Grief and having to function: Money

Grief and having to function: Money

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

While writing this note, I have been acutely influenced by my concerns for two groups of people because I used to be them – my career saw me belong to these two communities – and I know how fraught money stuff is for them. Problems with money stuff were part of the reason why I abandoned my own arts career.

The two groups are casual workers and contractors working in the university sector, and freelancers and casuals working in the arts sector. Due to insecure work, a high incidence of short-term contracts, contracts that demand a mix of paid and unpaid work, low pay rates, poor conditions, unclear and non-linear vocational pathways, shortfalls in funding, and a culture of not paying for creative or cultural labour in society at large, both these groups are often precariously employed, and both struggle with financial insecurity.

When I used to either train people in small business planning or mentor people in the arts sectors about it, it used to strike me that my challenge was not in the imparting of information or techniques, but in dealing with people’s lack of confidence.

Money management isn’t actually hard, in a strict cognitive sense, for the uncomplicated business models of most sole-traders. Constructing budgets, cash flow projections, or profit and loss statements is usually a matter of basic maths. Keeping track of paperwork shouldn’t be hard for people with the kind of discipline that equips them to write PhDs or compose musicals. But, because money plays such an important role in the way our society functions, people’s feelings about money are often fraught and complex.

The article Performers and sole traders find it hard to get JobKeeper in part because they get behind on their paperwork describes how tax agents and student volunteers at the University of NSW Tax Clinic have seen numerous sole traders in the arts who have outstanding paperwork to lodge with the Australian Tax Office. This means that these sole traders were not eligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidy during Australia’s lockdown, as being up to date with ATO paperwork was a condition of eligibility. This article, which is sympathetic to the plight of these arts workers, only mentions in passing why these arts workers have fallen behind:

If a business is cash-strapped and the owner is struggling financially and psychologically struggling, a visit to a tax accountant tends not to be high priority, if indeed the business has the cash to pay the agent.”

Based on my experience and observations of arts workers, I feel that I can hazard a guess as to why they are reluctant to deal with financial stuff: it distresses them.

Precarious workers have a difficult personal history with money. They may struggle to find enough for their basic needs, or their cash flow is vulnerable to disruption. Over time, the effect can be brutalising. Thinking about and talking about money makes them anxious. As a result of past stress and disappointments, their expectations of financial security can be low.

There is a risk that precariously employed people can bring a pre-existing sense of trauma around their finances into their current situation when they are thrust into an economic downturn that even usually sober and non-histrionic types in suits are calling unprecedented. Eminent economists are writing about us in Australia all falling off a financial cliff in September when the government starts winding back its wage and unemployment-relief subsidies. Already anxious people are being bombarded with grim headlines about an uncertain future.

Pre-existing fears of doubt – patterns of tension and insecurity around money – may be compounding, or compounded by, current and valid fears around being without an income stream due to pandemic lockdowns and economic contractions.

Overlaying these very real issues connected with the current economic climate is another narrative that is the result of political will and mentioned elsewhere in The next day: that, according to the current federal government,  the arts and humanities are too expensive for Australia to afford and too useless to justify spending money on.

And yet another issue – Newstart, or ‘the dole’, has been roundly condemned for years of being too low for the unemployed to live on. Those doing the condemning have ranged from organisations in the community sector through to economists through to the business sector. The reasons these varying groups are advocating for a higher rate of Newstart range from the humane to the practical – the rate of the dole is so low that it is actually an obstacle to people being able to cover basic costs of living and, therefore, being able to resource their job-seeking.

In March of this year, when the whole of Australia locked down, the federal government surprised everyone by adding on a temporary subsidy to Newstart, in effect doubling the rate of pay. The media reported the delight of unemployed people being able to afford three meals a day that included fresh fruit and vegetables, actually paying down debts, and replacing worn-out clothes and furniture. But the government kept signalling that this subsidy was only temporary. Despite a surge of advocacy to permanently raise the rate of Newstart, the government will start cutting it back from the end of September and return it to its originally impoverishing level just after Christmas.

Many people – across all sectors – are boggling at this. People who work for businesses that are struggling are terrified of ending up on the dole. Those who are already unlucky enough to be on it are wondering how they will survive.

This is a daunting background against which to come to terms with losing a job or income streams.

The challenge here for someone mourning a loss of work while taking stock of the practicalities of finding a way to survive and then rebuild is how to do that without entrenching underlying anxiety about money that may lead to self-sabotage, an inability to negotiate fair terms and good pay or fees, or a lack of general positivity about the future.

I acknowledge that this is tough. The dour old cliché – ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ – has a depressing truth sitting behind it: if you have nothing in this commercial world of ours then you have no agency. No sole-trader or small business owner had control over us all going into lockdown. (For the record, while I acknowledge how tough lockdown was on businesspeople, I fully support it as a necessary public health measure). None of us can prevent the government from winding back subsidies. The unemployed have no control over the fact that the normal rate of Newstart is too low to live on.

“Loss of control is frequently accompanied by grief,” commented an article in The Conversation recently. Before this year, the precariously employed had very little control over rates of pay or length or security of contracts, and I would argue that this tainted their relationship with money and a sense of abundance. My concern is that this prior compromising of a sense of agency around money will meld with grief over the loss of income and a lack of control over current economic conditions.

So where is your sense of agency in your grief over the loss of income when there are so many external pressures that you cannot control? What can you do?

I think the trick here is to try to understand that your state of grief and negative feelings attached to money that previously arose from difficult experiences are two different things. Don’t mush them together.

Speaking of mushing, I am now going to quote from an advice column written by sled-dog musher Blair Braverman about how to grieve for a dead pet dog. This will look like a digression but bear with me.

Writing to a person who is consumed with guilt over a moment of inattention that may have led to the death of their dog, Braverman writes:

“Separate the guilt from the grief. The guilt is a lesson, contained. The grief is unlimited. The grief is what needs to heal.”

I think this is a useful discipline. If you have past difficult memories or associations with money – inadequacy, guilt, resentment, disappointment, stress? – are you able to see them as a lesson, contained? If you find it difficult to do this containing, and I appreciate that it could be tricky, then can you find someone to help you identify what can be learnt – and moved on from – and the grief to be lived with? A friend, a mentor, or a counsellor?

Grief is difficult, but it does have a place in our lives and can, ultimately, be a healing or enriching experience. It does not have to be corrosive. Anxiety about money is corrosive; lived with it undermines people’s sense of worth and makes them fearful for the future. Part of your grief may be about mourning the effect of years of poverty – absolutely valid – but don’t sink into that grief in such a way that you can’t move on. Alongside a sense of loss of the way you have been working, you do have the capacity to rebuild either your existing vocation, albeit following a different pathway, or finding different work that is fulfilling. Negative feelings about money must not make your expectations of the future stingy or hopeless.

Your vocational trajectory is not the only thing to have died this year. The exploitative business models that made earning an honest buck in the past so hard have also taken a battering. We are still finding out which, exactly, but components of those models will have died too. Some of them will be forced back to life by rich people to whom they were beneficial, and they will lurch through our economy like zombies. But in their disruption different alternatives will have space to emerge. Perhaps these contain opportunity for you…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

You can buy The next day here.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

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