On Work and Wages

One day when I was bored in class, I decided to count all the jobs I’ve had since I first started working — from when I was 18.


I counted anything that required me fill out paperwork — from being a note-taker at my first university to a caricature artist to a personal assistant.

The final count was 25.

That’s an average of five jobs per year, with most of them being from the first three years. The longest I ever went without working from 18 to almost 23 was when I went abroad for four months in France, surviving off the generous wage I received from my last internship.

In the beginning, I was paid minimum wage, which was $8.00. It was age 19 when I was paid higher than minimum wage for a part-time regular job, $10. Age 21 was the last time I was paid minimum wage, when I got a raise as personal assistant and social media coordinator. Along the way I took a lot of stipend jobs to boost my income as well. I’ve had one internship that paid me a stipend of a few hundred a month and another that was completely free because I was bored and it was 20 minutes from where I lived.

I was curious about the upward mobility trend of my work history so I made a chart. I took out jobs that were paid on stipend since they would be difficult to graph, but left my unpaid internship to show the impact an unpaid internship makes. The gaps on the chart show the brief periods that I did not work.


Why does my job history look like this?

Well, part of the answer is that I’m a workaholic. I’m ambitious, easily bored, and I like learning about different industries. I prefer advancement over job stability so I always kept applying to better jobs. I also changed locations a lot, so it made sense to job-hop. But I also didn’t like to return to former jobs, even if they were decent.

The other part of it is the fact that from the age of about age 11 to 21 and a half, I was relatively poor. My family lived off a small, single-parent wage for a household of three to five people. I got tired of saving up petty amounts of money from a weekly allowance, so I took a job and then three. Though at my first university in expensive Malibu, what I made rarely felt like enough. When I was 19, my mom’s firm went out of business and we were surviving on welfare for several months. That was a dark time in my life, where I was juggling a part-time job with an internship and community college, commuting up to six hours a day. I remember a wealthy “friend” shaming me for even asking for a ride when the gas bill took the majority of my mom’s welfare check and bus fare and lunch could cost me two hours of work in a measly four-hour day.

Some of the past jobs make me cringe. I’ve been subject to verbally abusive treatment from coworkers and bosses. I held most of these jobs when I couldn’t drive, didn’t have a car, and was forced to use public transportation, which is downright awful in Los Angeles. Because of all the walking and public transport, I was often a victim of catcalling and street harassment. Today, I sometimes don’t hear my own name called out from friends on campus because I’ve grown so used to staring straight ahead, not making eye-contact, and ignoring all the sounds around me as a defense mechanism.

But there was some goodness out of the chaos. I’ve learned to respect retail-workers, restaurant workers, and customer service people. It’s sad that even while my mother was poor, she was still incredibly classist – and saw herself as better than waitstaff. This was something that I had to train myself out of and humbling yourself through menial minimum-wage jobs is one way to do it. And while I’ve had bad bosses, I’ve had good ones too. It takes the stark difference to make me realize that I will never, ever, ever work for awful people again now that I have the ability to choose. And respect is a blessing that can’t be read through simple numbers.

Aspects of what I’ve lived through make me proud. These jobs were not a product of nepotism (though I personally don’t really see anything wrong with parents helping their kids out with a head start.) I started from ground zero and through hard work, a lot of rage, sweat, and tears, and maybe 120 job applications and 80 customized resumes, I climbed to where I am now. With my 23rd birthday coming up, it feels a little surreal. No college degree, five years of work and college, and I’m already being paid significantly better than my mother – who survived on the same income for the last twenty years to feed two kids.

That many resumes.

But the survivor’s guilt doesn’t wear off for me. In this economy that’s so harsh on low-income students of color, why did I make it out? I think about fast food workers working up a sweat and dealing with rude customers while in the mornings, while I’m grabbing free coffee and waiting for my coworkers to slowly show up in their cubicles. I’m thinking about the woman I met at the Rez who told me that many Natives were recruited to work for the mines – putting dust in their lungs for a decent wage. I think of students from underfunded public schools, dropping out of college because they either can’t pay or can’t pass, or their scholarships expired and they had no safety net.

And I realize while I happened to love the grind, the grind (and capitalism) doesn’t love love back. And what worked for me – saying “fuck it” to my GPA and a ‘practical major’ – to focus on working, probably doesn’t work well for everyone either.
Even while being a poor woman of color, privilege played a part – being natural writer and speaker paved my way to successful cover letters and interviews when grammar mistakes could mean the wastebasket for those who weren’t the best at language.

I look back at the chart and I realize, while I can’t make generalizations for everyone else, my experiences have helped shape me into who I am. It’s why now, I hate the concept of unpaid internships and believe in paying fair wages even if your company doesn’t have a lot to begin with. It’s why I have the greatest respect for students that work or workers that go back to college. It’s why I’m disillusioned with the college model – because classes and good grades didn’t get me to where I am – job experience did, and a graduation date on my resume is all I’m looking forward to. It’s why the concept of meritocracy doesn’t ring true when we didn’t start on the same foot. What would I have done if I had the same privilege as the friend that looked down on me, because her 18th birthday came with a Prius and an all expenses-paid private school? It’s why I don’t believe in the American dream but I do believe in proactiveness, non-complacency, and calculated risks and sacrifices. And it’s why I aspire to be the kind of entrepreneur that invests in people and meaningful relationships – not numbers.

For an older, slightly-relevant article, check out The Part-Time Minimum Wage Job Finding Guide.


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