People have to deal with adversity in their personal lives. The skills for dealing with societal change are much the same
Five years ago, I lost the thing that mattered to me most. I received a letter about “synergies” and “integration”, and was told that the “synergies” would “reduce costs”. I didn’t like the sound of “synergies”. But the worst moment was when an executive looked out of a window and told me that he wanted to “freshen the pages up”, and I knew that I was losing both my job as a writer on a national newspaper and the contract for a column I thought I had been promised to sugar the pill.
It’s interesting what happens to the body when it’s in shock. You can’t stop shaking. Your heart thumps in your chest like a mad prisoner trying to hammer a way out. I lost 8lb in four days and didn’t stop shaking for two weeks.
I always thought so many things mattered more than work. I had lost my sister. I had lost my father. I had lost relationships. I had lost my breast to cancer. I never set out to be a “career woman”, which is what tabloid newspapers sometimes call women who pay their own bills. But I didn’t have a partner or a family, and so my work played a huge part in my life. And without it, I discovered, I was no longer quite sure who I was.
“Middle-class woman loses nice job” is not a headline to bring out the violins, especially in these difficult times. I will probably always find a way to pay my bills. But many middle-class people are now losing their jobs; jobs that will not come back. Newspapers – like book publishers, the music industry and other parts of the knowledge economy – are feeling the pressure of “disruption”. And, as even Mark Zuckerberg has now discovered, disruption isn’t always
“We are now living in a world where insurgents are much better able to challenge incumbents,” said Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, at a conference on “the age of self-employment” the other day. “Success in the modern economy is going to be about the disruptors, the innovators.” She and her government colleagues thought that self-employment and the gig economy were “a wholly positive trend”.
It all sounded very exciting. I looked around the room to see if people were feeling the buzz. On a quick glance, it was hard to tell. Some people were there for work: sitting in a room, drinking coffee and fiddling with their phones, and still being paid by their employer. Others, like me, were freelancers, there in the vague hope that we would learn something new. We knew that it was yet another day when we would earn no money, but we put it down to “networking” – one of the things that everyone says self-employed people have to do.
There were discussions about savings. We learned that only 17% of self-employed people pay into a pension. Perhaps that’s because many self-employed people don’t have much money to put aside: according to the Office for National Statistics, the most common income for self-employed people is around £240 a week, while employees earn around £400 a week.
Since I have been freelance, there have been some weeks when I have struggled to earn £240. Once, I worked on an article that took 10 days to research and write for a fee of £250, but it was not published. Like most freelance journalists, I’m paid by the word on publication, not for time spent on the project. Of course, we don’t have to be freelance journalists. We could try something else: PR perhaps, though PR companies are hardly rushing to employ middle-aged writers who have been fired. Many of us prefer to earn our living, or try to earn our living, by doing the thing we love. But most are earning a fair bit less than they did before. The average freelance journalist earns around £20,000 a year, £7,600 less than the average salary.
I don’t expect much sympathy. Journalism is more fun, and still better paid, than many jobs, though we are not often held in very high esteem. But bear in mind that where journalists and publishers, and other providers of so-called “content”, lead, others will follow. If you’re an accountant, a financial adviser or a shop worker, you should be afraid. The robots are coming to get about a third of us, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the future of employment, with “the potential to bring great economic benefits”. But not, perhaps, to the people who have lost their jobs. And let’s not even think about driverless cars, which some estimates believe could see the end of 3 million driving jobs in the UK. We will all need help in finding other work. Help in training, in transferring our skills and, in the meantime, in paying our bills.
Since I lost my job, I have talked to many people about change, in the course of writing a book about how we cope when our lives go wrong. I have talked to people who have lost jobs, relationships, loved ones, their health. And through these conversations, and through five years of a “portfolio life”, I have learned that the skills we need when our lives go belly up are also the skills we need to cope with a changing world. We need to keep learning, keep adapting, and keep trying, even when it all feels pretty damn hard.
In our lives we do this, all the time. And as we face what many economists are calling the second machine age, we will all have to learn how to do this more. It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be tough. It would be nice if our politicians acknowledged this – particularly the ones with titles such as chief secretary to the Treasury, who are on salaries of more than £110,000.
• Christina Patterson is author of The Art of Not Falling Apart, published by Atlantic