Update, February 17, 2020: 19 years ago this month, I left Linuxcare, which had been mortally wounded by venture capital, and jumped to Axis Personal Trainers and Spa, which was very nearly killed by venture capital. Linuxcare no longer exists. Last I saw, Axis Personal Trainers and Spa had been reduced to a single location in Menlo Park, a far cry from an ambition of 100 very luxurious stores to be open by the end of 2001 and a technology infrastructure meant to accommodate 500. I still do not have a real job. I have moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but am still stuck driving for Uber and Lyft. Even with a Ph.D., that still seems to be my sole career option.
Update, April 7, 2017: To put it mildly, the response to this has been disappointing. Very few even responded. And despite the fact that sixteen years of applying for jobs and posting my résumé on various job search sites has failed utterly, the only suggestion my so-called friends could come up with was to keep on applying. “It doesn’t work until it does,” said one. One complained that I was “going feral” as if that were a product of volition rather than circumstance. No one was willing to engage in a thoughtful conversation as to where someone with my talents might actually fit well in this fucked-up economy. No one was willing to engage with the problem that I might be homeless in my sixties—apparently that’s okay with them.
I have to reconcile myself to the facts 1) that I have very few real friends; and 2) that from a complexity theory standpoint, I have no niche in this ecosystem and cannot adapt to the ecosystem I am in, which lends support to a notion that I should move someplace else—if we could reasonably figure out where that someplace else is and if I could gain admittance to that someplace else. Which all pretty much amounts to a recognition of impending doom: My life will get very hard within a very few years and I will probably die much sooner than I would otherwise. All this with a Ph.D.
So on April Fools Day, Facebook wants me to create an event celebrating my birthday (on the 29th, a nice round four weeks away). But all I really want for my birthday is a real fucking job.
That goes against the grain nowadays. We’re supposed to celebrate the “freedom” of the “gig,” culminating with Uber and Lyft, in which I work every minute I can spare and put a horrendous amount of miles on my car every month for almost nothing. Really, almost nothing. I just filed my taxes (a thing I have to do to stay on an income-based repayment plan for my student loans), reporting an adjusted gross income of $335 for a little more than three months of effort. So far, in the first three months of this year, my spreadsheet shows an estimated loss of $101.32.
The reality is that the IRS allows a higher mileage cost than my actual cost of running my car and that difference is my actual margin. So far this year, in three months, I’ve actually made an estimated $1,691.73. Which may well prove illusory if the IRS is more right than I can presently calculate.
Worse, in order to keep even as minimally afloat as I have, I’ve had to take on debt (in addition to well over $300,000 in student loans). I can’t just quit.
It’s nice to get out of the house and the vast majority of people I encounter are nice. But this is no answer to a looming problem.
My mom is getting old. Old enough that she declined to invest $10,000 for solar panels on the house that would pay for themselves in—another estimate—seven and a half years. She’ll almost certainly live longer than that. Just going by family history, it’s highly likely she’ll need to sell the house in order to move into assisted care.
And I will be homeless. I turn 58 this month. I will probably be in my sixties when this happens.
Also this month—I’m not sure at this point the precise day—it will have been sixteen years since I was last gainfully employed.
I don’t think I’m worthless, even if that’s how the market appears to be treating me. In those sixteen years, I have continued looking for work, returned to school, finished a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. I’m certainly capable of working. And I certainly have skills.
I do think I absolutely can’t market myself (or anything else). I should have realized this in 1985 when I landed hard on my ass from high technology the first time. I should have realized it when at one particularly dark moment in my life I even tried selling briefcases door-to-door. I should have realized it when at another particularly dark moment, I tried fundraising for nonprofits. I should have realized it when I couldn’t do better as a taxi driver than I did. And I certainly should have realized this sooner in these long sixteen years since I was last gainfully employed than I have.
But an assumption implicit in any system that prizes a market to anywhere near the degree our society does is that everyone is able to effectively market themselves. We don’t say that of course and so I overlooked it. Nor do we admit that marketing is its own kind of talent, as distasteful and as personally impossible as I might find it.
That I cannot market also means I cannot be entrepreneurial. One of the phenomena I witnessed while in the dot-com boom was how a chief executive officer’s role seemed principally to be in marketing his company—and tragically seemed to believe his own bullshit in the “all hands” meetings we had. That might not be—and probably shouldn’t be—how it should be, but it remains that to do anything on my own and to receive exchange value for it, I would have to market it. Which, as I should have realized 32 years ago, I simply can’t do.
