Coupland's dictionary: Blank-collar worker

A friend laid off in Jan. '09 has started her own business and e-mailed me to discuss her money woes during its shaky start.

"I can't afford the gym anymore", she wrote, "let alone the week that Paul and I always took at Arowhon Pines. Those days are gone for good." It occurred to me that she's joined the ranks of blank-collar workers.

Douglas Coupland coined that term, along with others.
If you have not read his A Dictionary of the Near Future, it is here, now.

Blank-collar worker: "Formerly middle-class workers who will never be middle class again and who will never come to terms with that."

What if one did at least begin to come to terms?

That would mean questioning why your coffee and a friend's returns no change from a ten-spot. Means learning to do your nails, change your oil and stain your deck yourself, after decades of outsourcing it to someone who doesn't speak your language.

Means asking your kids why they can't use both sides of a page of computer paper. Wondering why people call you to ask what kind of fax machine you use when you never told them you had one in the first place. Finding MagiCuts kind of expensive.

"How much does this go for?" becomes a question you ask again, and if recently downsized, feel embarrassed about. You don't buy pet treats, pets are a treat. You wonder how the heck you thought two cars were a required minimum.

Since when did personal trainers become "physique managers" you pay a buck a minute for watching you do a situp? Maybe it isn't normal to eat raspberries in February.

I'm lucky to have had a head start. For 25 years, working for ourselves, the two of us have swung between prosperity and peril, parsimony and plenty. That's the freelance way– and if you have half a brain, you prepare for the famine and never, ever feel entitled to the breaks you get when the phone rings.

And yet, this downsizing has its subtle gifts. I look for and prize moments of situational disinhibition, the state he describes as "social contrivances within which one is allowed to become disinhibited, that is, moments of culturally approved disinhibition: when speaking with fortunetellers, to dogs and other pets, to strangers and bartenders in bars, or with Ouija boards."

Perhaps the slide from middle class will disinhibit, eradicating have-a-nice-dayism, conversations about TV shows and recitations of desired cruises.  In the last two years, I've had some remarkable, colourful conversations with thrifters, idlers, contract workers and newly self-employed.

I love it when someone gathers herself and speaks her mind, knowing her job no longer rests on toeing the party line.

Adjusting down is no fun, and I am not suggesting she give up her business goals. There are glimmers of work appearing, so she will likely work hard developing a clientele, until her husband reaps his indexed government pension in three years. But those are vanishing too.

Pensions, I mean–but sometimes husbands too, so women are wise to plan their own financial security.


The failure of women (in 2011!!!) to assume responsibility for their own financial well-being drives me crazy. Do we really depend on Prince Charming, after all of the examples we've seen to the contrary? Alas, for many women the answer is still affirmative. Thanks, as always, for sharing your insights with the rest of us.
Northmoon said…
Considering that the planet can't support all human beings in a North American life style, perhaps it's good to scale back our expectations.

I sometimes think about the luck of when and where I was born -North America in the 50's. Jobs and a comfortable life were pretty much a given, or at least easy to acheive here. Less certain today. Attitudes seem to be getting more selfish - don't raise my taxes, why should they have a good pension? - which doesn't bode well for the less fortunate.
Anonymous said…
I think your friend is worrying for nothing, a government indexed pension is like a pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow and with the magic of income splitting her net monthly income may not even be reduced by all that much.

I was downsized last year from a big bank along with everybody in my department that was 50+. This to me is an even more insidious trend that is rife in the private sector, getting rid of people before they qualify for even a non-indexed pension and to save on health care costs. You really do have a very short shelf life from maybe 25 to 50 to buy your house and save up enough $$ to last for a 35 or 40 year retirement. That being said I now work subcontracting in a completely different field (work from home) and even though my gross income is less than half of what it was before my net income is almost the same (factoring in not contributing to my RRSP). I actually have a better lifestyle today than before and I do play the sympathy card very well when it suits me.

