What are you resorting to in this down economy?

I used to scoff at freelance writers who would take crummy assignments for low pay. It seemed demeaning to me. Writers are professionals, and we should be paid like it.

Well, these scoffing days are now officially over. For the last two weeks, I’ve joined the ranks of what are known as online content writers. Think of it as working on an assembly line, only for a writer.

Basically, I’m taking on $12 assignments to write short “stories” — usually about 400 words or so — about bland topics such as pillow cushions, motorcycle goggles and windshield repair. I crank these out, get my $12 in Paypal and say goodbye to my stories. There are no bylines on these. I do imagine, though, that they are flooding the Internet right now, adding to the impossible amount of junk floating around in cyberspace.

I bring this up not so you readers will pity me. I’m fortunate, I know, that I still have a full-time writing job at publishing company. The economy has played havoc with the freelance writing I do on the side to help support my family, but my full-time employer, the one who doles out the health insurance, hasn’t kicked me to the curb yet.

I am interested, though, in knowing how you’ve lowered your own work standards during this recession. Are you now taking on jobs that you never thought you’d have to tackle? Are you working harder for more money, grateful that you have work at all?

Let me know. I have the sinking suspicion that we are becoming a nation that’s now willing to work harder than ever for less pay than we’ve ever considered fair.

Back to the land of garage sales and no jobs

This Memorial Day weekend, I traveled back to Southwest Michigan to visit my wife’s parents. It’s always an experience traveling to Michigan: In April, the unemployment rate in Michigan hit 12.9 percent. That was the worst in the nation.

So it’s a bit depressing traveling to Southwest Michigan. The state is in terrible shape, and this region of the state is especially poor these days.

But while the jobs aren’t here, the garage-sale business seems to be thriving.

Driving to my in-laws’ home, I counted more than a dozen garage sales. And at every one, the cars filled the side of the road.

I’ve never understood the allure of garage sales. They’re just a way for people to swap their junk for other people’s junk, right?

But I can sort of understand them in Michigan. There isn’t a lot to look forward to in the state these days. Maybe the chance of finding a hidden gem among CDs from the late ’80s and board games with half their pieces missing is at least one small ray of hope for Michiganders struggling, seemingly in vain, to hold onto their jobs.

Does misery love company? Not when it comes to job losses

I hate hearing from my neighbors or friends about their job struggles.

As a freelance writer, I’m struggling to meet my monthly financial goals. My print-magazine clients are all going out of business or cutting back on their budget for freelance writers. The online sources I’ve replaced them with pay far, far less.

This means I’m working longer hours for less money. I’m taking on more assignments than ever, but making less money than I’ve made in three years. And, yes, it does tick me off.

I know some people subscribe to the old “misery loves company” theory. It goes like this: I’m struggling right now. I’m out of work. It sure makes me feel a bit less cruddy that my neighbor down the street just had his hours cut in half.

For me, though, it doesn’t work. Hearing about other’s job misfortunes just makes me more antsy. It’s tough to make it out there these days. Every time someone else gets fired or has his or her working hours shaved, it’s just one more reminder that this recession isn’t nearly over yet.

What do unemployed people like? There’s a blog with an answer

Back when the recession was first gaining steam, the mainstream media wrote a few stories about the ranks of uemployed people blogging about their experiences. It was a fun story on a rather grim topic.

I visited some of these blogs earlier today and found that many of them hadn’t been updated in months. I hope these folks found jobs. Unfortunately, they’re probably just grew tired of writing about being broke and bored.

There is one unemployment blog, though, that’s still going strong: Stuff Unemployed People Like.

This is a particularly clever blog. For instance, the top post today focused on the dread unemployed people feel when their friends with jobs routinely ask them to give them free rides to work.

Another post addresses the one question that unemployed people hate: “How was your day?”

Go visit the blog. And — hint, hint — there are some AdSense ads on it. Remember, the unemployed need all the help they can get.

And what am I doing during the downturn?

I’ve written a lot about how other folks are holding onto their careers — or not — during the economic downturn. But I’ve not shared a whole lot about how the economy is hitting me, and what I’m doing about it.

So here’s a little bit: Before the recession, I specialized in writing about residential real estate. I wrote for several newspapers and trade magazines about this topic. It was great during the housing boom. I never lacked for markets for my stories. But now that the housing industry is in the toilet? All those markets have disappeared.

So, I’m branching out. I’m doing more ghost blogging, writing for blogging networks, Web site writing and content writing. It’s a lot of work, and it doesn’t pay nearly as well, but it is keeping me afloat. It allows me to pay my bills without having to get a side job working the night shift at the local 7-11.

I won’t lie, though. I’d love a time machine. I’d love to hope back to 2004 and do things differently. If I had had more foresight, I would have already been branching out from my real estate niche back then. I mean, everyone knew that housing prices were going to fall eventually, right?

But you know what they say about hindsight …

Today I’m working harder for less money. But I do console myself with the fact that I’m working, at least.