This means it falls to my friends to help me find a real fucking job. A couple of you have stepped forward and tried to help me do this. One has spoken up in my defense. But most have remained steadfastly silent or even criticized me for the frustration I feel. That really hasn’t helped. As I write elsewhere,
Imagine being sealed in a concrete tomb, buried a mile underground. No matter how loudly you scream, no matter how hard you pound your fists on the walls, no one will hear you. This is what my job search often feels like.
But in fact it’s worse. Because some people do hear me. They have a fantasy that something will surely come through for me. They have been saying this, in one form or another, since I lost my last real job in the dot-com crash in 2001. It never happens, but they just carry on with their lives, as year, after year, after year passes.
I’m not even getting interviews. You, my friends, are failing me.
Now I quite understand that some of you are pretty marginally employed yourselves. Some of you are adjuncts. You’re employed in academia but you make very little money and you have no influence. I need you anyway.
I also understand that many of you are employed in high technology. You’re probably making six figures. But I’ve landed hard on my ass from high technology now three times. And you’re thinking, with more than a little justification, that I’m not really up for a fourth. I need you anyway.
I need all of you. We need to:
Figure out where I can fit in this economic system. Sure, I have skills, but one of the reasons I got my Ph.D. in a transdisciplinary (or, as I prefer it, post-disciplinary) field, Human Science, is that I don’t fit in boxes well. I see academic “disciplines” as blinders, leading scholars to foolish mistakes when they inevitably transgress the entirely arbitrary boundaries between the social sciences, and as walls, behind which academia increasingly retreats as it is ever more poorly funded, and thus locks me out because I don’t have their “specialized” degrees. I am much more than the sum of my skills.
Find me a position that utilizes who I actually am. Such a position in fact exists even if organizations fail to recognize it and have failed to create it. Uber, whose recent difficulties stem largely from being more obnoxious both about a capitalist libertarian ideology than other companies and from an over-emphasis on narrow skills working on narrow projects that devalue a larger and essential picture of humanity, is really only one example of a widespread problem that a neoliberal system cannot acknowledge but actually fosters with its reduction of all value to exchange (monetary) value.
And we need to do this now. Because what I’m doing right now is pointless and stupid. And waiting clearly isn’t solving the problem.
I understand that as individuals, you are stymied. Just as an individual, I am stymied. This has to be a collective effort.
So yeah, I’m creating a Facebook event. And all of you had better show up. We have to figure this out. Oh, and no, I don’t play April Fools jokes. I’m serious about this because I have no choice but to be.
- David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/↩
- David Benfell, “Talking about myself,” n.d., https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7↩
- Associated Press, “Uber to ban ‘greyball’ tool used to stymie regulators,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 8, 2017, http://www.startribune.com/uber-to-ban-greyball-tool-used-to-stymie-regulators/415730554/; Laura Bliss, “Is Uber Over?” CityLab, March 9, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/commute/2017/03/is-uber-over/518727/; Ryan Felton, “Uber Is Doomed,” Jalopnik, February 24, 2017, http://jalopnik.com/uber-is-doomed-1792634203; Leslie Hook, “Uber: the crisis inside the ‘cult of Travis,’” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/9b65a59a-03e1-11e7-ace0-1ce02ef0def9; Reuters, “Uber’s turmoil continues as president Jeff Jones quits,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, March 20, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/uber-president-jeff-jones-quits-turmoil-1.4032107; Adrienne LaFrance, “Can Uber Survive Without Self-Driving Cars?” CityLab, March 27, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/tech/2017/03/can-uber-survive-without-self-driving-cars/520911/; Alexandria Sage and Dan Levine, “Waymo-Uber judge says may grant injunction if key witness doesn’t testify,” Reuters, March 30, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-uber-tech-alphabet-lawsuit-idUSKBN17206X; Georgia Wells and Greg Bensinger, “Uber Releases Workforce Data Amid Criticism of Company Culture,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-releases-workforce-data-amid-criticism-of-company-culture-1490721521; Melanie Zanona and Ali Breland, “Uber shifts into damage control mode,” Hill, March 4, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/transportation/322317-uber-shifts-into-damage-control-mod↩