I do think we are in for a 25 year cycle of stagnant growth which we did have in the last century. People like me stop spending on stuff, seniors hoard just in case and that creates a vicious cycle. And guess what the public sector is not immune. In countries where there is polarization of income you will see that teachers, nurses, police are not well compensated - it becomes unsustainable.
Duchesse said…
Vivienne: If I gave the impression she is "depending on Prince Charming" I will correct that. She has worked nonstop throughout her marriage (and before). His pension was achieved by him staying with the government for many decades when other options appealed, and is a decision they made together. Both they and the law regard his pension as a joint asset.

Northmoon: There is jealousy and resentment about defined-benefit pensions, for sure. I met the president of an elder-abuse organization not long ago. She said her first question to women was "What pensions do you have?", b/c the link between poverty and abuse was so strong.

Anonymous: I did not provide all details about her financial obligations; she does have some things to worry about, but not dire ones.

You sound like you have found a better life, overall. Reminds me of a 50+ friend laid off from a tech company, started his own handyman business, makes the same salary with infinitely more job satisfaction and fewer hours- not to mention politics.
Susan B said…
The dismantling of pensions (and perhaps even Social Security here in the US) is a worrying trend. Here also, people over 50 who have lost jobs are having a very hard time finding work. I'm very grateful to have a job, but know it's no longer a given that I'll be able to work until I'm *ready* to retire. Have started to think about some alternate scenarios.

And I've *always* believed in having the ability to provide for myself financially, regardless of marital status. As a teenager I watched my mother struggle financially after the divorce (neither she nor my dad believed that a married woman with kids should work, so after almost 20 years out of the workplace, she had few marketable skills) and vowed that I'd never find myself in the same situation.
LPC said…
I've actually learned to feel pride in finding a bargain. Not something I had to learn, earlier in life. I prefer abundance, but niche frugality can be enjoyed, I find. Good thing, since it's necessary.
Anonymous said…
Liked you thoughts today! I recently eliminated grass and put in plants and flowers. The neighbors are mow and blow. Much money saved. But the traditions of mindless spending die hard.
Jill Ann said…
You have some provocative topics lately! I was retired "not by choice" about 9 years ago, when in my late forties. I'm quite sure part of it was due to my age and relatively large salary, and I won't speculate on whether gender also played a part. I did get a similar job a year later, but hated it, and stuck it out for 2 years before giving up for good. At the time I had young teenagers and an elderly mom to deal with, so not working was probably a good option, and luckily we were able to swing it financially.

But now I'm 54, mom is gone, one child is headed to college in the fall, and the other can drive now, so I'm not really needed at home. Certainly, though, no one would hire me at my age and previous salary. Still debating on what the next step should be: I'm firmly convinced that people need SOMETHING to do, otherwise they deteriorate rapidly!

I am raising both my daughters to think independently, and tell them: it's always better to be able to support yourself and not depend on a man. My mother-in-law dropped out of high school, married at 19, and had 7 kids. When her husband dropped dead at age 47, she still had 3 kids at home (two handicapped), no pension, no job skills, not even a high school diploma. Not a situation anyone wants to be in, but I'm sure it never occurred to her (within the culture at the time, and her own family mores) to do anything else. My own mother was very independent and always had some kind of a job; she taught me never to take crap from any man (and was married for 51 years to my dad, who always treated her with respect.) Obviously she influenced me quite a lot!
laurieann said…
Hello Duchesse. So much I can say to this post however the most important is that my background as a child of decidedly working-class parents of great frugality prepared me well for these times. I grew up in the 60's with a mother who thrifted for our clothing and a father who diligently budgeted every family expense. When my husband and I only truly made it to the middle class about 8 years ago we brought frugal childhood habits with us. And while I'm not planing any Max Mara purchases soon, being able to make a chicken feed a family of three for four nights has allowed us to payoff a mortgage and save something every pay period.

