Episode 118 – Longitudinal writing with Sarah Kessler

Sarah KesslerThe gig economy – flexible and empowering, or exploitative and uncertain? Sarah Kessler is fascinated by how work is changing, and her book Gigged follows five very different people over three years and tracks their experiences – good, bad and downright terrifying.

In this week’s conversation, we discuss the difference in writing an article (Sarah is also a reporter at Quartz, and before that Fast Company and Mashable) and a book, with the sustained timeline that implies, and the opportunity to explore not just the stories, but the context in which they’re taking place.

‘I wanted to have relationships with people over a long period of time rather than just talking about the hot new thing they were working on for this month.’

Sarah also has some great advice for writers which involves NOT writing. This might just be my favourite tip so far.


Gigged on Amazon

Sarah at Quartz: https://qz.com/author/skesslerqz/

Sarah on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SarahFKessler

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m delighted to be here today with Sarah Kessler, who is a journalist based in New York, she’s currently a reporter at Quartz where she writes about the future of work and previously she covered the gig economy as a senior writer at Fast Company and managed start up coverage at Mashable. And her new book is called “Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work” which is a terrific title. So welcome to the show, Sarah.

Sarah Kessler:                     Thank you.

Alison Jones:                        Really good to have you here. Now just tell us a little about the story behind “Gigged”, what prompted you to write it and why does it matter?

Sarah Kessler:                     So there’s a huge change in the way that people are working. Maybe your parents, they got a job at a company and that meant that they worked from nine to five, that they had certain benefits and they could retire with a pension, and increasingly that’s not what’s available, or the jobs that people are taking, and so work is becoming more temporary and often independent.

And so there’s this huge shift. I came across it in 2010 when I was working at a startup tech blog and I was interviewing two or three start ups every single day and I noticed this trend in companies pitching me apps that would end unemployment. So these are apps like Uber, where you could go and they would hook you up with jobs, walking dogs or finding freelance work online or doing small tasks and I thought this sounded great, the pitch was you could work whenever you want doing whatever you want, this could fit in between school and taking care of kids and anything else you want to do, go start a band.

So then fast forward two years and I was working at Fast Company Magazine and decided to actually try this for a story, so I took a month and I went and signed up for every app I could find and tried to make the minimum wage and I had a really hard time even – despite my college degree and the fact that I was offering to proofread papers and I’m a professional writer – all these advantages, I still found it was really hard to get work and it was really hard to get good paying work, it was really hard to get work when I wanted it as opposed to working on someone else’s schedule.

So I began to think that this is a little bit more complicated. And around the same time there was this conversation that was emerging around Uber and apps like it about workers and it was largely future of work panels with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and politicians and labour leaders but there was nobody who was talking about the workers or the worker experience which was kind of the part that I cared about, is: what does this look like on a day to day basis and how is that different depending on who you are and what might that mean for me? And so that’s why I wanted to write this book in the way that I did.

Alison Jones:                        And it is interesting, it’s a series of stories isn’t it?

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah, so I followed five people between two and three years who are all working at very different parts in the gig economy, so there’s this story that takes place in rural Arkansas, in a town where 40 per cent of people live in poverty. There’s a story about a millennial programmer who lives in New York City and makes fifteen thousand dollars a year, or, sorry, a month, which is much different. And so I kind of used their stories to put into context all the things that are in white papers and press releases about the gig economy.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and it’s a really good example of how the story transforms what you know are the issues into things that you care about and people you care about. And you really bring out that ambivalence, the sense that on the one hand there’s all this freedom and flexibility and on the other hand there’s just massive insecurity, and that can work for some people but actually even for the same person it might not work at some points of their life.

Sarah Kessler:                     Oh yes, very much so. I mean for some people it’s really only that story, if you’re able to save a year of living expenses it doesn’t matter you don’t know how much you’re going to make next week, you can probably buy your own health insurance. If you live from paycheck to paycheck, maybe you really do like the flexibility and you like working in this way but you still kind of have a fear that if anything bad happens to you and you aren’t able to build safety structures for yourself there’s not that same safety net that you would have if you’re an employee and it’s scary.

Alison Jones:                        And there’s that horrifying statistic that you mentioned in the book, that nearly half of American citizens wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 unplanned expense, they are literally… there’s no cushion there, they’re just living from paycheck to paycheck.

Sarah Kessler:                     Yes.

Alison Jones:                        And I hadn’t realised as well, one thing that really struck me, was I hadn’t realised just how much some of these, certainty Uber, and some of the other schemes that you talk about function as pyramid schemes as much as anything, so you supplement the meagre money that you get for the job by commission for bringing other people in. Which seems a bit toxic somehow, I hadn’t understood that.

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah, there were definitely… it became standard at some point especially among the app, gig economy that they offered people, they have to recruit a lot of people in order to be able to fill these requests that customers have when you press a button. Uber only works if somebody shows up and gives you a ride. So, they found the most effective ways to do that was to offer rewards, like a couple hundred dollars if you sign with a friend. And at the same time were kind of pitching this as: you’re starting your own business and you’re an entrepreneur. So, yeah that’s how a lot of people end up signing up.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, the attention there, and of course journalism itself is a really interesting case study in gig economy. You didn’t put your own story – well you mentioned your own story but it’s not one of the case studies in the book. But how have you seen journalism, writing for money, change over your career and how have you managed to ride that storm?

Sarah Kessler:                     Yes, so it’s between 20 and 30 per cent cheaper to hire a freelancer than it is to hire an employee because if you hire an employee you need to take of benefits and follow certain practises like giving them paid lunch breaks and you have more…

Alison Jones:                        Yeah all that pesky stuff about looking after them…

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah so there’s a tremendous incentive to hire freelancers whenever possible and I think that that’s true in a lot of industries. In journalism, I graduated right in the middle of the recession and also in the middle of journalism kind of figuring out that it was going to drastically need to change its business model because of the internet and so it was a very hard time and I got, I had a lot experiences where I would work with somebody for a year and they would come to the office every day, they’d have a phone line and later I would be surprised to learn that they were a freelancer the whole time.

Alison Jones:                        So you wouldn’t even know, oh that is interesting.

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah sometimes I wouldn’t even know. And I don’t think that that’s uncommon in any industry at this point, I think that there are a lot of people who are perma-lancing as it’s called. Which-

Alison Jones:                        By choice do you think, or is that just the only work they can get?

Sarah Kessler:                     There’s a version of it by choice but there’s also, especially with something like Uber, there’s evidence that as the economy improves and people can get jobs elsewhere, there’s fewer people who are willing to participate in work like this. There’s also evidence that a lot of people have underemployment so they would like to be working more than they are even if they don’t show up in the completely unemployed numbers.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. So would you recommend journalism as a career option these days?

Sarah Kessler:                     Oh boy, I’d say, I mean I can’t not recommend it because I do love it but I would say that its very hard and if you have something else you would be happy doing, maybe-

Alison Jones:                        Something more reliably-

Sarah Kessler:                     Maybe it would be easier-

Alison Jones:                        Lucrative.

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        No, I feel very much the same about publishing.

Sarah Kessler:                     I bet.

Alison Jones:                        That is funny. Now one thing that really struck me as well, particularly with Uber, which has been very much in the news recently, there is a danger isn’t there? When you’re writing about something that’s of the moment, when you’re picking a contemporary subject, and you’re writing a book as opposed to an article – and one of the reasons that I’m so interested in what you do is that you have the journalism background, you write for Quartz and you’ve written for lots of online magazines but now you’ve also written a book and with a book the time scales are so different aren’t they? Because it’d be more than a year between you writing a chapter and the book actually publishing and it’s on the shelf for another couple of years after that, and by that time the hot new startup that you were talking about could have crashed and burned. So how do you go about future-proofing your writing when you’re writing about topical situations?

Sarah Kessler:                     So I think when you’re breaking in an article you’re explaining something that’s new, you’re looking for the news and when you’re working on a book, at least the way I thought of it, I was kind of explaining the context for which all this news takes place and helping you understand what it means and also I worked on it for such a long time that that hot new startup already crashed and burned by the time I was finished so-

Alison Jones:                        So you had to go back and write that chapter again?

Sarah Kessler:                     No, that became part of the story and what made it interesting.

Alison Jones:                        Oh I see what you mean, you have the continuity through it.

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah, like for instance, I followed one, a non profit that was working in rural Arkansas, and they had this idea that they could get people out of poverty by connecting them with online jobs. So okay, well, there’s no jobs available here, but if we just show people how to use a freelance platform we can help them get jobs elsewhere. And I did write an article about that and their plans and what they were doing but then following them for three years I also followed why it didn’t work, and what the complications for that and how the problem, the ways in which this problem is more complicated than it looks. And I think that that’s something that you can learn from and no matter what the news is every day, like there’s new court decisions around this, but the context still applies and I also think that this is a trend that’s very much not going away. There’s one estimate that all, nearly all jobs, that were created between 2005 and 2015 in the U.S. were in some sort of temporary or independent capacity and not full time jobs, so I think that this kind of context and understanding of what’s going on is still going to be relevant for a long time.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah and it’s going to be interesting as the demographic shifts, isn’t it, because I can imagine lots of millennials straight out of college embracing all of the flexibility stuff but as they get married, have children, get a mortgage, suddenly it’s going to look a very different picture isn’t it? But I love that point you make about the book serving as context and providing more of a thought piece around what’s going on here, a more reflective piece, whereas the articles are more reporting specific examples of what’s going on. Were you conscious of that as a distinctive way of writing?

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah I think I was, and I knew I wanted to have relationships with people over a long period of time rather than just talking about the hot new thing they were working on for this month.

Alison Jones:                        It’s so interesting you had to almost place your bets didn’t you? You selected those people, did all the people that you followed make it into the book or did you kind of spread your bets and then pick the best examples?

Sarah Kessler:                     I did follow more people than made it into the book so there was a little bit of that and then some people I found at a point where it was exciting for them in some way and kind of worked backwards. Does that make sense?

Alison Jones:                        Yeah so you picked them where they were now and then you kind of unpicked how they got there… That’s such an interesting way of approaching it.

Sarah Kessler:                     Nobody exactly where they were now but there were a few who started in the middle.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and in terms of the way that you approached writing the book obviously you had the longer period of time and a more… it’s almost like there’s longitudinal studies that they do with, I’m thinking of, there’s a guy called Robert Winston who does it in the UK, they take a cohort of children and they follow them from birth up to adolescence and there’s a programme every five years showing where they are now, it’s fascinating. So that’s fascinating, as long as you don’t do that in an article but what else was interesting, what did you notice about that fact that you’re making that transition form the journalistic to the authorial approach? Was it just the same thing on a different scale?

Sarah Kessler:                     It’s not quite the same thing I would say because when you’re writing a news article often you’re trying to do it in the quickest way possible, and ‘here’s the point’. Versus: I wanted this to be more of an experience where you read it and as a story. I think that’s probably one of the biggest differences. And I’m sure there are more, the way that it changed over time I thought was really interesting.

Alison Jones:                        I loved that. Yes. And you’re a professional writer obviously, this is what you do, you sit down and you put words on paper, well on a screen. But obviously most of the people that listen to this podcast are perhaps writing their first book, they’re business people rather than writers per se, can you give us… I mean maybe it’s just something you do and you don’t even think about it anymore, but how do you keep the ideas coming and how do you keep the words flowing, do you ever get writers block?

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah I think all writers get writers block, one great cure is a deadline, then you have to do it….

Alison Jones:                        There’s a journalist speaking.

Sarah Kessler:                     I didn’t necessarily have that as rigid as I sometimes do when I’m working on an article but one thing that I do, do is if I’m in a place where I just can’t start because I don’t have the perfect introduction or I don’t know exactly how it’s going to go I just tell myself that I’m not really starting, I’m just getting all the notes out of my head and writing it down as quick as possible before I start the real draft, and sometime that’s helpful to do and then nine time out of ten it turns into a real draft and you can use it.

Alison Jones:                        That’s so interesting. Did you know I really believe in this, I think that not enough people think about writing for themselves, they think when they’re writing they’re communicating with someone, but if you can just take that pressure off and go, ‘I’m just going to write for me for a minute’ and then suddenly you’re writing and you’re doing it. I’m really interested that you use that as well, I’m not really writing I’m just going to-

Sarah Kessler:                     Just trick yourself, you know.

Alison Jones:                        If somebody is listening to this show and they’re like, yeah, but its easy for Sarah, she’s a professional writer, what would your one best tip be if you’re a first time author this is new to you and you’re stuck in the saggy middle of your book and you can’t see the end, what would you say to them?

Sarah Kessler:                     One thing that was really helpful for me is to just schedule a time where no matter what you’re going to write, and so for me that was between nine and eleven pm after I had finished work and I would make myself a cup of tea and I just work on it and kind of get into that routine. And then I would say, just as important I thought was scheduling times when you’re absolutely NOT going to work on it because if you just let it hang over your head as something you should always be doing it will drive you crazy, one, and also some of the most productive time you’ll have is just walking around and not thinking about it directly, that kind of gives you space to approach things differently or to actually see what you’ve read.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, I could not agree more. That is so interesting and it’s like working out, isn’t it? You work out but then you have to rest and the muscles are rebuilding as you rest it has be a rhythm. Do you ever get, I mean I’m so contrary, I could imagine that I’d be like, ‘I must not work on the book today,’ and that would be the time when all the ideas would come…

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        You would need to write them down, is that a sort of counterintuitive way of making yourself get more creative, ‘I can’t possibly write the book today…’?

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah maybe, if you’re feeling super inspired when you wake up, yeah, just write the book but also let yourself off the hook for a day. Go for a hike and say it’s okay but I’m not working on the book right now.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, giving yourself permission to just take a break. And you know what, the taking a hike thing is really interesting as well because I strongly believe that. For me it’s running, if I get out and run suddenly the brain starts working again and I come back kind of re energised and I have new ideas and new ways of looking at things and you just don’t get that when you’re sitting in front of a screen.

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah no I totally believe that too, if I can go for a run it makes everything better.

Alison Jones:                        It does doesn’t it, it makes me a nicer person

Sarah Kessler:                     Yeah me too.

Alison Jones:                        That’s also true. My husband keeps telling me, you should go for a run now. Brilliant. Now I always ask my guests to recommend a book, obviously you’ll say Gigged but you’re not allowed to, you have to say another book, what business book do you think everybody should immediately stop listening to this podcast and go and read right now?

Sarah Kessler:                     So I love a book called “Janesville” by Amy Goldstein who’s a Washington Post reporter and she followed this story of a town that’s actually not far from where I grew up in Wisconsin, after a GM plant shut down and the impact of all those layoffs on the town and what I really liked about it is, like my book, it’s told as a story so its not necessarily, if this is a business book it has to be boring if you’re gonna learn from it it needs to be bullet points you’re reading a story that you learn from. And then also something that I think I’ve heard her say that I agree with is that the impact of business decisions on a workforce should be something that falls into the category business reading, it is something that business leaders should be reading about.

Alison Jones:                        Yes and didn’t this won an award last year?

Sarah Kessler:                     It did, yes.

Alison Jones:                        I’m sure I remember reading, yeah, I can’t remember what award it was, it was a really prestigious, was it the New York Times award I can’t remember now but anyway, yes it was basically this biography of the town but that sense that business is a human issue it isn’t sort of esoteric and it isn’t confined to people in suits, it’s everybody and it impacts on everybody in this town. That’s a great recommendation and its a real prompt to me because it’s one of those books that I thought, “Oh, I must read that,” and I never got around to it so thank you. Fantastic.

Now if anybody wants to find out more about you and Gigged particularity, the book, and your work with Quartz which we haven’t really talked about much, actually, where should they go?

Sarah Kessler:                     So my name is Sarah Kessler and the book is called “Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work” and you can find it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or any independent bookstore.

Alison Jones:                        Cool, well all those links will go on the show notes at ExtraordinaryBusinessBooks.com, so if you’re driving and can’t write it all down don’t worry it’s always there as usual. Thank you so much Sarah it’s a really interesting topic, so thank you.

Sarah Kessler:                     Thank you.

Alison Jones:                        It’s really good to talk to you, goodbye.


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