Taking a career step backward

I came to a realization this evening as I pounded out one more mindless story, this one on Christmas decorations. Yes, Christmas decorations, in late August.

The story was for a guy who owns several Web sites. He needs content for them, and he hires me to write stories. I do this for rates I would have scoffed at just one-and-a-half years ago. But today? I’m grabbing any work I can get.

And most of this work is incredibly unsatisfying. In addition to my Christmas lights story, in the last week I’ve written short stories on power saws, SCUBA computers, gold coins from Canada and remote-controlled cars. None of these subjects are particularly interesting to me.

So, yes, I feel like I’ve taken a step back. In fact, I made the mistake of looking recently at my former assignments from years past. I worked for a lot of respected trade publishers and newspapers. Today, many of these publishers are out of business. Others have slashed their freelance budgets.

So I’m applying to bottom-of-the-barrel writing ads posted on Craigslist, and hoping that my application stands out from the thousands of others that are being sent to these same bottom-feeding jobs.

That’s all very depressing. Fortunately, there is an outlet. I’ve written a few comicbook scripts for publishers. This is work I truly enjoy. And I’m in the middle of writing my own script for a graphic novel. The hope is, once I’m done, I’ll find a good artist to draw the story. I can then send it away for hopeful publication.

The point here is this: You need something to inspire your creative side, even if you spend most of your day plowing through work that feels mindless or pointless to you. If you don’t have that creative stuff to fall back on, you’ll certainly burn out.

One positive with a recession: gender doesn’t matter as much

If you’re a man or a woman, the odds are pretty good that you’re suffering these days. That’s because there’s a recession on, and a full-blown recession like this one doesn’t discriminate between men or women: It hurts them all equally.

Does this count as good news? I’m not sure. But it would have been worse, I think, to see that women were suffering more than men during this economic downturn.

But according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, women with MBA degrees are doing no worse than men with the same degrees during this recession.

A study by the research group Catalyst found that men and women were basicall equally likely to be either promoted or laid off during this economic slump.

Again, I’m not sure I’d label this good news. But maybe it is: Maybe a horrid economy has helped erase just a bit more gender bias from the workplace.

Vacations have to end, work has to restart, what a shame

We spend way too much time working. I came to that conclusion — not for the first time — while I was whittling away the hours last week on vacation. Sure, I was spending that vacation in the tourist hell of Branson, Mo., but still … vacationing in the hearland of country music is still better than sitting in a cubicle at the publishing company at which I work.

So here I am on Monday morning staring at my computer screen and the long, long list of unpleasant tasks scheduled for me this morning. Seems there’s a metting about something later in the day. I have several interviews with people I have little interest in speaking with. Then there are all the boring stories I have to get busy with so I’ll have them done before the month ends.

Yes, it’s pure joy here in workland.

I shouldn’t complain, I know. There are plently of unemployed writers who’d kill for my job, for any job, actually.

Still … I miss waking up and picking up my Branson guidebook. Will we hit the outrageously overpriced Wax Museum today? Will we tackle the hike in the national park? Maybe today’s the day we spend at the amusement park where the admission fee costs the equivalent of a mortgage payment?

(By the way, a note on that wax museum. There’s a Baywatch display. The David Hasselhoff dummy is so tan it looks like someone set it on fire.)

These decisons, though they may seem fairly unpleasant, are 10 times more intriguing than any choice I have before me today: Do I interview the owner of the Minneapolis moving company first or the career counselor who I blew off during my vacation? Choices, choices, choices …

Dismal economic news as we travel across the Midwest

I returned home from my vacation today. I had the pleasure of spending 10 hours in the car with a 2-year-old, driving through the hills of Missouri and back to Chicago.

You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a 2-year-old screech in your ear for most of a day.

We spent our vacation in Branson, Mo. If you don’t know Branson, think of Las Vegas. Only for senior citizens. While Vegas has casinos, Branson’s main drags are choked with country music and comedy shows. The town has Yakov Smirnov. Really. Tony Orlando, too, and one of the guys from Paul Revere & the Raiders.

