The nature of work has changed significantly in the last 50 years, and it’s frankly kind of amazing that there’s not rioting in the streets over it. Think about it: at one point in American history, employers were expected to offer full-time jobs with benefits and a retirement program. Fewer and fewer Americans ever enjoy that kind of a relationship, and the rush into piecework only gains speed with the passage of time. Part time work, gig economy work, and temp work all have drastically reshaped the role of employer and employee, and as benefits have disappeared, wages haven’t increased to make up for the lack of health care, pensions, and even vacation that used to be a standard part of the contract.
In his new memoir Now for the Disappointing Part, Seattle author Steven Barker is churning through the American job market, grabbing hold of temp job after temp job before being swept back into the riptide again. He seems to be on unemployment in every other chapter as he waits for the next (temporary) job offer to float past.
Barker has worked for most of the big Seattle-area tech firms — Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia — and his memoir is built on the strange, almost inhuman culture that has developed in the temp economy. Every job comes with its own language and customs. Every interaction is freighted with expectations and subject to an inscrutable corporate hierarchy that temps are not allowed to understand. Prospective employer and employee eye each other warily in the interview process, trying to determine exactly how much they can strip-mine out of each other before the arrangement turns fallow.
These jobs are dull. They involve Excel spreadsheets and XML. Workers are expected to write loving descriptions of watch straps for online retailers. They are interchangeable, filling empty boxes on websites with writing — or, rather, content. And Barker is a willing participant in this culture. When he’s hired as a “content writer” for Expedia, he admits to “a sense of pride” in the title: “When I ran into someone from high school and they asked me what I was up to I could say, ‘I’m a content writer.’” A decade ago, a bland word like “content” would never have inspired an emotion like this: “I felt like I was finally working a job where my English degree was an asset.”
For those unfamiliar with the culture of temp work, Barker’s book is a good, funny introduction. He repeatedly finds himself in absurd situations that are a curious blend of banal and mortifying. At one point, when he’s applying size labels to gloves, he stabs himself through the finger with a needle gun. As he bleeds profusely from a hole in his finger, Barker gets into a conversation with his boss about the job.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Happens all the time. Up on the fifth floor they can’t keep Band-Aids in stock.”
“There are people who do this every day?”
“How else would we get the tags on the gloves?”
“A machine, maybe,” I said, then found a new appreciation for tag adders across the globe. “I’m surprised you haven’t sought cheaper labor overseas.”
In a different job later in the book, in fact, Barker is expected to train his overseas replacements. The only time he’s offered a union job, he has to say no because the pay is so low and the dues are so high. Barker makes it funny, but sometimes you just want to scream.
it’s a shame that Disappointing Part isn’t angrier. Barker doesn’t spend too much time lamenting his lot in life, or wondering how it came to be that way. The parts of the book where Barker gets political are the sharpest bits. His loathing for Amazon’s punitive corporate culture is delicious. And there’s an especially enjoyable bit in which Barker chastises Sting for the lyrics to the Police song “Roxanne”:
How does Sting know she doesn’t have to turn on the red light? I bet under different circumstances she’d love not to put on the red light, but she’s got bills to pay. If he’s telling her she doesn’t have to turn on the red light, he needs to offer an alternative. I’d appreciate Sting’s suggestion more if he followed, “You don’t have to sell your body to the night,” with “because I found you a stable nine-to-five that comes with benefits, a dental plan, and a matching 401K.”
For the most part, Barker seems amiable and more than willing to work within the system. But those moments in Disappointing Part when he acknowledges that his employers make billions of dollars a year yet they claim that they can’t afford to hire full-time content writers are when the book really comes alive. Like everyone else selling their bodies, attention, and time to tech culture in exchange for pennies, Barker could stand to show a little more outrage.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant