There’s no question that a part-time economy has taken hold in the U.S.
Since 2007, the rate of Americans working part-time rose from 17% to nearly 20%, a trend that has as much to do with the sluggish economic recovery as with employers’ general wariness about hiring.
And it can be worrisome for today’s young workers.
One in five college graduates are considered underemployed in the U.S., according a report by the Economic Policy Institute, leading many young adults to scrape by with a patchwork of part-time, contract or temporary gigs and none of the usual benefits of full-time employment, like health care and retirement accounts.
That leaves a lot of workers with a nagging uncertainty about being able to pay next month’s rent. Others, meanwhile, wouldn’t have it any other way, preferring the flexibility and freedom that comes with not being tied to a 9-to-5 office job.
We spoke with a few 20-somethings to find out what it’s like to face the daily grind of the part-time economy. Here’s what they had to say.
Jersey City, N.J.
Jobs: 5 – Social media marketer; sales rep; travel guide author; lifestyle blogger
Juliet Obodo has given up on buying business cards. It’s not as if the 29-year-old New Jersey native doesn’t have an employer to supply them. The problem is she has too many.
“I honestly don’t have business cards because I don’t know what to put on them,” she deadpans. “Whenever I’m at events and someone asks [for a card], I just lie and say I left them at home.” Over the last three years, Obodo, who has a background in sales and marketing, has juggled anywhere from three to five jobs at a time.
Finding part-time work began as a way to pay off some of her five-figure student loan and credit debt, but Obodo took well to being her own boss.
“It’s always been difficult for me to have one job,” she says. “I took a trip to Spain to visit a friend a few years back and I realized their way of life was just so different from what I was doing. They work but they don’t work to live. I wanted to find that for myself.”
She decided to launch two websites, starting with Fete du Juliet, where she takes in up to $1,000 a month from advertising, promoting nightlife spots in New York and writing sponsored posts for other blogs. Once Fete was up and running, she moved on to ChicVoyageGuides.com, where she adds another $1,000 per month to her pot from travel blogging, ads and selling travel guides to the crowd-sourced travel app, Pocket Guides. She’s also penned a pair of e-books called “Writer’s Retreat,” which give aspiring writers advice on the best cafes to work in New York and Los Angeles. Sales have been slow but she expects to earn another few thousand bucks from the books by the end of the year.
"It sounds like a lot of money but my poor financial decisions in the past eat up just about everything," she says.
Though she eventually wants to make her blogs and writing her priority, for now they're unsteady sources of income that come with their own set of expenses (web design and photography classes weren't cheap). To fund them, she relied on her marketing skills, reeling in another $2,000 to $3,000 per month with social media marketing gigs for a few New York eateries.
The extra money is nice, but learning to juggle a schedule that full took some getting used to.“Managing my time is a job in itself,” she says. “It took two days to plan my schedule for the rest of the year. But by February, I should have earned enough to be able to focus solely on my blogs for a while.”
It was only in August that she bit the bullet and took her first 9-to-5 sales gig in over a year. It's nice to have benefits again, but even that job is a means to an end, she says.
“I was unhappy for a long time because I was waiting for the chance and the money to launch these two websites,” she says. “But with these jobs, I don’t have to wait anymore. I can save my income from them and that allows me to make my dream happen. It’s not the lottery, but it’s money and it’s my plan.”
Jobs: 2 -- Web content specialist; web designer
Marc Aarons, 28, learned the hard way not to put all of his eggs in one basket.
While studying for his Master’s in 2008, he launched a mobile broadband review website. It was immediately profitable and by the time he graduated in 2010, he was pulling in close to $3,000 a month from Google AdSense revenue alone.
But when Google came out with a new algorithm for search results in 2011, his site stopped popping up in the first page of results. Overnight, he lost 80% of his ad revenue.
There went his paycheck.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent,” Aarons says. “Everything crashed so rapidly and I didn’t have an emergency savings fund to carry me through. If I’d just had enough to last me a couple of months, I would have eventually figured out how to fix my site, but I couldn’t.”