Getting back to you on the color analysis: the system my consultant used is called Sci-art. I'm going to try posting a link to a blog which features the method: I am purchasing a few new pieces in my new colors, Light Summer but luckily my really lovely pieces such as my Akris trousers and Max Mara coat are a hit on the darker end of 'my' new color palette.
Here's a link to a photo of my new palette:

Now for some big news from me and then I'll stop hogging your space. I'm going to Paris for two weeks my myself at the end of August. I'll be reviewing all of your posts on Paris and on travel.
Duchesse said…
une femme: I've probably lectured young women more than they ever want about having occupational skills so that they never have to depend on anyone. Some of them have seen the same situation you went through first hand- and are prepared.

So many of my women friends in their 50s have lost their jobs, in the recession and just before. I believe age is a factor.

LPC: I believe that a keen sense of value is an essential life skill even if one never has to accept paid employment or worry about keeping to a budget.

Anonymous: We did that, too! No one complained, as our grass was pretty sad anyway, thanks to the dogs of the neighbourhood.

Jill Ann: Thanks, I like lively discussion. You have some thinking to do, and there are good books aimed at re-entries such as yours- are you checking the library? Guessing you might be considering some re-training, too. This is exciting and I hope you will tell us how it's going- I'll be thinking of you.

laurieann: You are never hogging space! First, those frugality lessons are deep background and you are witness to how well they serve one.

Many comments here about how we raise daughters, and, with sons, the inverse is also true. We try to raise them to be contributors to an equal (not necessarily income-wise, but overall) relationship.

I'm going to explore your new colour analysis system, thanks- and let us know what else you buy, as you add items.

Two weeks in Paris by yourself, wow! I also have a shopping and restaurant suggestions put together from many years of trips, e-mail me if you'd like it.
M said…
US pensions and social security are not trending toward being "dismantled". They've already collapsed under their own weight. It's called being broke and our government continues to spend our hard earned money as though it grows on trees.

I'm not willing to scale back, make do, or otherwise lower my expectations because my government refuses to act responsibly.

Duchesse, your admonition to women that they fend for themselves and never rely on a man for their financial well-being is good advice. Unfortunately, few will admit it, but for many women, the government has become their "prince charming."
Duchesse said…
M: I hope the tone of this question cones across as intended (curious) and not critical: How do you plan to maintain, if what you say about your government is accurate?
M said…
Duchesse-I'm self-employed and have managed my money well enough that I can continue to ride out the recession if I can maintain my current level of income. I have no "pension"-only what I have saved on my own and have known for years that our social security program was unsustainable and likely would be of no benefit to me. (It's been in the news for years but all the politicians have ignored the problem.) I've always thought of it as just another payment I'm obligated to make to the government and would opt out of if I had the choice but I don't. Other than that, my plan is to vote in the next election for the person I think has the understanding, intellect and fortitude to correct our economic situation and revive our free market. Thanks for an interesting blog post. I read your blog regularly though I rarely comment.
Tiffany said…
I've been a freelancer for 15 years now, and it's taught me never to take any form of financial security for granted ... I've never not worked - took only three weeks off when my first was born (but then took him to work with me, one of the advantages of running your own business). Financial independence is very important to me - as is teaching my children that spending should be thoughtful rather than recreational. Pensions here (in Australia) wouldn't support even a frugal middle class existence, but we do have compulsory superannuation, and I am diligently building mine so that - whenever it is that I do retire - I am not forced into penury.
Duchesse said…
M: Thank you; I've always funded my own pension, and the Canadian government will provide minimal benefits at 65, but like you I am not counting on that.

Tiffany: Freelancers have a particular mindset (if they last); so do entrepreneurs. I'm glad you have had continual work.
Susan B said…
I don't think that most of us in the 50+ age group have built our retirement plans based on living off Social Security checks. But for whose who have lost jobs in their 50's and are now having to live off retirement savings, or have had promised (private) pension plans disappear, or have lost value in investment portfolios during various downturns, it may be an unfortunate necessity.

