The Universal Notebook: Self-employed or unemployed?

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Last week I attended a party to celebrate the long career of one of my former colleagues.

I worked at Portland Public Library for eight years, 1972 to 1980. Rachel Smith has been employed there for 50 years! I was just 10 years old when she was hired in 1959. And, believe it or not, it was not a retirement party. Portland’s most faithful public servant is still hard at work. I wish I could say the same about myself.

Lately, I find myself thinking, “I may be retired and no one has told me yet.” Back in January, the bottom fell out of the already shaky freelance market. Several of the magazines for which I have written for years suddenly had their freelance budgets cut, forcing editors who once gave me work to write more themselves.

The combination of a deep recession and the migration of advertisers away from print and into digital media has left a lot of newspapers and magazines with less ad revenue, consequently smaller publications, smaller editorial budgets, and less work for me. For years I have juggled two or three assignments at a time. Now weeks sometimes go by between assignments.

After 40 years in journalism, I am beginning to understand how Maine textile, shoe, and pulp and paper workers must have felt when their livelihoods suddenly migrated offshore. Old media journalists are going the way of the papermakers who made the paper upon which their words were printed.

So what am I going to do now? Am I still self-employed, or should I be counted among the 14.5 million unemployed? At 60, am I too old to start a new career? And, if not, what else am I qualified to do? I think over these things as I busy myself painting the house.

Come to think of it, I suppose I could always paint houses. I used to do that back in college, but these days I’m a little unsteady on a ladder. I’m great at small talk and I cook a mean hot dog, so maybe I could become a street vendor.

When I’m feeling really ambitious, I think I should shave off the gray beard, get the bags under my eyes erased, punch up my resume, and try to pass for 45. Of course, even then, it’s going to be hard finding a job that comes with an afternoon siesta.

When I’m being more realistic, I seriously contemplate teaching, maybe subbing to start, then getting certified through the University of Southern Maine’s Extended Teacher Education Program. With an undergraduate major in philosophy, however, it’s unclear what subject I’d be qualified to teach.

USM, my alma mater, is one of the institutions I can imagine working for, along with Maine Medical Center, Maine state government, and any number of non-profits. I’m a pretty good writer, an effective speaker and a passionate advocate for causes I believe in. I’d go into public relations, but I’m afraid I lack the diplomatic gene required to bite my tongue. I always tell everyone exactly what I think. Sales and fundraising are definitely out. If I knew anything about money, I’d have some by now.

Friends have urged me to embrace the new digital paradigm, find an information technology guru who can design me a killer Web site and link it to everything “Maine” on the Internet. Then I could peddle my reviews, essays, profiles, screenplays, and conspicuously unpublished novels online. Or maybe I could just sell books and art on eBay.

Mostly I just think about using the down time to work on a book in hopes that the freelance market will eventually recover. On good days, I imagine my book about fatherhood (based on the experiences of myself, my father, and my grandfather, all named Edgar Allen Beem) becoming a bestseller, but the odds of writing a bestseller are about as long as winning Megabucks.

When I’m feeling defeated, I just figure I’ll retire and wait for Social Security to kick in at 62. If only I’d stayed at Portland Public. I might be the director by now. In which case, I’d give Rachel Smith a whopping big raise as a reward for half a century of devoted service. Congratulations, Rachel!

Sidebar Elements

beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.