I got a part-time non-academic job. Again. Readers of this blog will know that I have made several attempts to escape the adjunct grind. For a while, I temped for a Fancy Wall Street firm where I accidentally ate someone else’s salad.
Once, I worked at a non-profit foundation for a few days. I was doing the job that a trained monkey could do. (At least they had one of those fancy European espresso machines!) Aside from being dead bored all day, I had to endure the fact that my boss was about twelve years old. If you want to feel ancient, try doing the bidding of children. It’s quite illuminating.
A couple of summers ago, I spent a few weeks on the top floor of a Manhattan high rise working for a hedge fund. I joined an army of women answering the phones and making copies for Very Important Men who were busily – if the financial statements that I saw on their desks were any indication – privatizing higher education. That was some grim shit, which is why I went back to adjuncting. I guess.
But now I am out in the real world again. So what am I doing? I got hired to do administrative work for a start-up! There are lots of tech start-ups in NYC. More, even, than in San Francisco! It’s like 2001 all over again.
What could possibly go wrong?
Most of these companies are destined to fail, of course. But in the meantime, the young people and their fancy ideas for “apps” and whatnot want to look cool and hang out in sleek offices. A whole architecture is developing around pop-up companies that want to rent temporary space on a month-to-month basis.
Twice a week, I’ve been going to one of these places to work. It’s mostly 20-somethings walking around in Casual Friday clothes (all week!) working on Macbook Airs with headphones in their ears. What kind of things are they making? What services are they providing their mysterious clients? Who knows? It’s not important. The only thing that matters is that they are only renting space by the month, so don’t bother to get to know your neighbor. If the companies don’t make money, the workers can bounce back to the Brooklyn coffee shops where they used to type, and no one will even notice they left.
The “new” economy is like that. You don’t get anything as luxurious as a permanent desk or a space to work in that isn’t your living room couch. And you have to bring your own computer and smart phone. Many formerly “white collar” employees now are essentially independent contractors. If you have portable skills and all your own machines, you just may be worthy of a (part-time) job.
When describing the position to me at the interview, one company partner told me their goal was to jettison old models. “Many established companies are so inefficient. They have way too much overhead,” he explained, by which he meant the laughably outdated practice of investing in permanent office space and, you know, hiring people.
The pop-up office may sound cool and casual (ours has pool tables and a bowling alley for stimulating creativity!), but it’s actually a highly policed environment. Employee comings and goings are monitored. If your start-up is paying for 5 employees to use the office, for example, you can’t have a 6th person showing up all the time. Each worker needs to show his or her ID everyday (or use a special card connected to their name) to get in the door. It’s kind of creepy. But they try to distract you from the creep factor by giving you free beer at the cafeteria. No, I am not joking.
And all the offices have glass walls so you can see what everyone else is doing, but of course everyone is doing the same thing: staring at computer screens. One guy on the floor below us is clearly a day trader. His office is about the size of a closet. And he stares at two giant monitors where he watches stocks go up and down all day. All around his screens are taped yellow sticky notes with vaguely inspirational messages. “Look for deals!” “Don’t be afraid to take risks!”
How odd to think of the day trader working in a temporary office advising himself to take risks! His existence there is already a product of the immeasurable uncertainty that most of us – not just post-academics – face everyday. Day traders try to make money by taking advantage of small shifts in the market (whatever that is). There’s no long-term plan because there can’t be.
That may sound depressing, and it is. But I think it’s one realization that helped me get out of adjuncting. I used to worry about the future. I wanted a career, to know where my next paycheck was coming from, to be a professional. But now I know that is not really a reasonable expectation. Risk is an unavoidable characteristic of impermanence. And, these days, the only thing you can count on is impermanence.