. You know, you should be able to live a nice, good life, and not have a job, not have a manager.” And that's something that really stuck with me as well. 

It shouldn’t be a punishment, but it feels like it sometimes. The highs are really high, and the lows are crying in your bed hoping a check finally comes. It takes Sarah three years of freelancing before she’s even offered another full-time job. And it’s not at another big, shiny media company. But it is at a media company… kind of.

Sarah: So there is this kind of like Toronto blog that, you know, it posts a lot of... you know, like kind of click baity stuff about the city, kind of like “You're gonna love this unicorn latte!” Like shit like that. You know what I'm talking about?

Nora: I know exactly the kind. 

Sarah: And and, you know, it's not, you know, the highest quality of writing. But people definitely click on it because you will find out information about what's open and what's closed on a holiday and what new restaurants opening... that kind of stuff. And so the guy who started that website wanted to start a national publication, like kind of like a mix of like Buzzfeed and like, you know, more of like a blog-type website where, you know, there's like definitely those quick kind of list posts. But then there are more thoughtful, like, you know, like thoughtful, good pieces 

That’s where Sarah came in. There was no fancy office. No big town hall meetings.

Sarah: I didn't have to jump through hoops to try and get this job. It seems like they like, you know, my my boss knew what kind of writing I did, really respected it, respected where I was in my career and wanted to use my talents and my writing like... not because he needed to fill out a job, but because of me, you know what I mean? He wanted me to write it. I had a really great full-time job. Highest paying job I've, you know, I've ever had... even like the contract work and I did it was it was a very good, very good job on paper.

That job was actually why I reached out to Sarah. Because she’d tweeted about how it took her THREE YEARS to get another media job that was even comparable to the one she had before, and how the appearance of fanciness and success doesn’t always match up with the reality of the work. And right after I emailed her…

Sarah: He laid us all off in a month. I remember just being like getting on the subway and just being like, how is this happening again? And just being so... again, just being so embarrassed that I trusted this in the first place. Like... truly blaming myself for being a big dummy and being like, “Well, of course, this isn't going to work out. Like... there were so many signs.” But I was like, “I'm not going to be negative until I have to be negative.” You know? like I'm not going to put myself through having this very negative mindset. I'm going to be optimistic. I'm going to, like, open my heart to this. And here I am. Here I am... still unemployed. 

As we are writing this narration, as I’m recording this narration, the unemployment rate in the U.S. has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. People are feeling this same sense of disbelief. Of embarrassment for believing companies that say “we’re a family” and “we’re all in this together” and then say “it’s not personal” when they decide your presence and contributions are no longer needed.

It’s not JUST losing a job. It’s not JUST losing income or a routine or a place to go every day, although it is all of those things. It’s not just losing insurance, which is really just a problem here in America — but a BIG ONE. You are losing the ability to rest. To have the relative comfort of a regular income stream, with built-in times for NOT working. 

Sarah’s not the only person experiencing it, or the first person experiencing it, and she’s certainly not the last. But the fact that she IS experiencing it — and twice — has opened her up to the ways so many other people are suffering in this same way.

It’s a lot to think about, and there are a lot of people thinking about this right now. Even in 2018, the vast majority of gig workers worried about what a recession would mean for them. And now, people are scrambling to fill the minimum wage jobs that used to be considered “unskilled” but are now “essential.” Not essential enough to be paid a living wage or to include health care coverage… but, you know, essential.

With the current economic uncertainties we’re facing with our new COVID-19 reality, that picture continues to shift in ways that are unprecedented and unpredictable.

And maybe it’ll get better. But maybe it won’t.

Sarah: It's very similar to heartbreak in the sense that, like, it's the most normal thing to happen where, you know, everyone has their heart broken at some point. It's not a unique thing to you that someone broke up with you or whatever. And it's not a unique thing that I lost a job, or that I don't have a job or that... you know? So I guess it's like me very much like wrestling with those, you know, just like those weird feelings of like... yeah, you know, I'm doing pretty well for myself. Like, I'm not without a place to write. Like I — if I have an idea. I know I can place it somewhere. You know — I'm just like, always grappling with this idea of like... like, I don't know, like will I ever get a job again? Will I ever have a full-time job again? Will I ever have, like, stable income? Is it something that, like, I can only really have if I marry someone who has stable income? Like, you know what I mean? I don't know how to feel sometimes. And I think the only thing that I'm doing is like, well, I can only really control what I do. Like, I can't control this insane media landscape around me, you know? Like I can only do what I do. I don't know.

Nora: I also think that it's kind of, to me, a part of... like a bigger concept about just work in general and the kind of work that we... value because we all in all, anybody talks about right, is like content. Oh, my God. Like so much media, everybody just wants content, makes some content. And the people who end up making money off of that content are not the people who make the content... or very, very seldom are those two the same people. The  business of creativity or the business of anything just devalues the person who does the work. And, you know, in the U.S., not having a full-time job is a huge liability on you, honestly. Like you have to pay for your own insurance, like you're... you're paying your estimated taxes. I think it's sort of been disguised as, you know, like that hustle, like, well, you should be hustling. You should be hustling and really, like, sure, like you can work hard. But also, everybody has the right to gainful... rewarding or just at least well-compensated work. 

Sarah: Yeah. It's like… Oh, my God, Nora. Now I'm starting to cry. I hate you so much. You win. Damnit. I feel like it's like... I don't know. Like, I remember... like in September and I like, again, this is just... it's such a greater problem than like just what I'm going through. Like in September. I watch this movie at TIFF… and it's called “Sorry We Missed You.” And it's about this family and their lives are just kind of being torn apart by this hustle culture, pretty much, you know, where, you know, they're they don't have a lot of money. They lost a lot of money. And, you know, the father is working as a same day delivery type of person on a zero hour contract. And the mother is also on a zero hour contract of being a home care nurse who gets paid per visit, you know, and just oh, I was just like, oh, my God, just sobbing at the end of the movie. Again, it's like very, very different circumstances and me and like what I've gone through. You just see how much we're all being screwed over by this, like, insane, like, capitalistic system in which people are profiting off you, but you're not... seeing a lot of it, you know? And again, I get paid decently, like I've done things that one job, and it will take me no time at all, that can pay my rent sometimes, you know. But just knowing that like... I'm the only one who has my best interests at heart… and it is just like... it feels so lonely knowing that, like, it's really just me. You know? I don’t know. It's a lot to think about.


Nora McInerny

Marcel Malekebu

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina

Phyllis Fletcher

Tracey Mumford

Hannah Meacock Ross

Jordan Turgeon

Anna Wegel

John Miller