For the last three weeks, everyone who knows I live on Wall Street has been asking me about the protests. I’m in an interesting place: I’m local, my friends are protesting, and I’m sure that plenty of my clients are the people being protested.
Actually, there’s a lot more of a gray area than that: there is a huge swath of people who are in agreement that the level of income inequality in this country is untenable, and yet who are angling to be in the top 1% because, well, what else are you supposed to do? Most of us think that if the top 1% were us, we’d be different. That might be true. (I have long espoused the view that one of the best things you can do for feminism is to make a lot of money so that powermongers are scared of you).
In case there is any doubt, the Occupy Wall Street protests are well beyond the point of mocking. Sure, when I see a guy with a didgeridoo and a beard the same size as the rest of his head, I tend to think that that guy could develop a more persuasive persona. But that became pretty much irrelevant when the unions started joining, and ex-Marines showed up in uniform to protect protestors from police brutality. (A humorous note from OccupyWallStreet.org: “OWS will limit drumming on the site to 2 hours per day, between the hours of 11am and 5pm only.”)
I’m away right now, in Virginia, visiting family. On my way here, my mom texted: “Can’t wait to see you. Everyone here is tired and broke.”
To me, it feels like we are at a cultural Rubicon. I certainly get enough letters (firstname.lastname@example.org) from young women in horrible job situations and faced by mounting debt.
That said, my job is to try to frame things positively, and help people navigate in imperfect situations. Here are some ideas.
Austerity is completely acceptable.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still attend business lunches in New York wherein, as a display of corporate largesse, someone orders far too much sushi and lets it get thrown out, and probably neglects to tip the waitress who has to throw out all the sushi, and also at the table is an intern who would really like to take the leftover sushi home but she knows that’s against the social rules so she tries, and probably fails, to make knowing and sympathetic eye contact with the waitress. This is a thing, and it’s gross.
But when unemployed people (among others) are marching on Wall Street, and everyone who has a job is saddled with doing the jobs of those who’ve been laid off, well … if there’s a bright side, it’s that it is now completely socially acceptable to be cheap and work fiendishly.
If you were ever embarrassed to just tell people “I can;t go out because cocktails are expensive and college loans cannot be erased even by bankruptcy,” I think that time is over. (See Bullish: How Talking About Money Can Make You More of It.)
If you want to start a business, I think telling your clients “Actually, there is no office – I run the business out of my apartment to keep costs down” is as acceptable as it has ever been, perhaps even appreciated by clients who value transparency and possibly some cost savings passed down to them. (See Bullish: Starting A Business When You’re Broke.)
That said, if you own Louboutins, I’m pretty sure it’s now less cool to wear them anywhere that’s not a party.
Keep in mind that people who were born with privilege often don’t know how to be cheap and work fiendishly. So if you grew up never having ordered an appetizer in a restaurant in your life (“We’ll eat dessert at home and that’s final!”), then you have a competitive advantage here. (See Bullish: Social Class in the Office and Bullish Life: Be Broke Without Going Crazy.)