Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

The Self-Assembled Career

Carrie M. Lane

Illustration (detail) by Christopher Corr/Getty Images.

Making ends meet with side jobs.

Much has been lost by American workers over the past half century. Layoffs have become more common. Secure full-time jobs with ample benefits have increasingly been replaced by part-time, contract, and contingent positions offering low pay, insecurity, limited mobility, and few if any benefits. The unions that once advocated on behalf of workers have lost many members and much of their efficacy. Corporate profits have become delinked from job growth. Even economic recoveries are now “jobless.”

There is much to lament in these changes, as many, myself included, have documented.11xThe most influential overviews of precarity include Ulrich Beck, The Brave New World of Work (New York, NY: Polity, 2000) and Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011). See also Carrie M. Lane, A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence, and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Allison Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015). Yet as the historian Bethany Moreton recently argued, “If there is anything to be celebrated in the current jobless recovery, it is this opportunity at last to assess the job as a social contrivance, not a timeless feature of the physical universe.”22xBethany Moreton, “The Future of Work: The Rise and Fall of the Job,” Pacific Standard, October 22, 2015; See also Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling, The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream (New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). Moreton shows how the “secure, benefits-laden job” was transformed in about a century from a “disreputable character” into the standard against which other forms of labor were measured, and usually found lacking (particularly when performed by often-excluded groups such as women, minorities, immigrants, and the poor). Rather than mourn the demise of the job, Moreton asks, “How few ‘real jobs’ have to remain before we can admit that most of the world’s work has always been done under other titles, by different rules—and so take this opportunity to re-consider how we organize and reward it?”33xMoreton, “The Future of Work.”

Indeed, the solution to the unraveling of the social contract of employment may not be to prop up the ailing traditional job but, instead, to imagine what other forms work lives might take. One alternative that merits consideration is the self-assembled career.44xThe term “self-assembled careers” is used by George Morgan and Julian Wood in “Creative Accommodations: The Fractured Transitions and Precarious Lives of Young Musicians,” Journal of Cultural Economy 7, no. 1 (2014): 64−78. Consciously pursued as an alternative to full-time employment, it is created by combining arrangements such as part-time employment, contracting, consulting, freelance work, and “solopreneurship” (running a small business with few or no other full-time employees).

The concept of the “flexible career” has gotten a bad rap in recent decades, primarily because it usually advantages employers—who no longer have to provide security, mobility, or benefits—while hurting “flexible” (i.e., disposable) workers. Yet contingent positions need not be “bad jobs.” Some are quite good—better, even, than full-time employment in some respects—and all could be improved through the creation or expansion of policies to support contingent workers and their families.55xArne Kalleberg, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013). My own fieldwork among self-employed professional organizers provides a glimpse of what such “jobless” careers might look like and suggests some of the changes that would help establish the self-assembled career as a sustainable and satisfying alternative to the traditional job.

Professional organizing, in which practitioners help clients organize disorderly or overcrowded homes and offices, is a relatively young occupation.66xThe actual work of organizers is quite different from that depicted on television shows on the topic. For analyses of such programs, see Ronald Bishop, “It Turns Out the Armoire Is Your Mother”: Narratives of Addiction in Two Cable Television Organization Programs,” Addiction Research and Therapy 14, no. 2 (2006): 139−57; Susan Lepselter, “The Disorder of Things: Hoarding Narratives in Popular Media,” Anthropological Quarterly 84, no. 4 (2011): 919−47. It was founded in the mid-1980s by female organizers in Los Angeles who created what became the National Association for Professional Organizers (NAPO), which now has more than 4,000 members. From 2011 to 2013, I interviewed more than fifty organizers in large and small cities, attended organizing conferences and workshops, and worked as an unpaid organizing assistant.77xI interviewed new and experienced organizers, including some of the profession’s founders. Most organizers are white women, but I also interviewed male organizers and African American, Hispanic, and Asian American female organizers.

The organizers featured here consciously pursued careers in organizing as an alternative to traditional full-time jobs. While their specific experiences are unique, their paths into this profession and the challenges they encountered are representative of those faced by many organizers I met. Their stories document the creativity and effort involved in pursuing satisfying, sustaining work in precarious times.