Facing eviction from his Atlanta apartment, he decided to pack up and set up camp at a friend’s place in Washington, D.C., while he got back on his feet.
His undergraduate and graduate degrees were both in environmental science, but jobs in that field were scarce. Still, he knew a thing or two about web development, and it was a lot easier to find part-time contract work in web design.
“The first couple of months working freelance were nerve-wracking, since everything was temporary,” he says. In the past year, he's managed to cobble together enough contracts to earn between $60,000 and $70,000. A job with the National Institutes of Health paid well but lasted just three months. After that, he took a two-month contract with the Optical Society of America, which he managed to renew in two-month increments for 16 months. He is working on finalizing two web design contracts for smaller companies at the same time.
None of these are his idea of a dream job, but for now, they keep the lights on.
“In some ways, I’ve grown to like [the uncertainty of contract work] because I know that I am hired because I am adding value,” he says. “If I weren’t adding value, I’d be let go and I could be let go at any moment.”
Still, there are the obvious downsides of contract work. He has no health or retirement benefits, and with just two months’ worth of living expenses stowed away, his livelihood consistently depends on where and when he can land his next contract.
“Once upon a time, I would have said no, I’m never going to work for anyone,” he says. “But after being in D.C. and having met really interesting people, I’m really impressed that when you find the right company with the right values, it can be like a family. I’m definitely open to it.”
New Orleans, La.
Jobs: 4 – Photographer; teacher; camp instructor; waiter at 2 restaurants
Waites Laseter, 27, had his taste of 9-to-5 life shortly after graduating college in 2009.
A few months spent crunching data at a small insurance claims firm in Barry, La., was enough to convince him that he would not be coming back for seconds.
“It drove me absolutely insane,” he says. “I had health insurance and a 401(k) and lots of upward mobility, but the work wasn’t inspiring whatsoever. Waiting tables to me was more fulfilling than sitting in that box all day.”
A photographer by trade, Laseter tried his hand at breaking into the business in New Orleans, but jobs were too scarce for him to cobble together enough for living expenses.
The bulk of his income these days comes from waiting tables at a pair of local restaurants, where he can earn up to $200 on a really good night. When business dies down during the heat of summer, he fills the gap with a gig teaching photography at a local summer camp, and tacks on a few hours a week during the school year as well.
When all is said and done, Laseter can afford the $400 rent he pays for his half of a one-bedroom apartment but not much else.
“Health insurance isn’t even in my budget,” he says. “Maybe now that I’ve got a third restaurant job I’ll be in a better position to get back on track with paying student loan debt and maybe even be able to save up something. But at this point, it’s like … ‘How much do I have today? Oh, I can go to the grocery store.’”
Jobs: 3 -- Licensed and certified speech pathologist in 3 separate capacities
When Tara Egloff, 28, graduated with a Master’s in speech pathology, it came with a hefty price tag: nearly $100,000 worth of federal student loan debt.
“I’ve been working at least three jobs pretty much since college,” says Egloff, who lives with her fiance in Queens, N.Y. Her main job is practicing speech pathology at a private school in Manhattan, where she works with autistic children.
She earns a good income, but “between the cost of living, food, my rent, and travel to work, it’s a lot,” says Egloff. “And I’m also planning a wedding and saving up for a mortgage.”
To help, each week, she clocks an extra 10 hours practicing speech therapy at a children’s sensory gym and also works privately with a family. That allows her to put an extra $500 of income a month toward a wedding fund.
Priority No. 1, however, will always be her student loan debt, which eats up more than $1,000 of her income each month. Part of that debt load includes a Parent PLUS loan, which she took on after her mother passed away.
“I’m very Type A,” she says. “It would bother me not to pay my bills on time, even if it takes my entire lifetime to pay them off. It’s my responsibility.” For Egloff, working several jobs at a time has become second nature. She says: “It’s just part of my routine and I actually like being active. But when we’re ready to have a family, I’ll definitely scale back.”
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