Thought

Let’s Talk About The Immense Privilege (And Struggle) Of Doing What You Love

"It wasn't until I enrolled that I realised that university was apparently for people who went to private school. Then I realised how few of my peers had casual jobs while studying..."

This is not an essay about being poor. I’m not poor, I don’t even like saying that I’m ‘working class’ because that suggests in some way that I haven’t been incredibly lucky to be given lots of wonderful opportunities and my life isn’t a shining beacon of insane privilege. I’m being paid for writing an opinion piece for Junkee, which should speak volumes as to how lucky I am. This isn’t about blaming everyone but yourself.

This isn’t even an article about ‘the labour market’ or capitalism and how to destroy it and what it means. This is just an essay about not being rich. This is an essay about how people who are rich often don’t seem to know how very rich they are. This is about working and doing things you don’t like doing and knowing when you have to keep your mouth shut. This is about what a joy it is to work doing something you love, and how lucky you are to get to do so. It’s about how lucky people shouldn’t get to look down on those who are not.

Last week someone who I respect, a writer and editor who runs a literary journal I enjoy (and have written for), tweeted about jobs. “If you work a job that you don’t enjoy/work for a company or organisation whose output/services you don’t agree with, this is Your Fault,” he wrote.

“Yes, the entire system of economics and life and etc is fucked, and there are a billion mitigating circumstances, but still: Do Better. It’s very difficult — and perhaps impossible for short periods of time — to ensure your work is true to you, but ultimately You Are Responsible.”

I don’t want to pile-on him personally. These comments drew intense criticism; he’s since deleted the tweets and sincerely apologised. But, for me, the words feel uncomfortably familiar. This piece is about how out of touch people in the arts can be in Australia, and why that’s a problem for everyone.

Jobs Sometimes Suck And No One Cares

I had my first job interview before I was able to legally work. My mum worked for a supermarket chain, and had organised an interview with the store manager so I could get a job there, just like my brother had.

When I say my mum worked for a supermarket, I mean my mum was a checkout chick. She didn’t work in head office; she wasn’t a manager. She packed grocery bags. My brother stacked shelves. So that’s what I did. I got the job, and started the day after I turned 15. I worked there for three years, using the money I earned to pay for things like school camps, my bus fare, phone credit, presents for friends’ birthdays, and going to the movies with friends. My parents had three kids. They couldn’t afford to pay for all of that for all three of us — and I never gave it a second thought — of course I’d work and pay my own way.

Once I turned 18, I started a new job as a waitress at a gold class cinema. Then I worked for JB Hi Fi as a checkout chick again. Then I worked for three years at Grill’d — the same franchise that almost got sued for its unethical pay agreements with workers — where I scrubbed floors, cooked, did dishes, stuck my hand down blocked drains and worked until 1am with no penalty rates. After this, I worked 12-hour shifts as a sales assistant at an outer-suburban Country Road. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to get a clothing allowance and breaks that were scheduled instead of eating on the run like in hospitality. Then it was Sportsgirl, before back to JB Hi Fi.

Isn’t it tedious to hear about my full work history? A long, tedious list of long, tedious jobs. Because that’s what it is. It’s tedious. It’s soul-suckingly boring. And it’s also just reality for most people. But still, I was lucky. Many people do not have any jobs at all.

My dad worked for Telstra for years, in call centres, after being made redundant from a job he believed in. You know why he did that? He had three children and a mortgage. He did not like the job. It made him miserable. He did it because he had to. My mum hated working in the supermarket. I had seen her cry about how miserable it made her. When she was able to take a few years off, it was only due to a payout my dad received after being injured in a hit and run. But never once did I consider that she could just quit and study or pursue a brand new career, because of course she couldn’t. That kind of thing only crossed my mind once I was older, studying art at university.

Yeah I studied ART at university, I’m clearly not poor. But I also didn’t feel comfortable once I was in that degree. I knew I was creative, I knew I wanted to make stuff. I knew art was important and beautiful and worth pursuing. But I was baffled by how few of my peers had casual jobs while studying. I was shocked to discover how few had gone to public school.

It wasn’t until I was enrolled and attending a university a 45-minute drive (in the car I borrowed off mum but had to pay for my own petrol in) from my family home that I realised that university was apparently for people who went to private school. Once I realised that, I was even more shocked to discover how rich some of these people were, and how very different their experiences (and therefore their outlook on life) were to mine.

