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A freelancer’s lot is not a happy one


As Erik pointed out the other day in the salary post/thread, people don’t like to talk about how much money they’re making, and they ESPECIALLY don’t want to talk about how much money they’re not making.

Joel Anderson writes a column at Slate about personal financial matters, and this week it’s about the increasing difficulty verging more and more on impossibility of making a living as a freelancer writer, in the age of free Internet content, media conglomeration, 12 million substack subscriptions, and even the occasional top 100 political science blog. BTW our 20th anniversary is coming up this spring, and if you’ve read and/or commented at LGM for years and never contributed anything to the site you need to get your mind right this year.

Anyway, he had an interview with a fairly well known/successful journalist all set to go, when the journalist — obviously a woman although Anderson does his level best to disguise this — sort of cheeched out on him, because in this culture everybody is socialized to feel terrible about talking about their financial situation, especially if it features any sort of struggling, as absurd as that norm is in a business (writing) that’s just one big ball of precarity right now for everyone but a handful of hyper-lucky and/or privileged meritocrats.

This journalist was in the midst of realizing a long-term project they’d been working on wasn’t going to pan out. And even after getting good print work, they knew the rates didn’t make sense—$1,500 for a 3,000-word reported feature that requires travel wasn’t going to work out to a reasonable hourly rate. So they were preparing. “I’ve been taking out some zero-interest credit cards, just in case. I took out a personal loan to get me through the first part of the year,” they told me. After the big project fell apart, they were scrambling. “That was going to be part of my income this year.” . . .

A little bit of the journalist’s now highly anonymized narrative:

I remember having to pay as much as a third as much in divorce attorney fees as I got in the settlement. And I did not expect it to be a fight. It turned into a big fight.

We were very comfortable. And I went through a period of not having to think about money, which at first blows your mind and then you get used to it. It’s amazing.

I think I’ve heard other [people] who get divorced say this too. You go from like 60 (miles per hour) to zero. Or maybe not zero, but from 60 to 30 in terms of, like, your lifestyle.

I did not slam on the brakes. I did it more slowly than I wish I had in terms of, like, “Oh, I no longer live a life where I can just do things that I used to do.”

Oh, this is a big one right now, which is that something broke, so I’ll fix it. I’ll pay to get it fixed. But, no, that’s not actually how my life is right now. What I am is back to living a kind of a normal life where I once was living a life where I was incredibly privileged to be able to just fix everything that needed to be fixed.

On keeping up with the mortgage payments:

I worry about it all the time. I worry about keeping it, but I have convinced myself, you know, this is my retirement, and you can go into debt to keep your retirement.

I feel like it is my retirement that I am living in. I put all my savings into this. I have, like, a 401(k) that I haven’t been able to put much into in the past three years. I was still married when we bought this, but it was our second home.

But I remember talking to my dad about, like, how I don’t have any savings left. And my dad was like, “You’re living in your retirement. That’s your retirement.”

My monthly payment is less than $3,000, which is still high. But for the area, that’s not bad. And if it stays that way for the rest of my life, that’s pretty good.

It’s a nice one-story [house] that’s manageable. I can imagine living here for another 10, 15 years. I mean, it is an investment. And I know I’m lucky. I talk to some people who—we do money commiserating and they’re like, “But you have a house.” And I have to keep remembering, “You’re right. Yes. Yes.”

I wonder what percentage of marriages stay together because divorce is simply a luxury that isn’t affordable for one or both of the partners in the enterprise?

Anyway, while reading this it struck me that one of my oldest friends is a well-known and very successful journalist for a big deal publication, and I have NO idea at all what he makes. From the occasional offhand comment he’ll make, I suspect the answer is “a lot less than I would have guessed.”

And it’s obviously getting worse all the time in the “content provider” world.

The other day it suddenly struck me that in another generation or so 99% of all written text will be AI-generated, and people like your faithful correspondents at LGM will be considered “bespoke” providers of individually handcrafted quasi-luxury items, like a Savile Row suit made of words.

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