By my basic calculations, the American workforce is comprised of three types of people:
- people who are appropriately paid and appropriately worked - they make just what they deserve for the amount of time they put in
- people who are over paid and under worked - they make way too much and do way too little.
- And people who are under paid and over worked - essentially everyone I know slash the subject of this post.
Note: not discussed here is a fourth category comprised of people who think they're in one category but are actually in another. Those people are delusional, so we'll leave them out.
If you're familiar with the phrase "yeah, but a thousand people are in line for your job" then you fall into category number 3. Also, "it's about paying your dues to get ahead in this business" - "you can't put a price on connections" and "a name brand on your resume will get your further than savings in your '20s" Welcome to the 20-nothing work force running the world's biggest entertainment, media, and art industry companies.
And congratulations - really - you are the brightest and most creative 20-somethings in America. These are not easy jobs to get and they're even harder jobs to keep. You were selected from the most talented of the bunch for the greatest opportunities at some of the coolest brands in the world. You get to wear adorable things to work. You get to maybe be at the same parties as rich and famous people. If freebies come to the office and the important people don't want them, you can have them. You. Are. Lucky. And if anyone tells you otherwise well then they must have boring jobs at management-heavy companies that snuff their creative flames leaving them cold, bored, and Republican. Oh, and probably married. Fools.
Zac and I were talking about bonuses the other day. From what I'm told a bonus is extra money added to your contracted pay in return for better work than usual, more work than usual, unexpected company earnings. Yes, if a company on the whole does very, very well for a year than they will give their employees a part of that success - in the form of money. Word to the not-yet-graduates: those industries are not, in general, entertainment, arts, education, or media.
Why not? you accountants ask. Because our bonus is all the fun and experiences and connections and potential free tickets to things that come our way because we were lucky enough to work for X company in Y mega city. Do you know how many people want what we have? How many people will work longer hours for less pay?
I've been an eager and willing participant in the category 3 work force for five years. Once, for about six months I was paid an appropriate salary for the work I was doing but then I got promoted without a raise, twice.
But, see, here's my thing (and it's not just I'm bitter and exhausted):
- there are things that are just the way things are because they have to be. Freelance health insurance is expensive because of the way our health insurance system technically works, and that's a numbers and cents game, for example.
- Then there are things that are the way they are because they keep the world in check. You have to be a poorly paid resident before you can be a well-paid doctor because you don't know enough as a resident to do what a doctor does, point blank.
- But it's when things are the way they are for no reason other than that the fat cats like getting fatter and 100 bright-eyed kids are in line for your job so sit down, shut up, and be grateful you have one.
Here in New York (and I'm sure LA) exists a workforce of people who are paid pennies for significant work because companies can get away with it - because we have no advocates other than the few saintly bosses who make a case for us - because this is just the way it is. Why? Because it can be. Why can it be? I have a few ideas. One of them is that much of the 20-something work force earns a salary that accounts for 75% of their adult life, and an allowance to cover the difference...
Add the recent recession to this already bad balance of power and you get kids leaving places like MTV, Conde Nast, Time Warner and the like because they can actually make more money waitressing. To say, "I can't afford my job" when it's at one of the most marquee brands in the world is sad - sad and seemingly unnecessary, especially when you read about the way companies like the recently folded Bon Apetite ran their businesses (much of their senior work staff still took company car service to and from work).
I wouldn't trade my industry or my experience for more money at a company I hate doing a job I don't want to do. I'm just saying, why does it have to be an either or? Why do the "cool" jobs get away with paying the least and expecting the most? Where's the check and balance?
When I first moved to New York I had this recurring dream were all the abused assistants and coordinators of the world stormed out of their offices at X time on X day and met in Central Park for a march down 5th Avenue yelling "what do we want? fair pay! when do we want it? within 6 months please!" and holding signs that read: If you ever want to see your dry cleaning again, give me $1,000....or....$850, final offer!! With each step a new company fell. Bosses didn't know how to contact HR to get temps in the office, or how to send an Outlook meeting invite, or if it's 3 cups of water and 2 scoops of 2 cups of water and 3 scoops of coffee. We. Were. Triumphant.
...Until we hit Union Square. There, dressed in cuter clothes and with far fewer bags under their eyes was a force of 20-somethings ready and willing to steal our key cards and pick up coffee for our bosses on the way to their new posts. "Don't do it!" we yelled. "You'll rack up a credit card bill!! You'll have to live in Bushwick!! You'll make a list of Happy Hours that serve free food and rotate them for dinner!!" But they weren't phased. They didn't care. See, they were "getting a little help from home" so they could pursue our dream jobs without worrying what they paid.
I'm not saying those kids and their parents are ruining the bell curve, but you do have to wonder what companies would do if they couldn't get their first 10 choices to accept a 27K starting salary... Perhaps raise it to 30 and cancel one client dinner at Nobu?
I still wonder what would happen if we ever staged a full-on walk-out. The Writers Guild went on strike and they got what they wanted. But in the words of David from the acclaimed Disney musical Newsies, "What we need here's a union..." A union of category 3 workers who, when salaries got too bleak to live could mobilize all of the Manhattan assistants to drop our blackberries on our bosses desks with a note that reads, "If I touch this after 6pm I'm no longer making minimum wage."
I'd join that union (and not only because it would probably be a good way to meet guys). Would you?