There has been quite a few discussions in the personal finance sphere about privilege, poverty and money lately. One post about Poverty Tourism by Liz over at Chief Mom Officer in particular made me think about just how intrinsic privilege can be, and how difficult it can be to claw your way out of poverty.
It made me think about this post, which has been lying in my drafts folder for several months.
It was something that came to my mind around the time I changed from an underappreciated job to one where I was welcomed with open arms. The stark contrast from being treated like a very disposable commodity to one where my skills and education were needed was a pretty big shock to the system.
Not just that, but moving to a job where I felt safe in my ability to pay off bills and did not have to feel insecure about where the next shift was going to come from, meant that the higher paying job also made it possible for me to pick up hobbies like writing again.
In the beginning, it seemed terribly unfair that when I worked as a shop clerk, I was on my feet all day. The constant walking and interaction with customers was mentally and physically exhausting. I came home like dead meat and got very little to show for it.
Not just that, but as I am sure many shop clerks in less thriving workplaces have experienced, we got snarky comments about shelves that needed to be cleaned if we so much as exchanged a “How are you?” with our fellow coworkers.
I am an introvert by heart, so customer facing jobs are a big drain on my system. On the days that I worked, I had no energy for anything else. On the days that I didn’t, I was constantly feeling the pressure to look for and apply to jobs online. With a tablet mind you, my 10 year old laptop had just crapped out around the same time and there was no money for a new one. So I borrowed Mr. E’s old tablet that he got as a Christmas gift several years ago.
There was no day off, no holidays and no breaks when your job does not cover your rent (£550 pm), food (under £200 pm) and transportation (£150 pm) to said job. I was a constant bundle of stress and worry.
By contrast, when I started work as a lab. technician, my particular skills were valued. I was paid much more, given a desk in an office, and as soon as my boss realised I could read instructions and infer response, I was pretty much left to my own devices.
Not just that, but I had flex time and trust. I could arrive anytime between 8 and 10 am, so long as I did my 8 hours of work including breaks, and the job got done.
True, the labs were a dirty, grimy, disorganised mess after near 40 years of bad management, but this job included sitting down, having breaks, and people who occasionally made sure I took my hour-long lunch break each day!
In a state of disbelief, I relieved some of the pressure online by wondering why on earth I got paid more to be in a more relaxing job with more freedom!
The responses I got to the question were pretty uniform and almost instantaneous:
I was given more perks because I had something they needed, relevant and formal education in chemistry.
My shop clerk job did not require that education. They just needed a warm body that could be on time, learn the till and be pleasant to customers. If you didn’t show up, there were plenty of people they could replace you with from the temp. agency I had signed up with.
When you don’t have any coveted or “rare” skills in the workplace, your options dwindle significantly. There are always someone else who can learn your unskilled job. So you get paid less, have less perks and if you complain or miss a shift, there is the door.
You might have longer shifts and harder hours, all the while being appreciated less and perhaps even suffering chronic health conditions as an effect of your long hours. You never have a chance to get ahead or take a breather. How can you be anything but exhausted?
When I think about the working poor, these are the kinds of jobs I think about. Not the least because I met quite a few working poor in that particular job.
If I had not had the privilege of an education, I might never have gotten out of jobs like that, nor the insecurity of wondering if I had a job tomorrow, or next week. And these are the kinds of jobs that uneducated people in poverty can get (and keep, if they’re lucky).
So when I tell you that I had absolutely no energy left on my work days to pursue hobbies, I hope you can appreciate the full context of what I am saying.
If I had been a parent, I would have had to muster the energy to take care of them from somewhere.
As I did not, I accepted the food I was given by Mr. E, ate it like a zombie, maybe watched something on the stupid box and then went straight to sleep.
Common advice touted by personal finance writers.
It’s simple in principle, right? If your income does not cover your expenses, you just get another job, or start earning money online!
Sidehustles? Forget about it. There is no way I could have created this blog at that time, or have found the energy and money required to invest in soap making tools and consumables. I would have felt far too bad about doing something not directly related to work or trying to get a better job.
A second job then? Not really possible, considering how shifts lasted from 9.40 am to 6.20 pm on any day of the week. And if you could not cover a shift on an hour’s notice due to illness, you could be sure they would not call you next time they needed someone.
Even if I had found Mr. Money Mustache and all his friends, I probably would not have taken the wisdom to heart, believing it impossible and unattainable in our current situation.
And still, despite all that, I was still privileged. As ashamed as it would make me, I did have the option to get on a plane back home and live with my parents if things went truly desperate. The people I met did not have that option.
I had a summer job as a gardener, which paid more than enough to cover my expenses (and I did return to that while living in London, it was great).
I was just visiting the land of the working poor. I always had the option to go back to my stable working class family who, while not rich, still had incomes that covered their expenses with a bit leftover. Even when I struggled to find work and I was afraid of us not being able to cover rent, we are really lucky in that both our families and some of our friends have safe houses where we would get a roof over our heads and a hot meal while we get back on our feet.
I’ve never had to do that, thankfully. I don’t think I’d ever be able to pay back my debt of gratitude if I did, but I did know, somewhere in the back of my stressed out mind, that I had that option.