It’s also a town where everyone has their fingers in your wallet. Case in point: We went to a restaurant that specializes in tosed rolls. This means that every 15 minutes or so, a guy comes out from the kitchen and throws dinner rolls at people. It’s a cute gimmick, and our 10-year-old loved it, though he missed about four rolls that ended up on the floor. (Seems like a terrible waste of food, actually.)

But as soon as our food came out, an employee with a camera hustled over to our table to snap our photo. Yes, this is just what I want hanging in my living room: A picture of me behind a huge plate of fried catfish. Here, I can tell visitors, is the reason why I’m a bit paunchy in my middle age.

Of course, our shutterbug wanted to sell us the photo for $20. I’d only pay that if they snapped a shot right as I was chomping into a big buttered roll. So we passed.

My wallet was still sobbing as we drove across Missouri. The radio reports made it hurt even more, especially a top-notch report from National Public Radio. The show focused on housing foreclosures. Seems it’s not just the greedy or the poor who are losing their homes. Solid, middle-class, bill-paying homeowners are falling victim to foreclosure, too. The reason? They’re either losing their jobs or seeing their take-home income plummet.

The NPR segment highlighted the owner of a small restaurant who’s struggling to make his mortgage payments for the first time in his life because people aren’t eating out as much. He’s taking home about $1,000 a month less in income. That’s had a big impact.

I always tell people that the housing industry isn’t going to truly bounce back until unemployment stops rising. The NPR report offers further proof of this.

Career suck? Why not take a travel break?

Do you enjoy yourself at work? Do you feel mentally challenged? Do you wake up at 5 a.m. each day eager to jump on the train and get to work?

No? Join the crowd.

And if you really want to be adventurous about it, take a break from the working world, a long one.

I know this isn’t the best time to quit your job. There might not be a replacement one out there for you when you’re ready to return to work. Or, even worse, when your bank account tells you it’s time.

But a friend of mine is committed to taking a break. He’s sick of his job. He wakes up ill, he says, at the thought of spending another day in his cubicle at the financial-services job at which he works. His boss doesn’t wash his hands after going to the bathroom, my friend tells me. You know you’ve been at a job too long when you notice annoying habits such as this.

So he’s taking a break to travel to Ireland with his wife. And when he returns? Then he’ll look for a new job. Yes, he quit his current job yesterday.

Of course, my friend is in a good situation. He and his wife don’t have kids. They bought their current home before the housing boom, so they have a low mortgage, most of which they’ve already paid off. And his wife not only actually likes her job, she also likes the size of the paycheck that comes with it. They can handle having my friend out of work for a while.

In fact, they can probably handle that better than they can handle him being miserable each day at work.

I always preach about how our life should not be only about work. My friend, though, isn’t just preaching about this, he’s living it. I wish him luck.

Better get used to those high unemployment rates

Tired of seeing unemployment linger near 10 percent? Well, you better get used to it. According to a growing number of economists, the country won’t see normal unemployment levels again until sometime around 2014.

According to an Associated Press story, many economists think it won’t be until then that we’ll see unemployment drop back to levels of about 5 percent. Yes, that means it’s going to be awfully tough to find a job for the next five years or so.

This is more than just a bit depressing. It makes me think, though, that we’ll see a growing number of people begin their own businesses. If you can’t find a job working for someone else, why not start your own business? Sure, the odds are good that it will eventually fail. But the odds aren’t so great that you’ll keep a job when you’re working for someone else, either, unfortunately.

Working my way through Branson

I’m no fan of country music. I don’t really like chain restaurants, miniature golf or waterparks, either. Yet here I find myself in Branson, Mo., where you can catch Andy Williams, Tony Orlando (without Dawn, unfortunately) and one of the guys from Paul Revere & the Raiders.

Did I mention that summer in Missouri is like walking through soup?