Networking and Self-Marketing

Over cups of tea in her cozy kitchen in autumn 2012, Lara Leonard (a pseudonym, as are all interviewee names herein) told me about her decision to start her own business. Lara was a petite brunette with a warm smile and a no-nonsense manner. Some thirty years earlier, after a brief stint in college, she had started as a receptionist at a large financial services firm in the Los Angeles area and rose to become a secretary, then a personal assistant, and finally an office manager. After running the office for nearly twenty years, she was laid off in 2010. At that point, she said, “I decided I had to start my own business, because it was now or never.” She’d been unhappy even before the layoff, and being unemployed provided the impetus to try something she’d long thought about. “I was dreading the idea of going back to corporate America,” she said. “I needed to do something that I really loved, and I really wanted to try my hand at my own business.” Most important, she added, was that “I didn’t want somebody else to have control over me for the rest of my life. When I got a raise, if I got a raise, when I went on vacation. I just needed to have some independence.”

Not working was “not an option.” Lara had always out-earned her husband, and they could not survive on his income alone. The regular paycheck had been the only thing tethering her to her job. Once that disappeared, so did the barrier to her dream of entrepreneurship.

Around the time of her layoff, a friend told Lara about NAPO. As a self-described “organizing crazy person,” at first she assumed that the friend was just joking about her compulsive tendencies. But Lara soon realized that she was serious, and attended NAPO’s next Los Angeles meeting. “I could not believe that there were other women that did this,” she told me. The next day, she registered her business name and drafted her first contract. That week, she started attending networking events. “I basically just hit the ground running,” she said. “I didn’t have time to stop and think, ‘What if this doesn’t work out?’ It was never an option.”

Within two weeks, Lara had her first clients—a friend of her mother who needed help moving, and a physician in whose disorganized files she found more than $30,000 of uncollected revenue, which she then collected for him. These jobs confirmed for Lara that organizing was “something that I could do and do well.” Following advice from NAPO, Lara calculated what she needed to earn annually to pay half her family’s expenses. She set her hourly rate at $100, the midpoint of the $50–$150 range usually quoted by Los Angeles organizers. “I started learning the ropes of networking and self-marketing,” she told me. “And that is how I started getting business.” Lara’s faith in networking is commonplace today, as is her perception of herself as a product to be branded and marketed, whether to employers or clients.88xSee Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005); Steven Vallas and Emily Cummins, “Personal Branding and Identity Norms in the Popular Business Press: Enterprise Culture in an Age of Precarity,” Organization Studies 36, no. 3 (2015): 293−319. Although some organizers reject such self-commodification, others like Lara embrace it as a requirement for professional success.

Since Lara started her business, organizing has been her only source of income. Although she previously made far more money than he did, she and her husband, who also recently started a business, now aim to each provide 50 percent of their household income. Since neither has a regular salary, they cut expenditures, eliminated vacations, and traded in Lara’s car for a less expensive model. “It’s a huge adjustment,” she said, “but I’m getting used to it, realizing what is important, what’s not, and working my way back to that financial security that I need and want.”

Laura calculated what she needed to pay her bills and keep her home. She knew she would not reach that figure immediately, but was thrilled to make a profit her first year and double it in her second. Now in her third year, she is, she said, “on my way. I’m not there yet, but I’m hoping by the end of this year I will be able to breathe.” Lara attributes her success to her work ethic and many hours spent building her business. She is up every day at 6 a.m. and attends 7 a.m. networking meetings twice a week. Lara usually schedules clients in four-hour blocks because it takes that long to make a difference in the space she’s organizing. After seeing one to two clients each day, she makes scheduling and follow-up calls, then answers e-mails. Her day usually ends when she falls into bed around 10 p.m. “It’s a long day,” she told me, “and that goes on six days a week.” Laura claims that this intense schedule “totally suits who I am and what I do. As I said, I’m very, very driven.” She hopes eventually to have more leisure time, but enjoys her work despite its pace.99xDespite Lara’s relative comfort with the constant labor required by self-employment, at least for the short term, others document the toll of being “always on.” See, e.g., Margo Hilbrecht and Donna Lero, “Self-Employment and Family Life: Negotiating Work-Life Balance When You’re Always On,” Community, Work, and Family 17, no. 1 (2014): 20−42. “I like my clients. I like the whole span of it. I like that it’s not always the same thing,” she explained. “You’ll never know what you’ll be doing from day to day.”

