I recently returned to my parents’ house in Urbana, Illinois, where I moved after failing—for nearly three years—to find full-time employment in San Francisco. I had no trouble finding cafe jobs, or unpaid internships, for that matter. Freelance writing (emphasis on the “free”), too, was generally readily available. But editorial assistant jobs, content managing positions, entry-level admin jobs at non-profits? No luck. I have records of applying to over 150 opportunities. After a while, throwing out carefully tailored cover letters and resumes felt akin to hurling a grappling hook out into the middle of the night. Responses were so rare that even their apologetic phrases—”we regret,” “better-suited,” “best of luck,” were slightly comforting. At least the grappling hook had clanked against some dark specter of a job out there.
The evidence of my long hunt is almost laughable, and, laughter, I think, is far preferable to self-pity. I have saved a copy of each altered resume (LucySchillerResume.docx; SchillerLucyResume.docx; Lucy-Schiller-Resume.docx; GOODBASICRESUMEGOODLUCKANDGODSPEED.docx). I still find applications I don’t even remember constructing—mostly to jobs so far from my interests they serve as excellent floodmarkers of my increasingly desperate tide. Bookmobile driver through rural Vermont. Sephora copywriter. Fair trade certification assistant. Administrative assistant for a taxidermist. A member of the “Flight Staff” at an indoor trampoline park.
It has always been hard to be a young person looking for work. The Economic Policy Institute reminds us that people under age 25 have historically experienced around double the general unemployment rate. This means, though, that when something like the Great Recession hits, we experience a disproportionally high rate of joblessness. I approached the task of finding a job with true energy and excitement, and struggled to maintain that passion for three years. It began to feel like a fevered and foolish grasping.
I look at my friends and I see more of the same. Many of us still live at home, or have recently returned there, welcomed by generous parents. Many of us have three or four jobs at once. Many of us are taking refuge in graduate school. A great number of us are operating under the diminishing delusion that the unpaid commitments we can barely afford to take will turn into the jobs we once dreamed of having. For me personally, the last few years have been characterized by the slow realization that although I was working incredibly hard, something larger wasn’t.
The word that comes up over and over again when I talk to people in similar situations is “hustling.” The term has a suggestion of the underhanded, and I think that’s actually fairly apt: because we can’t subscribe to the typical forty-hour workweek, we construct almost subversive amalgams of part-time employment. It’s impossible to say what we do. I remember struggling a lot with this. “I write,” I’d say, grimacing slightly, “which means that I make coffee. And work at a farmers’ market. And intern, and I just started at a new restaurant.”
Sadie Scheffer, founder of the gluten-free bakery Bread SRSLY, might well be termed a hustler supreme. Sadie dropped out of mechanical engineering at MIT in 2009 to followed a serious crush to San Francisco. She converted her sublease into a sewing studio and began crafting bicycle clothing, which she sold to a shop in the Mission District. She picked up other gigs–”spraying glitter on giant tigers” as a float builder for the Chinese New Year parade, working at Blue Bottle Coffee Company, probably the most prestigious barista job possible. And Sadie cooked, quite a bit, in hopes that food would provide a tunnel into her intended’s heart. When it turned out that he was gluten-intolerant, Sadie tweaked her strategy, and ended up with gentle-on-the-belly sourdough starter, her own business, and a relationship. SRSLY.
Sadie stands out among my friends for the relative success of her efforts. From an email in July 2011 that she sent out to everyone she could think of, Bread SRSLY was born. Since the beginning, she has bicycled all over San Francisco delivering her loaves and the sandwiches they’ve engendered. Also since the beginning, she has been severely sleep-deprived. When I briefly hawked her gluten-free goods at a farmers’ market, Sadie paid me generously in cash as well as bartered produce, and I always felt terrible: she couldn’t have been making any more than I was, and she was doing probably thirty times the work. But Bread SRSLY is starting to make sense, says Sadie. Not only has she hired a baker, but last week, that baker got a raise.
There are many stories, though, involving about the same amount of work as Sadie’s but without any visible payoff. A close college friend—she asked not to be named—recently returned to her mother’s house in Berkeley after working in France and then Kansas City. Back home, she realized that jobs she imagined to be “in the bag” were totally out of reach. Having managed numerous farmers’ markets in Kansas City, she applied for a job at an information booth at one Berkeley market. She never heard anything.
This is not surprising to anyone, ever, who attempted to ford the murky river of the hiring process. So this friend kept applying everywhere she could think of, including to a nearby restaurant, assuming that with several years of serving experience and her familiar neighborhood face she was sure to get at least an interview. After a few weeks, the manager asked to speak to her, then brushed her aside: he was too busy for a full-length conversation. But he found time at 10 am on Presidents Day to call her out of the blue for an immediate trial shift bussing plates. “We can see if your instincts are a good fit,” she remembers him saying. She worked what turned out to be a supremely busy morning at the restaurant, and was then called upstairs, where she was told that she lacked the smile they were looking for. The manager handed her twelve dollars.
