March 6, 2019

Alice: One Indignity At A Time

This story comes from Alice, a contingent worker at Facebook. Their name and a few details have been changed or obscured to protect their privacy.

I started college an idealist; who doesn’t? I had always dreamed about going into public radio, so I was drawn to broadcast journalism. I did some public radio work in college, but come graduation, reality sunk in, as it typically does: I put dreams on pause and started worrying about loans, earning a living, adulting. I was freaked out by job prospects in the journalism industry.

Hoping to build skills, I ended up going into consulting. For a couple of years, I worked for a consulting firm. However, I realized that I wasn’t gaining any substantial skills in any field. Seeking change, I applied to roles everywhere I could. When I saw a listing that looked adjacent to journalism and hinted that I would be working for Facebook, I applied to every single recruiter I could find. Job-hunting is truly a full-time job of its own, and my job hunt was as draining as it gets.

There was light at the end of the tunnel. Eight headhunters later, I landed a job here at Facebook. Well, technically, a job at a contracting agency that contracted me out to Pro Unlimited in exchange for a cut of my paycheck. Pro Unlimited further contracted me out to Facebook. It’s just faster and less of a heartache to say “I landed a job at Facebook”, even though I can’t put it on my resume or LinkedIn profile, or even on my Facebook profile. I had never heard of this contracting agency, or Pro Unlimited either. Who doesn’t know Facebook though?

I was proud to have landed this job. From the first day, I was happy to come in to work because I was doing something mildly impactful. Impact aside, though, my favorite thing about the job was the people: I made a number of good friends, and I was just happy to come in and see them every day. In the last few months, a series of changes in team structure and policy has soured our collective mood. I’m not quite so happy to come in to work anymore. But my friends, we help each other survive one day at a time, one indignity at a time.

I went through college assuming I’d do something to change the world, “make the world a better place” as most Silicon Valley companies like to say. That was the idealist in me. As I think about it now though, the longer I have been in the workforce, the less I believe that I’ll be able to find a job that would both pay a living wage and be meaningful to me. I’ve grown to care less about leaving a lasting impact, as long as I’m not doing something evil. I care a lot more about my life at home. I live with my partner and a cat. Just being able to come home to them brings me joy. In a job, I have settled for just the ability to make enough money so that we feel relatively secure and can continue building a life together, surviving one day at a time. We have ruled out having kids in part because they are so expensive, and our lives would be much easier if we didn’t have such a heavy burden to bear.

The number one thing I’m worried about right now is being stuck in these kinds of contracting roles forever. Never making more than $25 an hour, and being a permanent contractor, spending half my life in work environments that just wear me down to the core. This job has been really bad for my mental health. I feel like this job has beaten the passion out of me, both professionally and in other areas of life. I must still be slightly idealist; I always assumed that my professional path would start with doing these kinds of bullshit jobs, and then somehow making it into a real job that I’m proud to be in and that will make me a decent amount of money-- a grownup job. Now I’m worried that I’ll never be able to make that happen, because more of us are becoming contingent workers, and the separation between us and everyone else is so strictly enforced. I feel that I’m always going to be second class. Even if I do end up “making it” to a full-time role somewhere, I worry that I’ll just end up perpetuating this profoundly unjust two-tier system. I’m also worried about my financial security. If I were fired right now I wouldn’t be able to make rent; My partner is a student with no income-- I don’t know how we would survive.

I have lived in the Bay Area for a few years now, in the East Bay. I wish I could stay here longer-term, but it doesn’t seem financially viable for my partner and me. We’re only starting out in our careers but we’re already living in a place that’s so soul-suckingly expensive. We’re thinking about moving someplace like Montana, but in the meantime, I’m really enjoying my time here. I have found some hidden gems in the Bay Area that have become my favorite places. I really like hiking at the Albany Bulb, a man-made island that’s attached to the coast of Albany and Berkeley. Way back in the day there used to be a lightbulb factory there. After the factory was demolished it became sort of a wild park: piles of rubble covered with graffiti, wildflowers and trees, a beach, and hiking trails with skyline views. It’s really beautiful!

From a work point of view, I care about user rights. Not so much the quality of user experience, but putting limits on the extent to which social media companies exploit their users. It’s so important for users to have advocates within Facebook and other companies like it. If I can hold on to life in the tech world, which I’d like to, that’s the kind of role I’d like to end up having.

So yeah, that’s me, Alice. I’m just like you: I worry about my rent and my career, I love my cat, and I love living in the Bay Area. But overall, I’m not doing so okay here on the precipice.

Thank you for reading my story.