How can you survive precarious employment?
January 29, 2013 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I've historically chosen the World's Most Precarious Professions (tm). I'm about to turn 30 and I'm filled with fear and regret. How can you survive and perservere when you may end up unemployed/unemployable at any moment?

I've only really worked in two industries. Industry 1: anthropology, where I finished a well-received fully-funded PhD that I undertook when I was way too young, and upon completion I panicked and lucked into Industry 2: design.

If I thought anthropology was difficult, the overnighters and insane competitiveness of design blew it out of the water. I'm a few years in and doing okay, but I feel like I'm living in Logan's Run and the light in my palm is about to go out. Worse (and I can feel the howling NOOOOO! responses), I'm finding myself drawn back into anthropology. Despite 14 hour days and rare weekends, I've managed to publish a couple of papers in decent journals and a chapter in the past year from my old research, and I'm actually scratching away at a couple of postdoc applications right now. I really really miss being in the field, talking to people and telling stories; if you were to ask me what I'd do if money wasn't an option, I'd be a researcher again.

I know, I'm a moron.

On the one hand, I kind of want to defend myself - I've had a few stints of unemployment, but I've been, on the whole, pretty lucky on the job front. On the other, I feel like I've wasted my life. I look at my peers who started working in sensible industries straight out of college and I feel like an overgrown teenager. I know universities are horrible, no good, very bad places to work, but I've also seen the churn in my current industry. And, worse, I just feel like I don't care about design the way my successful friends do. Increasingly, I find myself going through the motions at work, uninspired and unhappy. Who in their right mind would hire someone like that? I've toyed with the idea of veering into UX design or information architecture, but balk at going through more training (I'm nearly 30, for crying out loud!) and trying to shoehorn my way into another tough field.

I'm not expecting anyone to help me make my mind up - out of anything, the impossibility of finding work in my former field will do that for me. I just want to find a way to live with this fear and distress. I'm aware that I'm not the most employable person. How do you keep going when you feel like you've trifled away your time in work that is either dying or you suck at?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Getting a real job does not always equal happiness (although in my own experience, I've found that I'm always happiest when I have money in the bank). Perplexingly, real jobs are often precarious as well, since you've used the increased cashflow and security to build a life, and all that can crumble if your employer - your sole client - goes bankrupt and decides to lay off a bunch of staff. Large bureaucracies are a little safer, but this job security can come with office politics.

Maybe you'll thrive any these sorts of environments, but it's always good to know what you're getting yourself into.

In terms of employability, you're perfectly employable. You could be a project manager, a client relations manager...

You're also not too old for more training. Career changes are the new reality.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:22 AM on January 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Before you chuck away your experience using anthropology (in one way or another) in the field of design, do give some consideration on how you can assess your interest areas and skillsets, do a mindmap and a clustering exercise, given that the overlap between the social sciences, business and design (innovation? we're stuck, help us solve the unknown problems that type of design) is currently peaking in its demand right about now. What is your experience with experiences, services and interfaces?

An alternate is to join the research department of design savvy organizations such as Intel or Microsoft or Xerox or somesuch where your pace of work won't be defined by the need for billable hours.
posted by infini at 11:25 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may think universities are always bad places to work because there's a culture among academics of seeing them that way. Of course sometimes they are. But from my point of view not all the complaints are legitimate, and sometimes the more sheltered academics, with no industry experience, look very weak and spoiled to me. They have benefits that sometimes exceed what they could earn in industry, flexible if sometimes long hours, and a lot of autonomy where their opposite numbers in industry would be tasked with sorting paperclips.

If you get a job at a university and you don't like it there, change jobs. What's the worst they can do? Force you to work 14-hour days and most weekends? Oh, wait.

Try to be multidisciplinary, you'll be more employable. Design engineering is a thing, and I'm sure you could mate it with anthropology and get some kind of bastard child kinda deal somewhere.
posted by tel3path at 12:21 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I dunno that anything you've said in this post qualifies you as a moron, I'm certainly down on myself too much and it's never really been helpful to me at all...