This is why I added the note about borrowing mum’s car and paying for petrol. That’s a given for many people, but shockingly, for lots of people it’s not! My wealthy boyfriend was once surprised my parents didn’t pay my Eastlink toll bills or car insurance. These tiny differences are the itches that become scratches that lead to the gaping, pussy scabs of class disparity. I know that — but many rich people don’t even notice.

These are the people who often go on to be doctors. They go on to be lawyers and businessmen, and then they send their kids to private schools and then those kids grow up to do the same. They go on to be politicians who are out of touch and clueless, and make out of touch, clueless laws. The rich get richer, whatever, boring. I knew that. What I didn’t know, is that these people also dominate the arts.

Pursuing the Dream

By 2014 I was working at JB Hi Fi again, and had gone back to uni to study my Master’s in Communications, thinking maybe that could get me a job working in social media, or writing for a corporation that would give me money. I couldn’t afford to move out of my parents’ house on my casual wage, and couldn’t take on full-time work because of uni and freelance work and internships — mostly unpaid — that I was doing in a bid to build my resume and make me a better writer (which is, in itself, a luxury few can do).

My internships weren’t guaranteed to lead to employment, but I was eventually offered a freelance writing job that paid every fortnight and paid enough to cover the casual wages I would lose if I quit working at JB. So I did. I cried tears of relief after. JB was a great job. My bosses and colleagues were lovely. The work was insanely boring and I hated being there. But it was technically a good job. Despite working through having shingles when I was 22, and not being able to get out of shifts when I took on a second job and ended up working seven days a week, it was a good job.

Academics and writers call this the exploitation of workers; I called this doing my job. Because I had to. And it was normal. And you know why this article is so boring so far? Because you’ve probably done this too. This is how most people live.

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My first freelance writing gig was writing social media copy for a giant shopping centre. I was basically being paid to flog goods in a shopping centre and I was A-OK with it. I did not have qualms ‘selling out’. If a giant corporation backed by a bank wanted to pay me $300 a week, that was a gift I could not fathom and I would be grateful for it. $300 was a lot of money to me, and is a lot of money to me still.

I was miraculously offered a job I had applied for at an arthouse cinema, being paid $35,000 a year to be their social media and marketing manager. I was so thrilled. My boyfriend took me out for dinner. My mum lent me some money to buy some work clothes. I’d never worked in an office before! In an office, you get your own desk, and you can make yourself a cup of tea whenever you like. I got an email address with my name on it. I could decorate my partition. I could take lunch when I felt like it, and I could afford to buy chips from Grill’d — excited to not be behind the counter, but buying it on my work break.

After six months at this job, I got offered a job at the writers’ festival I had interned for. An arts job! An actual paid arts job. I felt I had finally, finally gotten what I’d worked for. I could finally do something I believed in. But it was not a good job. I felt more exploited there than I had at JB, or Grill’d, or Sportsgirl. Say what you will about the evils of corporations, but they have HR departments, overtime, rules, regulations. And — something I never knew I’d be missing — people like me.

When I worked at Grill’d, everyone felt on the same page. No one loved scrubbing the grill plates at midnight, soaking wet from three loads of dishes while the sinks overflowed — but we did it. No one’s parents paid for their petrol. Everyone had bills to pay while they were studying (or just because this was the job they had wanted and got). When I started working in my arts job, it was like being back in that first semester of uni, finding out that everyone went to private school and never had to work flipping burgers, or their parents paid their rent, or they grew up in Fitzroy or Carlton, or they’d gotten their job after years of part-time or free work in other fun arts orgs doing fun jobs they thought were ‘labour’ and ‘putting in their time’.

But I’d dealt with rich people before. My then-boyfriend was a non-working skateboarder who went to one of the most expensive schools in Melbourne and lived with his parents. I loved him, and people like him.

Rich people aren’t evil. But they do live differently. If you go out for dinner with a rich family, for instance, you all order your own individual drinks instead of getting a jug of coke for the table. I got used to them; the organisations I worked at were full of them. This is true for so many industries, but in the arts I felt especially alone. These people are supposed to be influencing culture in a revolutionary way. How could that happen if they have a limited understanding of the broader culture in which they live?