“I felt really used,” she says. “It was a shit job. He could afford to not give me a real chance, because he knew that someone grinning ear-to-ear could walk in the next day.”
This friend now is working forty hours a week. Those forty hours are split between five regular commitments—tutoring, babysitting, catering, and two volunteer positions. She also supplements her income with odd jobs: working as a typist, staffing estate sales, creating “artistic rock arrangements,” and helping at a family friend’s landscaping business. Even her unpaid positions, she says, were hard to come by. One interviewer asked her to imagine herself as a kitchen implement and then explain why, of all things, a whisk. She has given up, for the most part, applying to urban farming initiatives, whose unpaid internships and “allyships” are, she says, incredibly competitive.
“I felt manic,” she says of her initial job search. “One day I would wake up and think that the world is my oyster, that I was in the right place at the right time. The next day I’d wake up and be clearly deeply depressed, thinking I was totally unqualified for any job.” She is obviously qualified enough to hold five jobs at a time. The hard part for her, and for many of us, is finding just one.
The names are easy to rattle off. Christina Afanasieff, 26 in 2008, when she quit her job and then made a huge gamble: buying the tiny Kafe 99 Sqft, where I was later to work as a barista. Like Sadie, Christina has made it work, but barely—she works at the café as a barista as well as owning the place, sometimes works as a temp, and is also currently enrolled in a master’s program at San Francisco State. “I know the job I’m giving people is not a permanent job,” she says of hiring baristas, “and in my interview process I have to ask what other things they’re doing in their life. Everyone I interview is a freelance something or other.”
Like Caroline Kessler, student speaker for her graduating class at Carnegie Mellon and alum of the prestigious Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. She has recently quit a job at a tech recruiting firm in order to work as a freelance writer. But she has clear memories of the application process for the seemingly impenetrable entry-level admin jobs many others and I have been applying to. “Writers, artists, café workers—everyone across the board would apply to these jobs,” Caroline says. She describes her mass weedings of all applications not strictly adherent to the job’s most basic qualifications. “If you say you’re detail-oriented and have a typo in your cover letter, I don’t believe you,” she says.
Now, Caroline is in that all-too familiar state of “paralyzing fear” accompanying the multi-employed. “I get super freaked out when I think too far in the future about how I am going to sustain this, how I am going to pay rent when it just went up 50 bucks,” she says. Caroline lives in a relatively affordable apartment complex in the Presidio, a removed and forested area of the city many of us would never consider for housing, as it involves an interminable uphill bicycle ride.
Before meeting Caroline, I thought the apartment I shared with Bridgette Haggerty was as far away from the rest of San Francisco as you could get: $1575 was a steal for our unheated abode, its two bedrooms, kitchen, and narrow entryway/living room lopsidedly sloping with the weight of its charm.
When Bridgette joined me in San Francisco, I was freshly unemployed and she had freshly left her parents’ house in Grand Junction, Colorado. “I remember not being able to get a job at the grocery store in my hometown,” she says, and felt as if she would “have a better chance in San Francisco because it was a bigger city.”
She was right. Bridgette found a job at Marmot, selling activewear close to downtown. Because the job was part-time, Bridgette’s initial plan was to supplement it with an internship more aligned with her longer-term goals of working in environmental activism and stewardship. But, she remembers, she eventually stopped applying to internship positions because she would never hear back. Slowly, her plan shifted. “My boss would tell me stories about his own [pre-2008] rise in the world of retail, and it seemed sort of attainable…I was like, this isn’t terrible. Could I do this for the rest of my life?”
The answer, she realized, was no. Bridgette moved back to Colorado to take a position on an Americorps chainsaw crew, a year-long commitment which recently ended. She’s now in Denver working retail and an unpaid internship at an environmental nonprofit.
“Many if not most of my friends are self-employed. They are builders, artists, freelance designers, chefs, farmers,” says Sadie Scheffer. “Most of them have a part-time gig to pay the bills, and spend the rest of their time…planning and brainstorming for their future self-employment.” For those with self-employment as the end goal, these early years of sleeplessness and one or two part-time jobs make sense—slowly, the balance is tilting towards savings and time spent making a business out of a passion. The rest of us, though, are still hustling.
Lucy Schiller now lives in Brooklyn and works as a writer. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming on The Rumpus, American Suburb X, zyzzyva.org, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Riveter, Thought Catalog, and Broke-Ass Stuart. Photo: Faruk Ates