In the new gig economy, people of all classes and education levels are doing hard physical work.
In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.
When I moved to Toronto three years ago, I took a job an hour away in a suburban industrial park. In the warehouse, a former Coleman stove factory, technicians designed and assembled complex lighting and audio rigs for massive stadium shows (Nickelback, Bono, the Dalai Lama). My job was to load those rigs into trucks. I would wake before dawn and arrive at the warehouse to a rush packing job. If we forgot gloves while packing crates on a winter morning, the skin of our hands would stick to the frozen metal edges and rip. If I slacked, the weight of whatever we were lifting into the truck just came down on someone else. "Fucking push," we encouraged each other.
Back in my intro to macroeconomics class at Ryerson, I had envisioned the global flow of goods to be automated and precise, controlled by robots that sorted items into containers loaded onto trucks on their way to store shelves. Of course, it doesn’t actually work that way. Behind every product on a store shelf is a set of hands that loaded the box it came in, both at the factory and on the other end. As American manufacturing moves offshore and buying and selling moves online, it’s easy to forget there’s still lots of physical work to be done—and people of all socioeconomic classes and education levels are doing it.
Punishing manual labor has always been romanticized by the middle and upper classes, from French realist painters to Communists to Orwell’s voyeuristic reports from inside a coal mine in The Road to Wigan Pier. And the people waxing poetic are very rarely the ones working—at least up until now. In the new gig economy, a lack of job security means that the young, educated members of the "creative class" take jobs outside their areas of expertise to pay the bills along with their less advantaged peers. For most, that means the service sector—retail, restaurants, bars. But since those gigs are competitive, and they often go to the prettiest among us, some young creatives are choosing manual labor instead.
Unlike the degree-wielding barista, who has become a symbol of recession-era youth, we’re doing these manual labor jobs in semi-secret. Not many of us are tweeting about moving boxes or under-the-table landscaping gigs. There’s a kind of shame in doing work that our middle-class parents never did, work we last did during high school summer vacations. We don't describe the work as anything more than a stop-gap, yet we come back cyclically. We have to—these gigs are what pays the rent.
My fellow workers at the Toronto warehouse and I were recruited online from music message boards or through friends. Some of us were musicians in rock bands, often college-educated, playing gigs in tiny clubs at night while paying the bills by working in a warehouse dedicated to stadium rock. Although the work was only tangentially related to what we wanted to do, it was at least in the same industry, and we all shared a common vocabulary.
When I first moved to New York, an artist friend forwarded me an email from a man who needed help hauling second-hand art books between dealers’ offices, self-storage units, book shows, and private homes. My colleagues at the second-hand book seller were all artists, raising money to rent studios between art openings in Berlin and starting new sculpture projects. Sometimes they asked to be paid in books instead of cash. At a film production company in the East Village where I worked one time, my fellow furniture movers were an aspiring actor and up-and-coming director who seemed thrilled just to be in the offices of the company that had made Adaptation.
For me, there was something about lifting books that made more sense to me as an aspiring writer than, say, lifting produce or even working at an office temp job. It might not be intellectually stimulating, but it's thrilling to lift something heavy and feel your body instinctively know what to do with it. Your body rewards you with endorphins.
But this rush is all contingent on having a plan; mine is writing and editing, and grad school in the fall. I’m also in my twenties, childless, and, besides some student loans, debt-free. I’ve been slowly transitioning out of this work. My shifts at the warehouse lasted until I was working full time as an editor at a Toronto-based travel magazine. I continued to work other odd jobs at the same time so that I had enough money to move to West Africa. These jobs have helped me take the steps I need.
Still, I often worry about whether my plan will work out. What if I’m wrong and my career never takes off? I’ll be stuck patching together a living from lifting boxes and writing for little money, hustling for shifts and commissions until my body grows frail. The thrill of doing something physical can be exciting and even subversive, but the romance wears off quickly when it’s the only option.
One of my fellow temp workers at the Toronto warehouse, Sam, a woman in her twenties, was one of the few people at the place who wasn’t in a band and didn’t see the work as a side gig. She told me a lot of her friends were at a point in their lives where they had to decide whether to be on public assistance forever or choose something to pursue. She got the gig through a friend of a friend and, unlike me, threw herself at the work. Where I saw cables to sort, she would memorize the technical specifications. She stayed late, hounding the technicians for the chance to do more. Between stacking and assembling, she was given more tasks and by the time I left, she was working full time for a few more dollars and hour and a steady five days a week.
Some of those musicians ended up at this job much longer than they planned, but their mentality couldn't be more different from Sam's. Regardless of how long we’ve been doing these jobs, we’re not invested in them. We still dream of moving on, which is why we’re willing to work off the books at non-union jobs. There’s no overtime, no security (shifts get cancelled at any time), and if you aren’t hyperaware of your body, it can be dangerous. Many employers take advantage of the fact that they have a new pool of people who both need money and are desperate to remain close to the industry they aspire to be part of. In the old union era, solidarity was crucial for workplace wins. Now, even though casual labor and full-time people work together, the divide is bigger than ever.
Sometimes in the corner of the warehouse, in the middle of a tedious task, I would compose poems in my head—bad poems about hard edges, aluminum and steel. At night when I dreamed about work, I would be coiling a particular kind of giant rubber-coated audio cable over and over again into large bins. I would often wake before dawn, minutes before my alarm clock, completely exhausted.