It’s a family vacation, though, and you really can’t beat it, no matter how cheesy the entertainment. And we’ve met our friends from Dallas, here, too, so it’s doubly fun.

The big problem — besides the heat — is that I have to work throughout my vacation. It’s hard enough to fire up the computer and begin typing away during normal working weeks. But on vacation? That laptop looks like poison ivy. I want to shut it up in my backpack and not give it a glance.

Today’s economy, though, doesn’t allow for that. Maybe two years ago, I’d take a full week off of work. Today, though, with writing assignments harder to come by, I can’t afford to let an entire week go by without any writing. So I’ll dutifully flip open my laptop and get to work.

It’s a drag. But, I admit, it is better than the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum they have here. It seems to be a curse of the Midwest: Every tourist-trap town has a Ripley’s museum.

Obama hopes to revive spirits in suffering Indiana community

You think unemployment is high where you live? The odds are good that it’s even worse in Elkhart, Ind.

That’s because the unemployment rate in this Indiana community is nearing 17 percent. That’s a rather frightening figure.

Pres. Barack Obama stopped at Elkhart yesterday to give a speech about the economy and his hopes that things are turning around. He took the bold step of tying his own fate into the fate of this Midwest community, saying that he expects to look back at the end of his first term in office to see that Elkhart has come back from the brink, according to a story reported by ABC News.

It’s a pretty risky move. You can bet Obama’s political opponents will be happy to throw this prediction back in the president’s face in 2012 should the unemployment rate in Elkhart – or the rest of the country — still be sky-high.

Personally, I think it’s a nice gesture by Obama. It’s nice to have a president who actually seems like he gives a damn about folks who aren’t wealthy. Will Obama’s policies work? Will they reduce unemployment and get the U.S. economy back on track? Who knows? But at least Obama’s trying. It didn’t seem like our last president even did that much.

The stress before vacation

I’m off on vacation at the end of this week. We’re off to Branson, Mo. I don’t like country music. And I know it’s going to be 90 degrees and swampy all week in Missouri. But still, it’ll be nice to get away. And our kids should have a blast.

But there’s a challenge with taking a vacation, isn’t there? Can you do it without working? I know I can’t. I’ll never finish all my due assignments before I take off on Friday morning. That means I’ll be traveling with my laptop. And after the kids fall off to bed, I’ll be tapping away on blog posts and stories.

Friends of mine who work stable office jobs always tell me that they’re more tired after their vacations then they are during them. That’s because the work furiously the week before they leave to get stuff done. Then, when they return, there’s tons of work piled up on their desks, waiting for them.

It’s not easy these days to take a break from work. So many companies are operating on skeleton staffs, which means that vacationing workers have even more jobs looming for them when they return from Magic Kingdoms or Grand Canyons.

But, hey, we all need a vacation anyway. And when you’re gone, try your hardest to at least cut back significantly on the amount of work you do during your family vacation. Remember, your families need you more than your company does. (And if you lose your job, your family will still be there. Your co-workers and bosses certainly won’t.)

Self-employed workweek never ends

There are a lot of advantages to working for yourself. But there are some big disadvantages, too. For one thing, there’s no one responsible but you should times get tough. Secondly, it’s awfully hard to turn off the workweek.

There’s always one more thing to do before shutting off the computer at the end of the day. It can play havoc with people’s personal lives. It can even endanger a marriage.

And it’s even worse in today’s struggling economy, at least according to this story in the Wall Street Journal. The self-employed are worried that they’ll miss a big contract or a financially strong deal, so they’re more afraid then ever to take vacations or long weekends. It all adds up to nonstop work.

We all know that there’s nothing fun about working all the time. Sure, there are people who thrive on working long hours, who dedicate the majority of their lives to business. But what if that business fails? What are these folks left with?

That’s a scary thought for any dedicated self-employed professional. Unfortunately, in today’s gasping economy, a growing number of self-employed consultants, writers and business owners are facing that very question.