Here's one article outlining the funding and sustainability of the program.

We're not planning on "needing" Social Security either for our retirement, but as our son is severely disabled, he will be reliant on SSD funding for basic needs at some point. We couldn't save enough in two lifetimes to pay for his ongoing care after we're gone.
materfamilias said…
I often feel we were lucky having our kids so early because we had to do without so many things that aren't necessary but that many took for granted at the time. We wanted to own a house, and the kids sorted out all the other priorities quite readily. So that now, we find no problem in living on a pension and would, I'm quite confident, be able to scale down much further while still enjoying life.

We used to worry that the quality of life we love in rural Portugal was threatened by the hope of catching up with the rest of Europe. . . happily for us, sadly, I'll admit, for the Portuguese, that threat has receded with the prevailing economic conditions. Too bad that "prosperity" needs to equal waste and the loss of a "slow" life.
Susan said…
I will admit to being one of the women who gave up her own career to support her husband's career. (His was demanding with long hours and lots of travel) . I realize now, at age 59, that this was a very risky proposition. I am very well educated, but have not worked since I was in my 30s. I have no doubt that I am unemployable in today's economy.

Looking back, I recognzie that I should have done things differently. I recognize that I took great risks and should have secured my own future independently.

My husband often tells people that I made a sacrifice of my own career for his--a comment which I sometimes find scary --or charming.

We are in the top 1% of income earners in the country and are very fortunate, but I still feel the need to be thrifty.
Madame Poirier said…
Prior to the feast or famine freelance rollercoaster, I had a very well paid job. Bought a home i could comfortably afford, but never thought about the cost of what went into my shopping basket etc.
I did, however budget for renovations (and did those I could myself),major purchases, saved and apart from the mortgage had no debt. I never put anything on a credit card I couldn't pay off in full when the bill rolled in.
I didn't anticipate ever marrying and prepared for my future accordingly.

I'm now married (FLW) and living very simply in the USA.
It's the first time I've not worked since the age of 14 and I find it mentally and physically challenging.
The economy is abysmal and I cannot even get a job in the local grocery store (am not proud, just practical - the cash would come in handy!).
I volunteer 2 days a week (to keep myself sane!), and am renovating our home myself on a very modest budget.

The excessive lifestyle expectations of people here shocks me.
Can't afford an unnecessary new car? Raid the pension pot. Need to replace the deck but don't have the cash to hand? Max out the Amex.
Friends here frequently overstretch themselves with enormous mortgages and saddle themselves with credit card debt almost without thinking.
A friend has just lost her job (and hasn't a hope in hell of another for a long time) - she's booked a 2 week Caribbean holiday and upgraded her car. To me, that's nuts.
These aren't unintelligent men and women; there just appears to be a huge blank spot when it comes to money and possessions.
It's consumption culture gone mad, people have a sense of entitlement whether they have the pennies or dollars in their purse.

Maybe because I was brought up to believe that debt was bad, I don't spend what I don't have.
I'm no friendless miserable miser; far from it - I just don't place a lot of value on possessions and status.
M said…
"Friends here frequently overstretch themselves with enormous mortgages and saddle themselves with credit card debt almost without thinking." Sounds exactly like what our government is doing- participating in reckless overspending that seems to have no bounds. The difference is when we our "max out the AMEX" we have to stop spending-the federal government just raises the debt ceiling and keeps on spending putting us in deeper & deeper in debt.
Madame Poirier said…
M: It's true. The economy has most definitely not been 'stimulated' by government's spending.
Germany's Angela Merkel was the only person to stand up and tell Obama that spending more to get yourself out of debt is crazy.
Duchesse said…
une femme: It's true that many later-life plans and dreams have been wrecked by disappearing pensions- and jobs. Thanks for the link. many people assume a couple is only thinking of themselves (jointly and singly) but many people I know have children they need to care for for life, and several friends I know are supporting their parents.

materfamilias: Ireland is a fascinating (and painful) example of what happens when bust follows boom: riding high, the Celtic Tiger etc. and now people I know are having to sell their homes.

