14. The Worst Choice: Not Having a Well-Paid Career

Activist Mickey Z. wrote a book about the jobs activists and artists take to make ends meet. It was titled, after a line from the poet Charles Bukowksi, The Murdering of My Years (Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2003).

I think that title reflects a fair amount of ambivalence, don’t you? And the activists Mickey quotes in his book do tell their share of stories of mind-numbing wage-slavery “spiced” with institutionalized racism and sexism. Mickey also quotes some heavy hitters, including Noam Chomsky, Aristotle and Oscar Wilde, to support his contention that having a job is a deleterious experience for activists and artists.

Nevertheless, I believe that the problem many activists have with jobs is not so much with the idea of a job itself, but with the kinds of jobs many activists tend to get: crappy jobs that pretty much guarantee they’re going to be miserable, not to mention poor. So, in my view, it’s not really a “murdering” of your years so much as a “suiciding.” I’ll discuss this further below, but first let’s talk about the other crappy strategies activists use to support themselves, including:

• Enduring unstable living situations involving flaky or irresponsible roommates

• Staying in failed, but financially sustaining, love relationships

• Borrowing money from family members

• Living at home with parents

• Running a time-intensive but low-paying, business or nonprofit organization

These strategies often backfire, taking up way more time and energy, and creating way more stress, than a good job would have in the first place. Taking money from family members seems a particularly bad bet: I’ve never met an adult activist, or anyone else, who didn’t pay a high psychological price for letting their parents or siblings support them.7 (Letting your spouse or partner support you, however, is an entirely different arrangement that sometimes works.)

It’s hard to do good activism, or anything else, when you’re broke. So, instead of the above-mentioned crappy strategies, try this one instead:

1. Think In Terms of “Income,” Not “Money”

In Why Are Artists Poor?, Abbing comments, “When a certain amount of money comes in, artists suddenly lose interest in earning more money.” Often, with artists and activists both, it takes only a little money to trigger that loss of interest—too little money, really, to avoid poverty.

Your need for money is substantial and ongoing, and therefore, your source of money should also be. Occasional small windfalls are not enough: you need a stable, predictable and adequate income. “More than adequate” is better still. Your income should also come with health insurance and other benefits if at all possible.

Incomes should be low-maintenance, meaning that you shouldn’t have to spend too much time worrying about your income going away, or working to ensure that it doesn’t. Otherwise, what’s the point? Obviously, this is not entirely within your control, but you do have the ability to choose, for instance, a permanent job at a company that’s in good financial condition over a temporary job at one that looks shaky.

2. Think In Terms of a “Career,” Not a “Job”

Many people use the words “job” and “career” interchangeably, but it’s helpful to consider the differences between the two concepts. The table on page 52 summarizes some of them. The last row on the table, Random vs. Planned, is particularly interesting.

Let’s talk about that last point, random vs. planned. Many activists are so ambivalent about the idea of getting a job, or so pessimistic about their prospects for getting a good one, that they gravitate to the bottom of the job pool, going for the easy-to-get (read: crappy) jobs. And they don’t invest in education or other assets that could help improve their long-term employability.

Settling for random, low-paying jobs, instead of planning for, and then building, a career, is the big mistake, the one that practically guarantees you’ll become poor, or poorer.

So, don’t think in terms of your next gig, or even your “day job.” Give up the fantasy that an ongoing string of temporary “non-solutions” to your money problem will somehow lead you out of poverty and into a happy and productive life. Think, instead, of building a career that will satisfy your long-term need for cash in the easiest and most enjoyable way congruent with your values.

There are lots of resources that will help you do this, including the classic career-planning guide, What Color is Your Parachute? (See Bibliography.) If you attended college, your college probably has a career service that you can use even if you’ve already graduated, and there are also lots of paid and nonprofit career coaches. Also talk with your mentors and trusted friends and family members. They may identify talents you didn’t know you had—or knew you had but undervalued—and also point you toward opportunities you weren’t aware of.

3. If You Want, Build Your Career Around Activism

Nothing I’ve said, by the way, implies that you can’t do activism for your paid career. If you want to be a professional activist, I say go for it! Not only is that a wonderful gift you are giving me and the rest of the planet, but I truly believe that what you will lose in material benefits, you will gain many times over in creative, intellectual, social and spiritual ones.

If you are planning to do activism as a paid career, here are three things to keep in mind:

a) Don’t believe the myth that there are no activist jobs out there. I’ve never seen a movement that had no open jobs. True, the exact job you want may not exist; or it may exist, but not at the salary you would prefer or in the town where you would like to live. But some job exists, and it’s up to you to figure out how badly you want it, and what sacrifices you are prepared to make to get it.

Job scarcity is not a particular hardship of activists, by the way: many other workers also wind up compromising, sometimes in painful ways, for the right job, particularly in a bad economy. I admit, however, that there may be many fewer good jobs in activism than in most other fields.

Still, I have found that truly dedicated, focused and effective activists can usually find a way to get paid to do activism. (Hint: you must not only do good work, but make sure that the right people—those in a position to offer money or jobs—find out.) It has also been my experience that many activists who claim that there are no activist jobs out there don’t even bother looking, or do so in only a half-hearted manner. If you really want a job in activism, then you should be going after it gangbusters. That means networking like mad, talking to everyone you know, aggressively going after whatever opportunities do exist—and, yes, relocating and making other painful compromises, if necessary. Ambitious activists, like ambitious people in any field, don’t wait for opportunities to arise so much as they create them.

b) Don’t let people abuse you. It is an unfortunate fact that many activist organizations are bad employers. They not only pay badly, which we can accept up to a point, but treat people badly. Yelling, harassment and mind games are commonplace, as are the kinds of poor management that result in rampant chaos and disorganization, constant killer deadlines and abusive work schedules.

Of course, activist organizations aren’t the only employers who treat people badly. But there’s something particularly demoralizing and obnoxious, not to mention hypocritical, about an organization that purports to be dedicated to progressive values such as justice, compassion and equality, and yet mistreats its workers.

Don’t let anyone treat you badly, no matter how exalted their reputation or noble their aims. If you must make a temporary “deal with the devil” to work for an abusive employer—perhaps for the connections, credential or learning experience—make sure that it is only temporary, that you are prepared for what you’re getting into, and that you have an exit strategy.

Better by far to take a non-activist job than to work for an activist organization that abuses you. If more activists made that choice, then maybe more activist organizations would be impelled to treat their employees, interns and volunteers better.

c) If jobs are truly scarce in your movement, then broaden your search while retaining a focus on your core values. You could, for example:

• Work in another movement. Not only will the work be satisfying, but you’ll have the opportunity to build linkages between that movement and your own.

• Teach or do social work.

• Work for a charity.

• Do political work.

• Work in the media.

• Work in a “green” industry such as renewable energy, sustainable building or organic agriculture.

• Do something involving fair trade.

• Work in a compassionate, or at least neutral, field. Someone who works as a nurse, medical technician or physical therapist may not be explicitly promoting progressive values, but they are not harming anyone, either. In fact, they are only helping. . . .

So many choices! Just make sure to choose carefully, so that your career doesn’t swamp your other interests, including activism.