I often say that my opinion is not worth quite as much as others; I’m not poor, I’m white, I live in Australia. But I’ve found this isn’t true across the board. I’ve met so many university-educated, inner-city dwelling people who’ve often never had to work long hours on their feet in a menial job who feel very confident in their ability to opine, to run organisations, to influence the culture — a culture that is meant to be accessible. It’s possible to overcome this (many do!) but it can often bring with it a lack of perspective; a confidence that makes them feel like they’re being accessible because they tweet articles about how Centrelink is bad, about how the government hates poor people, how they’re not rich, they’re not the bad ones. They talk about privilege as if they don’t have it.

My boss at my arts job was in their 30s and their parents still paid their phone bill. It’s hard to watch someone run the finances of a not-for-profit and talk about helping the poor struggling artists of the world while their dad pays the utilities. How can you manage a team of underpaid staffers and interns if you’ve never really been one of them?

Many people cannot fathom paying $25 for tickets to a panel discussion on sexism in the lit community. Many people don’t have $50 to see an international author — who’s staying in the Sofitel (I know because I escorted them to their rooms) — talk about their book deal and their musings on life.

And yet people within the arts weep — how can people not care? How can people not attend these events? How could they miss it? Is it the government’s fault? Why don’t people VALUE the arts?

I Love Art

I love the arts and know its value is immeasurable. But I have to eat. I have to live. I want to support lit journals (who also get federal funding) but I don’t have a spare $50 or more a year to pay to read these exact same kind of people go around in circles musing on why what they do is important. I can’t afford it. My parents can’t afford it. They don’t care. And why should they? Who has the energy to care when you worked a 12-hour shift at Country Road and imagine some kid who grew up in Fitzroy studying writing at RMIT on his parents’ dime sitting in an air-conditioned studio writing about literature?

I’m telling you every job I’ve had, every arts experience I’ve had because I want you to know the full story. I’m a hypocrite. I’m writing this now, for Junkee, I know. I work four days a week for an environmental organisation doing events management, because that’s what pays my bills. I’m so, so lucky to have this job. I’m even luckier that I can afford a day off a week to write, and to make a small publication (which does not do well, which I pay for myself for the joy of it).

As writer Erin Riley said last week, during the tweetstorm that inspired this, “getting paid money to write is one of the great joys of my life. The worst days are better than my best days in other jobs.”

And that’s the kicker really. Every minute I get to write, or work for an arts org, is an incredible privilege and one I’m thrilled for. There is no time or place for an air of superiority when it comes to these things. If that’s not made clear from the top-down, arts organisations will never gain a wider audience; make a change; speak to the working classes. They’ll languish, mismanaging funds because they have no perspective on what it’s like to be careful with time and money, lamenting the poor growth of the arts sector and wondering why no one buys art.

I know that it’s bigger than this — that the labour market and capitalism result in the arts becoming undervalued and that this is how we got here in the first place. I know this is an anecdotal piece that’s about as useless as a piece on Girls or any other string of tweets about identity politics. I know. But I’m imploring people to consider that for so, so many people, to work in the arts is an incredibly decadent pursuit and one they’d be so lucky to get to do. Imagine watching people ‘work’ doing things they love while you work a job you hate.

This article hasn’t even covered kids who grow up without access to arts or alternative education programs, and never get to know there are arts jobs out there for them at all. Or people who have a longing inside them that they never could quite articulate, so they just work jobs they don’t like, and feel guilty for being miserable for ‘no reason’.

I’m going to get a coffee with the person who tweeted these statements soon and we’re going to talk about it. Because yelling about every inadvertently hurtful remark and every genuinely narrow-minded rich person I’ve met into my echo chamber isn’t helping me, or anyone.

After pouring my thoughts into Twitter, people — some of whom are the very people I’m complaining about — are validating my fury, but a dozen RTs with “THREAD!” above them doesn’t do shit. Writing an article for a left-leaning website doesn’t do shit. I don’t know what will. I can’t get a perfect job for a perfect company following my ~dreams~, but I can talk about why not, and what to do about that with people, and hopefully that does something. I don’t know. I’m too sad, too angry.

Rebecca Varcoe is a writer and events producer from Melbourne. She makes print humour journal Funny Ha Ha and writes about all kinds of things for a few places online.