Game designer Owen Goss injects a healthy dose of reality into the “if I can do it, you can too!” school of careers advice. As he points out, privilege and luck have a huge role to play.
Indie games are a hard thing to make a living at. And yes, I’ve worked very hard to keep doing what I do, but so have the myriad of other indies who haven’t been as lucky and weren’t able to keep doing it full-time. I know how lucky and privileged I’ve been, and I’m very grateful.
It’s the same in my line of work. I got into tech journalism by accident: the right idea to the right person in the right mood at the right time. I got into broadcasting by being in the right place at the right time; into copywriting because I knew the right people, and so on.
We like to kid ourselves that we’re where we are by virtue of our God-given talent and our work ethic, but a lot of it’s just luck.
And the more privileged you are, the luckier you tend to be.
I’ve written about privilege before. It’s the advantage you have in life from not being something: not being a woman, not being black, not being poor, not being LGBT+ and so on. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is great; just that those particular factors – your gender, your colour, your class, etc – don’t make it worse.
And I’m enormously privileged. I’m reasonably well educated. I had parental support when I was starting off, and when I hit financial problems that would otherwise have forced me into a different line of work. I haven’t been taken less seriously or harassed because of my gender, refused opportunities because of my colour, discriminated against because of my sexuality, unable to take advantage of educational opportunities because of my parents’ income. Nobody was able to discriminate me because of my gender identity because I didn’t come out as trans until I already had a career.
Privilege is the secret of many people’s success. There was a hilarious example of it yesterday, someone who’d paid off a huge pile of debt: “If I can do it, anyone can!”
The article detailed how the person’s parents bought them a flat which they rented out while living with their parents, using the rental income to drive down the debt.
“If I can do it, anyone whose parents buy them a house and let them live rent-free while they rent it out can!” is slightly less inspirational.
It’s the same in work. “If I can do it, anyone can!” often turns out to rely on a whole network of privilege and tons of luck. And even if you do get in, there are still factors affecting you that might not affect others, factors that can prevent you from building a career in that sector.
One of the biggest ones is money. Some sectors simply don’t pay enough for people to make a full time living from them.
Let’s take my official line of work as an example. I’m a freelance tech journalist, but actual tech journalism is a very small part of what I do now.
That’s because you can’t make a living from it any more.
The rates I’m being offered now are at best 1/3 lower than they were when I started 20 years ago; the length of articles being commissioned has been cut by 2/3. The time involved is unchanged.
When I started off in tech writing in 1998, you’d write a 3,000 word article and be paid somewhere in the region of £420 for it. Now the article, which requires the same amount of work, is £120. You’re often working for well below minimum wage.
And of course the world is a bit more expensive than it was in 1998. Back then the average UK house price was £65,221. Today it’s £226,798. Rents have soared similarly. The average annual gas bill in 1998 was £331 and electricity £388; now they’re £564 and £552. Petrol was 60p a litre; now it’s nudging £1.30.
When I started as a tech freelancer, you could make a living doing it. Now, you mostly can’t. Wages are so low that it’s something you need to do as an add-on to your main career, which in my case is a mix of commercial writing, book publishing, broadcasting and the odd bit of talking. Some of my peers moved sideways into education or PR.
Not everybody has those options.
Again, I’ve benefited from luck. Luck to have got into freelance tech journalism when it could still pay the rent. Luck to have found alternative forms of work before the money started to dry up. Luck to have the particular mix of skills and experience and contacts that gets you hired for copywriting gigs.
This isn’t a whinge. I’m lucky and privileged. And that’s my point.
I think we’re doing younger people a disservice if we don’t admit the power of privilege and luck in our narratives. If we perpetuate the idea that you can do anything if you just try hard enough, we’re ignoring the many factors that hear you say “Yes I can!” and reply “No, you can’t.”
Look at it in wider society, not just my line of work. We’re ignoring the structural factors that affect women and people of colour, the lack of representation, the discrimination and harassment, the old boys network, the problem of low wages and all the other factors that mean other people can’t simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Many of those factors can be challenged and changed, but they won’t be if we pretend they don’t exist.
Many of us, me included, are guilty of thinking the playing field is level because it worked for us. And that means all too often, when we say “I did it and you can too!” what we really say is “I’m okay! Screw you!”