The Oppression Of Being Replaceable

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.

The contrasts

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.

Higher Pay, Less Work???

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 Oppression Of Being Replaceable

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?

Working Poor

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.

Just Increase Your Income!

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.

Privilege

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.

The working poor - and the oppression of being replaceable

12 Comments on “The Oppression Of Being Replaceable

  1. Hi Kristine, what a fascinating topic! It has given me a lot to think about. I clicked through to the Chief Mom Officer article too and I think she makes a good point at the end about frugality having the potential to be something valuable for everyone, even those who are technically not poor. Nonetheless, I agree that it’s important to be aware of the privilege inherent in having the option to cut back (rather than there being nothing to cut back on in the first place) and I think the term ‘poverty tourism’ is a useful one. Like you, I’ve been in what I would consider some tricky financial situations, but at the end of the day I’ve always known that if everything went absolutely pear-shaped, I wouldn’t have to sleep on the street. Some people don’t have that safety net and I can’t even imagine how chronically stressful it must be.

    • Exactly. The people who make off-handed comments about “just pick up another job” or similar, are ignoring the chronic stress and fear of loosing what they have. It is not a simple thing of just starting a sidehustle and see returns on their investments 1-3 years from now.

  2. Great points here. I’ve had similar jobs in the past, and it was always frustrating to try and do a great job and have no one care. I much prefer jobs where my hard work is recognized and rewarded. And like you, I met many people who had nothing but those kinds of jobs. I often wonder what happened to them.

    • Absolutely. I keep wondering as well, but most of them did not have reliable access to internet, email accounts or social media by which to keep in touch. And even if they did, their computer literacy would have made it a great challenge to even begin to utilise the tool internet provides.

  3. I read this this morning, just making my way back to comment now.

    I worked that job for five years to put myself through college. If I had any doubts about the importance of finishing college and getting out of there, my years there definitely would have dispelled them. If you can easily be trained for any job, you’re replaceable and treated that way. It’s a precarious way to live but I know a lot of people who couldn’t or didn’t dare to do more and were lifers in a bad situation. It really warped their way of thinking, unfortunately, in predictable ways, and I knew that I didn’t want to be trapped there. Much of my family are in that position, I was the first one in my family to claw my way out. Knowing that if I failed, it wasn’t just me that I was failing, at the time was another burning motivation to make it out.

    But motivation alone simply isn’t enough! You have to have opportunity to do better, and to learn better, and time and energy to try and make that happen, and NOT have dependents, or family, or friends who rely on your income and complicate your expenses. There are plenty of added complications that I’ve not yet experienced, though I’m certainly not immune, like having to support an incarcerated family member, or support an incarcerated family member’s child, or anything along those lines.

    It’s all complicated. But it deserves attention. More people are in that situation than we realize.

    • I am a first generation college/university student as well. It really makes such a difference to have no idea where to turn, compared to second and third generation who not just know where to go, but also what questions to ask and what they can ask for. I’ve seen students who should have failed, still pass because it reflects better on the supervisor and their rich parents were breathing down their necks. It really ruined my illusions about higher education as a place where knowledge comes first.

      Dependants are a huge factor in your ability to claw yourself out of anything! If someone is dependant on you, you just can’t take the same kind of risks as you might if any consequences only affected you alone.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. The hardest jobs I’ve ever done were the lowest paying – call centre, hospitality – and I was only doing them part time, not full time. I make so much more, do less work, have so much more autonomy and flexbility and better benefits … it’s crazy.

    • I know! It really struck me in the face the first time, and I still can’t get quite over it. But more than the perks or hours of the job, for me it was the respect. I am so used to being a person people depend on. To suddenly be in a job where you were constantly distrusted and micromanaged was quite a shock.

  5. This is why I think it is so important that people work at least one minimum wage type job early on in life. You’re absolutely right that there’s still a big difference when you have a big safety net down below, but there’s nothing like experiencing a hard, low paying job to better understand just telling people to “work harder” is a slap in the face.

    • I agree. We could all use a bit more empathy and understanding when it comes to dealing with realities far from our own experience!

  6. Yeah, I agree there are some jobs where people are treated badly, but in my experience, they are not all low paid! One of my best paying contracts I was treated terribly! And I’ve worked many low paying roles where you were treated very nicely.

    Conversely, I have seen a lot of people working really hard, and also a larger population putting in the minimum effort. So it’s a complex situation with many variables?

    And those numbers seem well high for the UK – looks like you were London based? In my opinion London’s only viable if you are happy to compromise or earn decent money – otherwise you’d be better off living any other place in the country.

    • Interesting! Happy to see another perspective to my own limited experience. 🙂

      Yes, we were London based, my partner was studying there, and since I didn’t have a permanent job back home, I figured I might as well be applying for jobs over there (oh, naivete…).

      I wouldn’t mind going back, especially for Kew gardens – but not until we are financially independent or at least heavily subsidised by laptop work!

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