The promise of variety has been proposed by advocates of flexible work as fair compensation for the withdrawal of job security, though scholars have rightly been skeptical of this claim.1010xBeck, The Brave New World of Work. For Lara and other organizers, however, the fact that no two days look the same is a rewarding aspect of their profession, as is the chance to do meaningful work that improves people’s lives in ways large and small.1111xOn the emotional component of professional organizing, see Carrie M. Lane, “How to Be a Professional Organizer in the United States,” in A World of Work: Imagined Manuals for Real Jobs, ed. Ilana Gershon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 129−45; Carrie M. Lane, “Dueling Interpretations of Professional Organizers,” Contexts 14, no. 4 (2015): 62−64. “I love leaving and going, ‘Wow, that’s huge.’ This person can now sleep in their own bed, this person can find their important documents, and this person is relieved. This is not rocket science, but we do make a difference. We really do.”

The Queen of Side Jobs

I interviewed Maggie Fee on a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn in November 2012, shortly after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. Despite the weather, the small apartment Maggie shared with her partner, Rachel, was warm and welcoming. In her early thirties, Maggie was tall and lean with short, casually tousled hair. She had a calm demeanor and chose her words carefully, pausing often to make sure she was articulating exactly what she meant.

Maggie had been running her own organizing business for about two years, but the inspirational “spark” had been ignited more than a decade before. After earning a BA in painting, Maggie pursued a master of fine arts degree while supporting herself with a full-time job as a researcher at an education nonprofit. The job involved managing information, both on paper and electronically. Impressed with Maggie’s work, someone at another nonprofit asked if she would organize that office’s files, and Maggie was hired as a part-time consultant on top of her full-time job. “I wasn’t seeking a job where I could use my organizational skills,” Maggie explained. “If anything, I prided myself more on my artistic skills.… But other people recognized it in me…[and] it was much more difficult to get people to pay me to be an artist than it was to get people to pay me to be organized.” Although starting her own business took years, it was the first inkling that people would pay for skills that came naturally to her.

The same thing happened in subsequent positions. A self-described “queen of side jobs” while a graduate student, Maggie was a governess (for free room and board) and started her own environmentally friendly cleaning business. One client paid her to organize his closets. Years later, when she was teaching art part-time at a private school, her boss hired her to help sort his mail, pay his bills, and organize his home once a week. After a few years at the school, Maggie was told she had to convert to full-time work or lose her health benefits. Realizing that the only thing keeping her at the school was health insurance, she declined the offer and left. “Well,” she asked herself, “what am I going to do next?” To her, full-time work felt like the loss of freedom. Of course, she told me, “you’re not any more ‘free’ working for yourself,” but to her it felt more freeing than working full-time for someone else.

Maggie spent a few months looking into starting her own business. She enrolled in a free ten-session city program for new entrepreneurs, filed the paperwork, designed a website, and sent the link to everyone she knew. She immediately got two corporate clients, referred by friends. She initially charged $80 per hour, but changed that to $100 for commercial clients and $75 for residential clients. (She sometimes gives elderly clients a discount rate—“I’m soft on them,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.”)

After those initial clients, business slowed a bit. “I definitely struggled to get clients. I’m not a good salesperson.” It was a stressful time—“terrifying,” she remembered. “I cried a lot.” Maggie had saved $3,000, enough to cover her expenses for three and a half months. She knew her partner would not throw her out if she couldn’t make her half of the rent, but that provided little comfort. For Maggie, who prided herself on her work ethic and ability to support herself, the anxiety was less about doing without necessities than it was about not paying her way.

To compensate for organizing’s unreliable income, Maggie remains “the queen of side jobs,” most of which she finds through friends or websites like Craigslist and TaskRabbit. They include teaching drawing, organizing kids’ birthdays, helping with stage productions, and working as a nanny and personal chef. While Maggie enjoys this variety, her willingness to “do anything for money, anything legal, that is,” reflects her anxiety about money. “I can’t materialize [organizing] clients,” Maggie explained, “but I can pretty much materialize work because of the bucket of different skills that I can pull from.”