I've worked a lot of different jobs and pursued a few career paths and I'm only a couple years older than you. Went to college for computer analyst, dropped out, went to work for a university doing courseware design, went another university for BSc in winemaking, dropped out again and decided to be a cook for a while, that didn't work for me so I became an ironworker/welder and I'm not even done that apprenticeship yet and I'm already thinking of what's next. I know some of my friends that have followed the one-career path and they are indeed good at their jobs, but I don't know many of them that have any more satisfaction from it.

Unless you're working for free it's never a waste (money, food, health, etc.), and even "free" work can still have some benefits and experience. I also have found that having a variety of experience in different fields to be a huge asset. In every job I've had I've used things I've learned in previous jobs to get shit done better and faster than people that have more "experience" and "passion" at their job but don't have any clue as to how "other parts of the world" work since all they've done since high school is job X.

I enjoyed my time working at a university, yes it was silly that they made us wear shoes in the office but then I think back to those times when I'm stuck on a beam 50 feet up in the cold torching off rusted bolts or doing something that is a dirty jobs episode. Sometimes work sucks, that is unfortunately part of "work" in general, right? My current job pays really well and I really do enjoy working with steel and building stuff but I don't want to do it forever and money is starting to matter less and less to me...
posted by glip at 12:37 PM on January 29, 2013

I've toyed with the idea of veering into UX design or information architecture, but balk at going through more training (I'm nearly 30, for crying out loud!) and trying to shoehorn my way into another tough field.
You are nearly thirty and you don't want to go through more training and shoehorn your way into another tough field? That's a mistake, a very very big mistake. You likely have another 30-40 years of working ahead of you, which means that you are likely to need to make a lot of small adjustments and a few major ones over the course of your working life.

I think you are missing something which should be obvious to you if you have a background in both anthropological research and design: the two aren't unrelated. Look at the practice and product of design with the scrutiny of an anthropologist. You may have had two different professions, but aren't things you learned in anthropology useful to your work in design? If not, why not, it seems they should be.

Perhaps the answer is that you haven't found your best niche in the design profession. You say you work in design, but "design" is a big field. It sounds like you don't work in UX. I am going to guess that you are a visual designer of some sort. I'm going to suggest that you aren't too far from being able to find work in UX. The common thread between anthropological research and UX is that UX strives for a wholistic perspective on the user, their goals, needs, fears, frustrations, motivations, and the product being designed, what it does for the user, the way it looks, the way it feels, the language used to explain it, the way they understand it, etc. The foundation of that understanding is user research, which starts with qualitative ethnographic research.

Seriously, a designer with a strong background in anthropological research and great Photoshop/Illustrator skills should be able to carve out a decent niche for one's self.

Whatever you do, you need to resist the urge to go back to academia. Maybe it is the right place for you, but it sounds more like you are idealizing an old abusive relationship. I don't know what you should do, but I'd really, strongly suggest you try to find a working identity for yourself that doesn't take being underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated as a badge of honor. I think academic research, journalism, writing, art, among others, are often wrapped up in that sort of pathology and the result is self-fullfilling because it results in a huge imbalance between supply and demand. Every person who insists on entering and staying in such a field, with such a mindset, ends up making things worse for themselves, and everyone else in the field.

(I don't think that economics should be the overriding consideration in every choice people make, but in the end, people need a roof over their head, clothes on their back, food in their belly, time for friends, family and community, and something put away for a rainy day or old age. Economics provide a tool for figuring out how an individual can accomplish those things)
posted by Good Brain at 3:14 PM on January 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've only really worked in two industries.

Have you ever done a google search for anthropology and design? Its one industry, really, as Good Brain clearly demonstrates. Unless you're in a place that is still focused primarily on form giving rather than the thinking behind the design.
posted by infini at 3:34 AM on January 31, 2013

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