Laurie Penny wants people to crowd-fund her work. This highlights problems with the labour market, some old and some new.
By most standards, Ms Penny is in a strong position. Whatever you think of her talents – not that it matters because journalism isn’t a meritocracy - she has 157,000 Twitter followers. And yet she can’t parlay these into a fulfilling career in mainstream journalism.
In one sense, she faces a longstanding problem most of us have had – that capitalism thwarts self-actualization. Most of us have had to compromise our ideals and aspirations to some extent to earn a living. As a great man put it, “they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within.”
We’ve all had different solutions to this dilemma. I really admire Ms Penny’s desire to find one that doesn’t entail retreating into dull trade journalism or writing fascist lies for billionaires. I would caution her, though, that alienated work has its compensations: it doesn’t hurt so much when you fail.
It’s long been the case that radical journalism doesn’t pay. Even in the mid-20th century when top journalists were relatively well-paid, there were others who, in Orwell’s words, would hear “the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs”.
This problem, though, has become more acute recently. Ms Penny’s claim that “journalism is an industry in trouble” echoes Nick Cohen: “Jobs are disappearing everywhere, and every journalist views the future with alarm.” We see this in the decline of resource-intensive journalism such as investigative reporters and foreign correspondents and the rise of clickbait, churnalism and being expected to work for nothing.
But here’s the problem. It’s not just in journalism that we’re seeing a decline in erstwhile "middle class" jobs. Academics are struggling with casualisation and oppressive managerialism, and even bankers and lawyers face soul-destroyingly long hours doing what is often tedious work. As Holmes and Mayhew have said (pdf):
Many apparently good non-routine occupations…appear closer to mid-range jobs than top jobs.
Herein, though, lies a question to which I don’t know the answer and which I fear is neglected: could it be that class differences in job satisfaction have narrowed in recent years?
What I mean is that it’s possible that “middle class” jobs have deteriorated relative to “working class” ones. Yes, call centres and warehouses can be horrible, but I’m not sure they’re worse than factory lines and mines: no miner wanted his son to go down the pit. The factory workers in Corrie seem happier in their work than, say, Arthur Seaton was. I don’t have much empirical evidence on this, but I can point to work by Alex Bryson and George MacKerron who have found that the less well-paid are actually happier at work than the better-paid – though they’re all quite unhappy.
You can read that finding in one of two ways. One is that it suggests you can’t escape from unsatisfactory work by finding “better” jobs. This might vindicate Ms Penny’s decision to partially opt out. Another is that equality, in one under-rated dimension, might have increased in recent years.