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Underemployment Has Rewired My Brain

Katy June Friesen

A victim of long-term underemployment—although much better off than many others find themselves in this economy—the author discovers that her "free" time is far from liberating.

Being underemployed for two years has rewired my brain. Whatever lobe, campus or cortex it is that produces anxiety, guilt and frustration has expanded, and I suspect it may have even cannibalized the bits that aid relaxation, keeping the faith and going with the flow. Like the more than 23 million other unemployed, underemployed or too-fed-up-to-look-for-work Americans, I have been unable to make the living I hoped to. That feeling of powerlessness has changed how I think.

I have large amounts of “free time,” and in my 9-to-5 (ish) life, I used that time to read magazine articles, go to concerts, call old friends, plan trips and organize happy hours. Now, as an underemployed freelance writer and editor, I theoretically have time to do all those things plus learn to bake 10 varieties of bread, understand the microeconomics of the debt crisis and study a new language. Time to volunteer in my neighborhood. Time to write a book.

But I don’t think that way anymore. To my underemployed brain, which functions in a city with some of the highest rents in the nation, such a multidimensional life seems frivolous. Free time is less than freeing, because let’s be honest about what it is: Time that must be devoted to finding work that pays the bills.

I count my blessings, I do. I’m a freelance writer and editor, so I can still work in my field—or something close to it—without snagging a full-time journalism job. Much of what I describe about the fatigue of underemployment—well, that’s the usual life of a freelancer. The problem is that these days, even full-time freelancers have trouble making a living wage. I’m lucky: I have a husband who has a job and health insurance. He keeps us from being thirty-somethings who live in my parents’ basement.

And so I spend long, solitary days at home and in coffee shops, freelancing, trying to get more freelance, applying for jobs and thinking of ways to reinvent myself. (I’m in a coffee shop right now that’s packed with somber laptop owners probably doing the same thing). I’ve noticed this computer-driven existence has compromised my attention span. I have a hard time focusing on reading a book, even long articles. There’s always something else I should be doing. The specter of career and financial uncertainty has cultivated in me an unnatural love for things that update regularly, such as job boards, craigslist and Facebook. When my professional life feels like it’s moving at the speed of a manatee, I seek out quick doses of electronic change.

I’m never completely relaxed and I’m obsessed with the future. I used to unwind in the evening with the newspaper or a movie, but now I look at job postings, write cover letters or research story ideas. If I’m looking at words that aren’t part of a freelance piece, they’re probably part of my newsreader, which is stocked with keyword searches such as “editing,” “outdoor jobs,” “nonprofit” and “part-time.”

When I reach my limit with words and screens, I create hands-on projects for myself and elevate mundane tasks to inappropriate levels of importance. Cleaning is one such task. I appreciate cleaning for its instant, obvious results. I welcome opportunities—changing the sheets, cleaning off the coffee table, sweeping the porch—to put things in order when the rest of my life seems disorderly and unpredictable. If I can’t make a job or a high-dollar freelance assignment happen, well, at least I can kick ass at folding laundry and planting flowers. I can be awesome at taking the car for an oil change and the cats to the vet.

(I find it hard to understand why these tasks aren’t at the top of my fully employed husband’s to-do list. Or why he doesn’t want to sit down and plan out the next six months of our lives).

Yet the patterns of a traditional work week still steer my life. (Keeping a schedule keeps you sane, as freelancers and the unemployed know). After working on working Monday through Friday, the weekend feels like a small reprieve. Unless I’m on deadline, I allow myself some true free time. I’m ready to leave my house and computer and see as many people and places as possible. My husband feels like he’s at summer camp, with director Katy arranging farmer’s market, shopping and outdoor exploration trips. He’s ready to relax with a book or movie. I’m ready to do anything not related to sitting, words or internal thoughts.

Of course, at some point during the weekend, I’ll need to open my laptop and click a few refresh buttons.

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