The skillz to pay the billz

Just another 90s sellout

Greetings friends far and wide–

I’m actually very excited to welcome a group of new subscribers! I don’t know how you found me, but I’m glad you did, thank you for being here. Today is the first sunny day in weeks here in Paris and the interminable grayness has been getting me down, like an incongruous seasonal affective disorder. Summer, you are not living up to expectations! But that’s the case everywhere, and it’s not really anything to joke about. What even is a season anymore? As Ezra Klein wrote in an op-ed this week, “It Seems Odd That We Would Just Let the World Burn”. Whatever I’m doing–shopping locally and seasonally, wishful recycling, meat-limiting, car and plane-avoiding–just doesn’t feel like enough, because it really isn’t. “I suspect that human beings will not go extinct from climate change, but I have higher standards than that,” as Klein quotes climate scientist Kate Marvel. “I don’t want to just not go extinct,” she says, and I agree. I’m not throwing my hands up in hopelessness, but we need we need a radical reset, a potentially violent one, as Klein considers, that will cause some necessary friction in life as we know it. Exactly what struggle will be real enough for us to change course? Which of our values need to be threatened to the point of instigating an insurrection, one that might actually be meaningful and effective? And is that even possible?

This isn’t at all what I’m writing about this week, but it is on my mind. Maybe it’s on yours, too.

Yeah this is totally from Sassy, 1994.

I've started to come to terms with the fact that I'm a Xennial, part of that so-called micro-generation born between 1977 and 1981. My acceptance isn't just a matter of submitting to the whims of demography. It's also that I identify with both the cynicism of Gen X and the go-get'em attitude of Millennials, if not in equal measure. Where this has largely born out in my own life has been through my ambition, a quality that, if you're even distantly familiar with the Gen X canon, was roundly disavowed as uncool. But as a born and bred high-achiever, I never once felt like the prevalent label of 'slacker' applied to me, nor would I have wanted it to. To quote journalist Sarah Vowell, “Even though my friends and I all looked like extras from ‘Reality Bites, our Puritan work ethic was probably more 1690s than 1990s.”

Even still, no one–least of all ourselves–expected us to get 'real' jobs, where we'd be consigned to the sort of paper-pushing, middle-managing purgatory in which most adults seemed to soullessly toil until retirement. Nor would we don a brass-buttoned power suit just to cling to whatever rung of the ladder we could reach.

That didn't mean we weren't willing to work, it didn't mean we lacked dreams and ideas and pursuits that we cared about. In the most doubly ironic Gen X reference I can think of, a character in Richard Linklater's Slacker draws a card from an Oblique Strategies deck that reads: “withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” Instead, we followed our independent DIY ethos down more creative pathways, like, I don't know...building the internet, for example.

Coming of age during the early to mid-nineties, there was no more vicious insult than calling someone a sellout. But to be a sellout wasn't as much of a rejection of capitalism as many would make it out to be. Rather, it was a rejection of a set of principles that fetishized ideas of artistic purity and integrity. "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is spelled out in lights behind Courtney Love in Hole's "Miss World" video, perhaps the biggest F-U to the culture of antihero worship that killed her husband and demonized her own rise to fame. Needless to say, this created a gray area when it came to defining an acceptable notion of success. Careerism was egregious, but having a career...well, you've made your bed, so...

All of this to say that for over twenty years I think I managed to toe the line between my Gen X values and my Millennial work ethic. It's true that I sidelined my plans to become a writer in favor of a more lucrative and stable path. I didn't explicitly choose my career in design so much as I followed the thread of opportunity wherever it led me. Ultimately my decisions supported the maintenance of a certain lifestyle–to work in a creative environment, to live in vibrant cities, to travel a little bit–and maybe desiring that lifestyle was a form of selling out in itself, but if that’s the case, then I've made my peace with it. Frankly, it's not like I was ever any kind of punk anyway. I've always liked having nice things, but I've also always known how much I need to work in order to have them.

But it's finally happened. I really have sold out this time. I took a job in content marketing. Content. Marketing. Two words that, when taken together, raise the hair on the back of my neck. Do you know what content marketing is? It is the production of content explicitly for the purpose of selling products and services. It is a game of hyper-optimizing a piece of characterless writing by larding up the sentences with variations on a single keyword or phrase so that it might claw its way to the top of search results, thus increasing the odds that a particular service provider will win your business, or at least your temporary attention. It is, in large part, responsible for the vast heap of stinky digital landfill we confront every time we're just trying to get a straight answer out of Jeeves.

And thus, reader, I have violated the sacred code of conduct set forth for my generation by the prophet Lloyd Dobler:

“I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”

If I must put a finer point on what makes me feel like a sellout, it’s that I feel like a shill, a member of the marketing goon squad. It’s because I’ve signed on for what late anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber would call a bullshit job, a role in an industry "so pointless, or even pernicious, that even the person doing the job secretly believes that it shouldn’t exist. Of course, you have to pretend — that’s the bullshit element, that you kind of have to pretend there’s a reason for this job to be here. But secretly, you think if this job didn’t exist, either it would make no difference whatsoever, or the world would actually be a slightly better place."

As he describes it in a 2018 interview published in Jacobin magazine:

On the one hand, you have the jobs that are shit jobs but are actually useful. If you’re cleaning toilets or something like that, toilets do need to be cleaned, so at least you have the dignity of knowing you’re doing something which is benefiting other people — even if you don’t get much else. And on the other hand, you have jobs where you’re treated with dignity and respect, you get good payment, you get good benefits, but you secretly labor under the knowledge that your job, your work, is entirely useless.

No one forced me to take this job. I chose it. I applied for it. Yet, here I am, two weeks into this new gig, biting the hand that feeds me. Why are you such an asshole, you ask?, to which I reply, please see all of the above 90s cultural programming. It's not my fault!

Regarding content marketing as bullshit is not exactly what I'd call an unpopular opinion, but it is difficult to square with the fact–an upside, if you will–that at least this job means I'm actually getting paid to write. And I'm certainly not the first aspiring writer out there to submit to the pesky need to have a stable income stream (or streams, because every writer or artist I know has at least five jobs) to support their ability to make art. There were other opportunities on the table, mind you, roles that offered more money and therefore more responsibility, roles that ultimately I’m glad didn’t work out for the amount of bandwidth they’d require.

The role that did work out, though, is one that's required some value negotiations in this hostage situation of late capitalism we call life. Thanks to the Millennial-led dismantling of the architecture of work, my new job is fully remote, and almost fully asynchronous. I can work from wherever in the world I want, essentially on whatever schedule works for me, allowing for an overlap of a few hours with the EST timezone. There's a baseline expectation to produce two pieces of content per week, and I can work at my own pace in moving them from research through drafting.

So now I've gone from being someone who works on the internet to someone who works for it. But I've also gone from someone who designed their life around work to someone who's now able to design work around my life. In the end, I'd have to call bullshit on myself if I didn't cop to the fact that I'm grateful for this job, and the accompanying freedom to pursue my dream to write full time. “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person forever,” said Adam Horowitz, aka AdRock, on stage in 2019 at Brooklyn's Kings Theatre. The Beastie Boys never worried about selling out, or at least never gave a shit about it. Neither did they 'burn out or fade away,' like too many of their Gen X contemporaries. They just grew up.

So what'cha, what'cha, what'cha want?

Sometimes you just gotta check your head.