Life Without a Net: Is This What Unemployment Looks Like?

Matt Peiken

Matt Peiken

In July 2007, I was having lunch with a colleague from the St. Paul Pioneer Press and telling him if the newspaper ever offered another buyout—that is, if management again paid people to leave—I would take it with a running leap.

That afternoon, editors beckoned everyone in the newsroom for an announcement. I couldn’t ignore the serendipity.

Every time I thought about reconsidering, about holding fast to a union-secured reporting job and the solid paycheck that came with it, I felt sick. By contrast, after 21 years in daily print journalism, I was euphoric at the prospect of letting go of the safety bar and allowing the trapeze to carry me somewhere else.

Armed only with faith in myself and and five months of salary in severance, I leaped.

Six years later, it’s 2 p.m. on a crisp, sunny Wednesday. My chocolate Lab is romping across flattened snow at the Minnehaha Dog Park. Every 50 yards or so, we come across a dog and an accompanying someone who appears in their 30s or 40s. Some are probably second- or third-shifters. Others might simply have the day off. But as I look into each face, I wonder whether, like me, they’re members of the silent club of the unemployed.

Some might label me self-employed rather than unemployed, but I reserve that label for those fully making their own way. Since leaving the Pioneer Press, I’ve founded and run three media Web sites, produced a long-form video documentary, single-handedly put a weekly television series on the air, advocated for marriage equality, created video for a number of corporate and nonprofit clients and come and gone from two salaried jobs. These brought experience(s) and lessons I never would have had if I’d stayed at the Pioneer Press, and not for a millisecond have I thought I made the wrong decision. Still, as I approach an odometer-turning birthday, I can’t help but believe I should feel more stability beneath my feet.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced last week the lowest national rate of unemployment since President Obama took office. But for those of us in the 7.7 percent, these are baffling, frustrating times. In the past year, I’ve applied for jobs I never would have before considered—parttime communications positions paying less than I net through unemployment insurance and CraigsList ads reeking of fly-by-night operation—and often don’t land an interview. As the calendar closes the spigot of my unemployment insurance, my outlook shifts day to day, often day to night. I gin up enthusiasm for another ill-fitting opening, stuff down the dismay about editors who settle for mediocrity without even talking to me, and am then overrun by hyperactive hope, fueled by my next entrepreneurial spark.

I’m in better financial and psychological shape than most. I’m only feeding a dog and mortgage and, with no family in Minnesota, I could leave for the right opportunity. More important, I’m immune to the anger, depression or self-flagellation afflicting others in this club. I always feel like I’m in the driver’s seat. I just wonder sometimes whether Apple programmed my internal map.

Am I doing all I can? Should I do anything different? Are my conclusions sound? Am I making the right decisions?

I know scores of artists who scratch out livings as massage therapists, checkout clerks and museum security guards so they can do what they’re called to do. There are spiritual and psychological costs, though, to jobs that don’t fit one’s sense of self. Every day, I scan the classifieds, conscious of the edges of that line.

A couple months ago, I answered a CraigsList ad placed by someone seeking documentary videographers for a “Grand Experiment” that involved “building a critical mass of thinkers.” I later received a call from a man who told me he’d earned millions through a business-to-business video series and that he liked my writing. He asked me, “If I throw a pile of money at you and give you a purpose to your work, would you say yes?” I couldn’t help but chuckle into the phone at both the question and the inference behind it—that my work, to that point, lacked purpose.

Intrigued far more than offended, I drove to a small business park in Burnsville and found my way to a cramped, makeshift office. A rainbow of construction-paper rectangles lined the walls, floor to ceiling, with generic, handprinted affirmations about collaboration, cooperation, communication.

The man behind this venture, who appeared in his 70s or 80s, told me he was shocked and inspired by a survey he claimed found some 70+ percent of Americans unsatisfied with their jobs. He said he’d created a method for solving this problem, a method I assumed involved the phrases peppering his office walls. There was also a whiteboard listing keys to this method, but there were only numbered blanks—to be filled in before my eyes, he said, once I signed a nondisclosure agreement.

As I listened to his pitch, I couldn’t figure out, aside from interviewing people about their misery in the workplace, where documentary video fit into this. I didn’t understand why he needed me. I distilled his presentation to this: He wanted to create and sell how-to videos to businesses, which would show them to their employees, who would, in turn, become happy worker bees.

I asked what motivated him to devote attention to this project. He said he thought the world would be a much better place if people were happier at work. I didn’t argue, but said if he really wanted to make a difference, he could focus his resources on telling the stories of the truly marginalized, of people and systems in greater need of help. He crossed his brow at me.

“You’re not one of those starving-artist types, are you?” he asked. “How are you going to make money with that?”

I asked why a man of his age and wealth didn’t aspire to something greater, why he needed to make money with this project at all.

His voice quieted. He said, “That’s all I know.”

I left Burnsville without a job or the missing links to on-the-job happiness. I did, however, leave recommitted to my own grand experiment. In this economy and marketplace, I might have to readjust that sweet spot of compromise between work that pays and work that matters, but I have enduring faith I won’t have to compromise at all.

So I continue to hunt, to apply, to plot my next move. I’ve already leaped. And just like six years ago, I don’t know where the trapeze is carrying me.

5 thoughts on “Life Without a Net: Is This What Unemployment Looks Like?

  1. 40 years ago this Friday I took my first full time job for $350 a month at First Minneapolis (now US Bank) and I have yet to find a job where I’m happy, really happy. Some days I think I’ve sold my soul for health insurance. I compare my life to an animal in a zoo. I get food and care and I may even be in a stimulating environment but I’m still locked up. Well, off to the zoo.

  2. Ever considered writing (either) fiction or the biographies of people you meet?? But actually I thought you were a composer? Aren’t you a writer of music? Well I am a composer (FIRST) and also a writer of poetry and fiction (2nd). I have been without a job of any kind since 11/ 2005. Major reason: 5 days after leaving job had grand mal seizure and diagnosed with epilepsy. Other reasons also.
    Look forward to reading more of your words> Or hearing your music?

    • I’m so sorry for your health crises, Lisa, and the impact on your life—in and out of work. Have you worked with the people at the American Composers Forum? They’re fantastic about opening opportunities for emerging composers. As for your poetry and fiction, the first stop for anything there is the Loft Literary Center.

      I’m not a composer—rather, I often write and produce video about composers and many other artists.

  3. Beautifully written, Matt. I used to think of freelancing was like that scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies — where Indy has to travel across this abyss that has no visible bridge — and he just tosses some pebbles to see where he should walk. It was fun and exciting when I was younger, but now that I’m ‘older,’ the lack of stability and predictability is wearing me down. So, what’s the answer? Become an SEO expert? Pick another career (as if it were that easy)? I look forward to more. Thanks.

    • Thanks for writing, Barb. I’ve avoided freelance writing, other than occasional guest op-eds, because you lose control of your work. That’s one of the reasons I dove into video — very few others are doing it, and the work is distinctive in the marketplace. I’m excited about a way to monetize it that I haven’t tried before, but we’ll see … Another career? My grandfather drove a cab in NYC for 35 years. Maybe I could do that. I thought about dealing poker. But then I’d just want to write about it …

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