On the frontlines of economic upheaval, author Farai Chideya tackles the conversation of a generation head on, and asks the big question: how can all of us establish a life of relative financial security at a time of broadening inequality and dwindling job market prospects?
In her latest book, The Episodic Career, the journalist and political analyst offers a guide for American workers operating in an age of disruption and new career rules.
Her proposition is an uncomfortable one: traditional career paths may have all but disappeared and precariousness may be the adjective to describe increasing amounts of Americans – including in the pseudo middle class. But with a full understanding of your individual self and the true nature of the economy and job market, she maintains fulfilment is still within reach.
There is a conversation I have consistently found myself in the middle of in recent years – with friends over beers at dive bars, with young activists at demonstrations, with colleagues driving from one midwest American city to the next, with mothers going through foreclosure in Detroit.
The conversation goes something like this: we are screwed. The US economy is on its knees, the American dream is a numbing elixir that distracts us from the fact that most of us are socio-economically conditioned to be doing appallingly, and things seem to be getting worse, not better.
Those of us who manage to get out and succeed are the exception, not the rule.
There is comfort in having these conversations: a shared understanding of the struggle, of the witnessing of humiliating suffering many get blamed for, an understanding that our economic struggle is a systemic issue – the consequences of which we each carry on our shoulders.
Chideya highlights those undeniable flaws in the system backed with data and studies, but offers advice for individuals operating within it. After all, if this is the hand we have been dealt, she seems to say, short of overhauling the entire game, there are a few things you might consider.
“I could have written a policy book,” she explains over lunch one recent Sunday in Brooklyn. “But I wanted to reach a broader audience. I wanted to reach readers who would not normally pick up a policy book. Right now the country is in fairly transparent internal turmoil and I’m hoping people will be able to connect to the ideas here.”
The Episodic Career is part policy summary, part journalistic narration, part self-help book. And it is this mix that is uncomfortable. A book that looks at how individuals can operate within a profoundly unequal and unfair economic system risks feeding into the very American tradition of blaming poverty and lack of success on individual choices made by people, rather than a combination of much larger, top-down forces.
But Chideya rides the line of producing a book that includes a personality test called the “Work/Life Matrix”, which classifies readers into one of 16 work-life personality categories, without falling into the “you are the only thing holding you back” self-help book trap.
“Individual choices are no substitute for systemic solutions,” she says, talking of the alternative labor movement unraveling over the last three years in America, through the mobilizing of fast food and domestic workers, among other groups, and advocating, among other things, for a $15 minimum wage.
“The big solutions in America have to happen on a systemic level. But while systemic approaches are either pursued to the greater good or the greater detriment, or just left unkempt, people have to live their lives.” There is no individual blame in Chideya’s book, nor is there too much of a chirpy road map. If anything, there is a clear admittance of individuals’ limitations – including in fighting things like racial discrimination, sexism and homophobia.
Her discussion points are real examples of people who juggle multiple careers: in an age where simply having one career may no longer be enough; people who have successfully switched from one career to the next – a sex worker who became a welder, a journalist who became a tech exec.
Chideya does not mince her words when she describes tangible examples of dos and don’ts.
Thinking that corporations and employers will pay for you to enhance your skills is little more than an illusion now. You’re on your own: you are your own CEO – the faster you get this, the smarter the decisions you can start taking.
Look for the sectors that are in growth and don’t be afraid to position yourself creatively within them.
Crucially too, if you think of bringing a lawsuit against your employer or complaining through official means when you’ve been discriminated against or seen wrongdoing is a good idea, you might want to consider the likely possibility of retaliation, the high cost of a lawsuit and how being a whistle blower will affect future job prospects. Chideya does not advocate against any of this, in fact she quotes people who have successfully blown a whistle and who do not regret it, but she wants her reader to be realistic about consequences.
In this, the book is both sobering and cautiously empowering.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but in the end you’ve got to be prepared to take care of yourself and do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the rest of the world. Right now, no one is going to look out for you but you”, she says. “It’s a very chaotic time in the overall economy and probably in your company, and wherever you are too. You cannot predict what is going to happen, but you can take a thoughtful, knowledgeable, compassionate approach to the decisions that you take.”
The book may not yet resonate with my fellow millennials who have given up on the unpaid internships and taken the underpaid job they didn’t want to take to start paying their ballooning debt, or with the gas station worker wondering which bill to prioritize with his subpar pay, but Chideya offers a few glimpses of hope. Where these glimpses fail, she offers compassionate insight into why they do.