How about you out there? How has the economy impacted your career?

Age can work against you in today’s job market

Are you too old? How about too young? Either way, it might work against you in today’s job market.

At least that’s the news from the Wall Street Journal, which recently ran a feature story about the challenges that both younger and older workers face today. Guess it’s best to be about 35 or so these days.

Labor lawyers interviewed by the Journal say that employees in their 20s and 30s are more at risk of layoffs today because their employers are hoping to avoid age-discrimination lawsuits. To do this, a growing number of them are adopting the dreaded “last one in, first one out” policy.

Some young childless workers told the Wall Street Journal that they worry that they are being targeted in layoffs, while their co-workers with families to support are protected.

For selfish reasons, I like the idea of keeping the workers with families employed. Of course, that’s because I have a family of my own, and I like the idea of keeping my job, no matter how frustrating it can be.

The perfect solution, though, would be for employers to lay off the lay-offs for a while. I think companies have already cut to the bone. Sometimes I wonder if they’re laying off more people just because this seems like the perfect time to cut expenses by forcing remaining employees to work harder than ever.

There’s no proof of that, of course. But I do have my suspicions.

Taking on more work. Not taking on more pay

This bad economy is causing employees to make decisions they normally wouldn’t make. I’mseeing more workers, for instance, willing to take on extra assignments without even the hope of some sort of financial bonus.

I’m not criticizing. With the national unemployment rate continuing to rise, it’s natural for workers to do whatever they can to ingratiate themselves with their bosses.

Besides, I’m no position to criticize. I’m taking on additional work at the publishing company where I work. And I’m doing it for free, too.

I’ll soon be the editor of a second monthly magazine at the company. Unfortunately, there will be no additional pay for this work.

Yes, this stinks. And, yes, it does aggravate. But like an increasing number of workers, I can only sigh and accept my fate. I don’t want to be unemployed. Not ever, sure, but certainly not today.

But there is one thing, one slight thing that I’m hanging onto. The economy will recover eventually. The job market will open up one day.

And when it does? Well, I won’t have too many worries about leaving my current employer behind. And I’m sure I’m not alone. Employees remember how they were treated during the bad times. It’s a lesson that employers will soon learn.

Something about this story really made me nervous

These are uncertain times. No one’s job seems to be truly safe.

But sometimes you just want to forget about that fact. Then you grab the morning paper — in my case, the Chicago Tribune — and you read a front-page story that really gives you the willies.

The story describes how quickly a family can fall from the ranks of the middle class to the poor after its primary breadwinner loses a job.

The Tribune story focuses on the Robbins family. When Patrick Robbins loses his job as a sportswear buyer making $110,000 a year, his family quickly goes from not worrying about money to almost suffocating with financial issues.

There’s something gripping about the story. Maybe it’s the fact that the Robbins family didn’t have that 6-month emergency cushion of savings that financial experts always tell us to have on hand. Thing is, I don’t know many families — if any — that have that kind of cushion built up.

Day-to-day life is expensive, isn’t it? Even if you have a good job, the bills pile up.

Maybe that’s what made me so nervous reading the Tribune’s story. The Robbins family could be my family, very easily. I suspect it could be yours, too.

Looking for work? Don’t pay for career help that you can get for free

When people are out of work, they’re a bit panicky. That’s human nature.

Picture yourself without your steady income. Think you wouldn’t get a little dizzy thinking of how, exactly, you’ll be paying that mortgage? I know I’d have my head in the oven. Blogging doesn’t do much to help make a mortgage payment.

These nerves can get the best of even the most level-headed job seeker. There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there who’ll happily charge job hunters plenty of bucks to reshape their resume’s, coach them on job interviews or help them tap into their networks.

But there are plenty of free resources out there for job seekers, resources that will help them keep their suddenly limited amount of dollars.

The Houston Chronicle recently published a good story on these resources. You can read it here. The story, though, cites religious groups, job fairs, government programs and even former employers as good sources to receive free job-hunting help.

It’s hard for people to think clearly when they’re suddently out of work. It’d be a shame, though, for them to skip the freebies that are out there.

Busy signal: Automated phone system shuts out unemployed

Being out of a job is bad enough. But how frustrating is it when you’re unemployed and you have to deal with government bureaucracy — and failing technology — at the same time?

Pretty dang frustrating, I’d say.

Just ask unemployed workers in New Jersey, who, according to this story, faced just that combination of annoyances yesterday.

In New Jersey, unemployed workers must call into an automated phone system every two weeks and report that they are still looking for a job in order to qualify for their unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, on Monday, that automated phone system went on the fritz, meaning that about 2,000 to 3,000 unemployed workers were not able to be certified for benefits.

Can you imagine the frustration, and, probably, fear, that these workers felt? When you’re out of work, you depend on those unemployment benefits. Without them, how do you survive? I know the New Jersey snafu was just that, a snafu, a temporary glitch. But for a worker trying to claim their benefits it can be something far more: a moment of panic in a life already filled with stress.