(Don't) quit your day job(s)
Here’s a riddle: If it takes one job to be employed, and it takes zero jobs to be unemployed, how many does it take to be underemployed?
The answer? It’s complicated.
A local musician and cartoonist recently found himself underemployed while holding two jobs. An independent software developer experienced underemployment while working as many as 70 hours a week on salary. Another musician and showcase promoter in town is underemployed while maintaining three jobs, including a standard 40-hour week of office work.
On paper, Austin is about as employed as a city can get.
So what’s going on here?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Austin’s unemployment rate sits at just 6.3 percent, a fair sight better than the national average. A 2010 study named Austin as the third most recession-proof city in the nation. IBM, Apple, Google and Facebook have all built headquarters here. On paper, Austin is about as employed as a city can get.
But what about people who are neither definitively employed nor unemployed? Most government statistics classify these people as “not in the labor force” for statistical purposes, which makes fine sense in terms of homemakers, retirees and recipients of government disability. For the rest of the gray area, economists are throwing around the term “underemployed.”
Here’s a quick guide on how to tell if you are underemployed, paraphrased from Investopedia:
- Are you employed part-time but seeking full-time work?
- Does your employer assign tasks that rarely or never engage the skills for which you were hired?
- Do you work a job whose responsibilities are well below your level of skill or education?
If any one of the above conditions apply, congratulations! You’re being underemployed!
What “underemployed” means, in a nutshell, is that you aren’t being optimally utilized by your economy.
What “underemployed” means, in a nutshell, is that you aren’t being optimally utilized by your economy. In other words, labors that you have the ability and desire to perform are not being performed by you.
Now, anyone with their ear to the ground in Austin knows that there are countless arts available for consumption on the cheap. There’s live music (of course), theater shows, festival events and independent galleries galore. Our fair city features an economy of cultural experiences, artistic products and sensory information that exists alongside the service-and-currency trade.
As you’d expect, these two economies overlap in significant ways. Here’s a secret: The kind individuals who furnish those myriad entertainment options for us to enjoy don’t usually make their living doing it. The fact is that only a tiny percentage of Austin’s arts and entertainment community manages to keep themselves in food and shelter without some other source of income.
This tit-for-tat between our twin economies of labor can have unfortunate consequences. Artists who underemploy themselves in a wage-earning job to pay the rent might see a decline in the frequency or quality of their artistic output. In short, they might become double underemployed: utilized ineffectively in both the fiscal and the cultural economies. Nobody wins, then.
Artists who underemploy themselves in a wage-earning job to pay the rent might see a decline in the frequency or quality of their artistic output.
Austin’s arts and entertainment scene is shot through with examples of underemployment. I spoke to several people about the state of their working life, and I heard a litany of different stories:
Karakassa Music artist Wahrk works as a medical switchboard operator and picks up extra cash evaluating internet search results while orchestrating an international album release and tour.
Another respondent worked as a barback and human resources intern during college but left the labor force after graduation to focus on turning his hobby of making gourmet sausages into a catering business.
There’s the case of John Vinyard, the underemployed software developer. He made the decision to move from full-time to part-time work nine months ago. As a salaryman, Vinyard worked at least 50 hours each week, and sometimes as many as 70. The money was good, but he found himself burnt out at the end of nearly every workday and unable to give his best to family time and creative work.
“[The job was with] a query service designed to help people find assisted living or home care for seniors,” Vinyard says. “Their intentions were good, but it didn’t really provide anything that couldn’t be accomplished with a few Google searches. After a while, it became hard to justify giving all my time and energy to something that was just kind of redundant.”
Then there’s Boone Graham, the aforementioned maker of music and cartoons who lives at the southwestern tip of the 702 zip code. A couple of years ago, Graham was holding down two jobs, in retail sales and food service, despite his college education.
“I was miserable,” Graham says. “There was no sense of productivity to the work I was doing. Both the restaurant and the store generated so much waste that it felt like most of my job boiled down to taking out the trash.”
A bit of soul-searching and life counseling prompted Graham to take his leave from the service industry to seek more fulfilling work. Now, he earns his living providing child care and teaching music and animation to various clients around town.
Those who flee from steady employment might sound like typical Austin slackers overindulging their laziness, but appearances can be deceiving. Graham and Vinyard haven’t kicked work to the curb to enable a life of languid dalliance and mellow vibes.
While some remain underemployed in the labor force for salary's sake alone, some folks are taking matters into their own hands to try and make their working life one they enjoy living.
Between writing music, booking and promoting shows and lining up clients for his child care and tutoring gigs, Graham’s average work week totals up to about 50 hours.
He makes a bit less per month now than he did at his service jobs, but Graham says the pay cut was worth it. “Work frustrated me enough that I couldn’t write or draw at home, and that frustrated me enough that I was surly at work. I’ll eat beans and rice six days a week if it means I can do work that feels worthwhile.”
John Vinyard’s clocked-in time amounts to around 80 hours in an average month, but he’s a busy man. He now spends most afternoons and nights tweaking code and compiling libraries for other software projects, including an innovative search-by-sound sample database for electronic musicians.
“I still work more than 40 hours a week,” Vinyard says, “but most of it goes toward projects that give me more than just a salary.”
Maybe that’s the key to understanding the segment of Austin’s population who are “not in the labor force.” Willful underemployment might sound like a business speak buzzword for a lack of work ethic, but the notion of finding meaningful work is winding gears at the Harvard Business Review, of all places. While some remain underemployed in the labor force for salary's sake alone, some folks are taking matters into their own hands to try and make their working life one they enjoy living.
It might be that, in previous years, we’d assumed “hard working” was a synonym for “wage earning.” Maybe there was a time when you had no claim to legitimacy until you got a “real” job. An occasional bum might flee the standard workforce to coast by on minimum effort, but alternatives to the 9-to-5 are as much an option for the driven and ambitious as a haven for the shiftless.
At least recently, at least in Austin, some are choosing to apply themselves with greater conviction to the sort of work that matters to them. With a little creativity and a modest lifestyle, Austin’s underemployed are finding that fulfilling, meaningful work can be a lot more real than a steady paycheck.