Maggie thinks it will take five years to make her organizing business financially sustaining. But after being denied a small business loan, she’s starting to wonder if “maybe the universe is telling me I’m not supposed to grow my business, I’m supposed to do something else.” Recently, she has even considered getting a full-time job, her first in over a decade, but, like Lara, she’s ambivalent about the routine, hierarchical nature of such work. “When I go in and work at [corporate client offices] and I see these people, I do not envy them at all going to the same place every day and having a boss,” she said. “I think that might be something I also don’t want—a boss. They just all seem really miserable.” Yet, she admitted, “there are moments when having that stability seems really, really great. And then there are moments.…”

Making Sense of Assembled Careers

Professional organizing is not, of course, the solution to the decline of secure employment. The career paths described above—pursued by white, female high school graduates in urban areas living in two-income families with no children—are hardly available to most Americans.1212xLara and Maggie are unusual among organizers in that neither has children (although Lara’s college-aged stepdaughter lives with the family part time). Many organizers choose the profession in order to combine paid work with child-care responsibilities. Even those for whom such work is possible would face significant obstacles in trying to build a self-sustaining career. Neither Maggie nor Lara has yet achieved financial security, although many organizers have. That these two women are still struggling financially makes it all the more significant that both continue to prefer their current work to full-time employment.

Many of the risks and drawbacks described in these narratives—long hours, uncertain income, and frequent anxiety—are essentially the same challenges facing many fully employed Americans. But if full-time secure jobs are actually no longer either full-time or secure, then, as Lara and Maggie decided, perhaps working for oneself is potentially a less risky option—and possibly a more satisfying one. They are not alone in this conclusion. The number of American independent workers (people who have nontraditional, nonpermanent full- or part-time employment and who identify themselves as consultants, freelancers, contractors, solopreneurs, and on-call workers) is expected to reach nearly forty million by 2019, from approximately thirty million today.1313x“Number of Independent Workers to Reach 40 Million in 2019, MBO Finds,” Staffing Industry Analysts, October 6, 2014; See also Jen Matlack, “Try a Side Gig (or Eight!),” Redbook, May 1, 2014, 145−48. Some of that growth is fueled by a lack of alternatives, no doubt, but it does present an opportunity to imagine how such workers might be better supported in crafting lucrative and fulfilling assembled careers.

At a minimum, these stories demonstrate the effectiveness of educational and advisory programs for would-be entrepreneurs. The courses Maggie and Lara took (through the city government and NAPO, respectively) provided valuable financial, legal, and business advice. Professional associations such as NAPO can also serve as critical personal and professional support systems, removing some of the burdens of self-employment from the shoulders of individual workers. Many associations provide training, certifications, marketing support, networking and mutual aid, and a valuable sense of professional community. According to NAPO’s website, the group “leverages the power of numbers so that even sole proprietors can have access to essential business services such as liability insurance and credit-card processing.”1414x“Member Benefits,” National Association of Professional Organizers; Accessed December 28, 2015. Professional organizations also provide the collective clout that is needed to lobby for the kind of government assistance that is increasingly vital in the precarious economy.

Such political leverage will likely prove crucial in the coming years. For assembled careers to make sense for any but the most elite workers, health insurance, pensions, subsidized childcare, and other benefits will need to be untethered from traditional jobs (where such benefits still exist, that is) and be made available to all Americans. If implemented, such policies could allay some of the anxiety experienced even by relatively privileged independent workers like Lara and Maggie, both of whom keep up a frenetic, perhaps unsustainable pace in pursuit of the security they associate with full-time jobs.

On a cultural level, embracing assembled careers as legitimate, valuable forms of work will require sacrificing the ideal of the “real job.” One might not imagine that this would be such a loss, considering that even “Organization Men” have always complained about such jobs.1515xSee, for example, Clark Davis, Company Men: White-Collar Life and Corporate Cultures in Los Angeles, 1892–1941 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); C. Wright Mills, White Collar (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1951); William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1956). Yet this model has proved difficult to dislodge. Many predict dire consequences from the demise of these kinds of jobs, arguing that only secure, predictable work allows for continuity of self and career as well as the cultivation of values such as loyalty and commitment.1616xRichard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1998); Standing, The Precariat. In Maggie and Lara, however, we see women who have crafted professional narratives for themselves—a driven entrepreneur who thrives on variety and “the queen of side jobs”—that are built around, rather than in spite of, their insecure work lives, albeit not without anxiety and uncertainty. And in organizing, both have found work that is enjoyable and meaningful, the kind most Americans long for but few experience.1717xBarry Schwartz, “Rethinking Work,” New York Times, August 30, 2015.

Maggie and Lara, with their admittedly imperfect but in many ways satisfying self-assembled careers, may not show us what work should look like, but they show us what work does look like, for good and for bad, in these precarious times.