Susan: I don't find wealth and thrift incompatible- in fact books like "The Wealthy Barber" make the pont that it's thrify people, not those who spend everyting they hgave, who build wealth. Some people who earn in the top bracket do not in fact have a nickel to their names.

I am glad your sacrifice is acknowledged and appreciated. However, if I had a daughter I would advise her that it's a very risky investment *today*, just given the stats.

Madame Poirier: I'm not getting comments from any of those people here, am I? The Passage seems to attract the sensible sort. What is "FLW"?

Volunteering, renovating yourself- all good ways to keep meaning, social connection and contribution in your life without employment.

M.: It's one hell of a mess to clean up. I keep reading and thinking, and can see why people are bitter and disillusioned with elected officials.

Madame Poirier: Merkel also told Obama (during her visit to Washington this month)that Europe will overcome its own debit crisis, so she will have to deliver, too
Susan Tiner said…
Thank you for another thoughtful 50+ post. In fact, I'm about to write one on a related topic, just as soon as I finish reading blogs!

Like LPC, I had to retire early, unexpectedly. I'm fortunate to have adequate savings, yet must be very careful and frugal to sustain our financial picture. We do everything ourselves, e.g., cleaning, gardening, home repairs, and strictly monitor purchases.

It helps that my two children and one of Martin's are launched, and his youngest is nearly through college.
Susan said…
An example of my thrift. For years, I thought it would be nice to have a pair of urns with ferns on our front porch. I could never bring myself to spend the dollars to buy really nice urns. So, our porch was bare.

Then, my 88 year old mother moved to a retirement center to an independent apartment. She had two very large and beautiful verdigris urns which came to live at our house. I quickly went out and bought two large ferns and now our porch looks like it always should have looked. I found myself wondering why we went without for so many years.

Like other parents, we put the needs of our children first. Both of our sons are launched in promising careers, but we are putting aside money for our younger son in the event he chooses to go to graduate school/professional school after my husband retires

Added to that is the fact that we have a special needs grandson who is currently just an infant. It is heartbreaking (and reading this blog and others has been a well needed diversion for me). We will also be putting aside funds for him and feel extraordinarily fortunate that the other set of grandparents are better off than we are and will be doing more than their part.

You never know what life will bring your way. That fact has come home in spades to us. Thrift is definitely the best road to take.

I've decided that I have enough jewelry (very little) and can do quite well with basic clothing. Even though my husband will probably work for six more years, I'm cutting back now, so that retirement will seem normal. This means not taking every vacation that we could take, not living like others in our income bracket, but more conservatively. I think it's the best thing to do.

And Duchesse, I would also advise a daughter (if I had one) not to take the risks that I have taken. It appears that I will not suffer from these risks, but it could have easily gone the other way.
Duchesse said…
Susan: I am heartened by your post. No one seems to be passing through the Passage these days who has not made adjustments, decided to change her life, or in hindsight said, "Whew, I was lucky". I guess we find one another!
Frugal Scholar said…
The comments are as interesting as the post. Very thought-provoking, esp since I am in France, where assumptions about what is middle-class seem somewhat different. I will write on this as soon as I get a bit more oriented and get used to this little keyboard.
Rebecca said…
My thoughts were stimulated by your post AND the ensuing comments. These times certainly call for intentionality and creativity in meeting the challenges of the economic difficulties most of us are experiencing...

Hopefully new and sensible habits will replace the thoughtless and indulgent lifestyles that culminated in some of this mess!
Duchesse said…
Rebecca: I am not satisfied by a vague prescription of "intentionality and creativity" as the "difficultites" are probably not remediable anytime soon.

Coupland and I are saying that what is lost is the sense of being unshakably middle class, and it's not coming back.

Many reader's responses assign blame: women for their failure to assume their own financial well-being, the government for spending, the neighbours who won't quit using credit.

These are make valid points but do not address the essence of what I wanted to express: the class system that formed a vast number of people's identities and supported their spending has crumbled beneath our feet.

Therefore, how people act, both in the community and at work, will change, and one change I am hoping for is more honest, authentic communication.
Anonymous said…
I'm a little late to this discussion but have to say that as a woman approaching my mid-forties and with two small children (5 and 2 1/2), reading the replies of some of you 50+ women is resonating with where I am right now and making me think about my future.

My husband and I have been working in our own business for over twenty years now (we weren't married when we started it) and I left a full-time 9-5 job early on in my career to become an entrepreneur and follow my dreams and ambitions. The last few years have been very difficult financially because the sector we operate in (media/publishing) was hit very hard and then the economy imploded. We have been slowly trying to rebuild but have a substantial amount of debt.

My dilemma is that now I am at a crossroads because a part of me thinks perhaps I should go elsewhere and seek a new career in a corporate or government setting so that I can have a steady and perhaps "safe" income while my husband continues the business. It's not what I thought I would be contemplating at this time in my life, but I'm wondering if having all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, is a smart way to go.

On the other hand, there are no "safe" and forever jobs anymore. The more I look around the more I see people who have lost their corporate jobs turning into entrepreneurs themselves, yet I'm contemplating whether I should do the opposite.

Sorry for the long, rambling message, but these are things I've been struggling with and am contemplating as I look at the future and what it will be.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous@ 1:11: Yours is an important voice here and I am only thankful for your detailed response.

A couple on our block had a thriving marketing promotions company that tanked during the recession. She opened a daycare with a partner, and he started a specialty cleaning business. They have bounced back to OK shape. He said, "We looked for things people pretty much always need: their kids tended with kindness and their messes cleaned up with muscle."

So for them, the answer was to go into another line of work where they were still not employees. The guy figured he was too old, and the woman knew she loved kids.

I'd look at other self-employed options, since you are thinking all this over. There might be part-time work you can do that augments your business. (FWIW they told me, "stay away from franchises".)

You might indeed find a corporate or gov't job, they exist, but depending where you are, there will be significant to astounding competition. Some employers are wary of hiring what one recruiter called "self-employed people coming in from the cold".
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, thank you for your reply. You bring up some very good points that I hadn't thought about - for example your last line. I'm actually in Toronto, and I know that the competition for the good corporate and government jobs is very stiff.

My fear is that my age would count against me (versus a younger person). Also, I would have to take stock of my marketable skills. Having run my own business, I have worn so many hats and I wonder whether I could actually get a "real" job if I had to. Perhaps I'm not giving myself enough credit, but it certainly is a scary proposition to look for a job in the "real world" after working for myself for so long.

But, I do worry about risk and long-term security, and things like pensions and retirement much more so now that I am older, and perhaps even more so because I am a mother and I want to be able to provide for my children and be able to help them financially if I can. So much to think about!

Thanks for your wise advice. I guess at this point in my life, I am still a work in progress!
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: If you decide to apply for "real" jobs, create various resumés for the jobs, focusing on the required skills.

Few things raise an interviewer's suspicions more than someone who says they "can do it all"- even though you can!

I am sure you also will have a good reason for seeking that position other than your business floundering.

In the Toronto business community, I met a number of people who had run small businesses, than re-entered corporate life. They reasons they cited (besides a paycheque every 2 weeks and benefits) were the satisfaction of leading a team, and the ability to work on larger-scope projects than they could in their own business.

I hope that you will let us know what you decide, and what happens.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: There are typos in my response; can't edit them (without rewriting entire comment) and am in a hurry.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, you are a font of good advice and knowledge and I so appreciate it! I am still figuring all of this out and getting advice from a few people I feel I can confide in. I had thought about having different resumes and you've confirmed that I was right in my thinking. It's definitely scary contemplating making such a huge change at this time in my life. With a husband and two small kids, it's not just about me anymore.

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