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Hilary Hodge: Working harder for less reward

The idea of work has changed significantly in recent years. I think this is especially true for people living in California, where opportunities are waning and where wealth disparity can be especially stark.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), California has the second highest underemployment rate in the nation. Underemployment, according to the PPIC is defined as "people working part-time who would rather be working full-time." The institution estimates that 15.4 percent of Californians are not fully employed. Among the people I know who are working 40 or more hours per week, most of them are doing so because they have two or more jobs.

Whenever I run into someone my age who recently moved to Nevada County I always ask the same set of questions. I almost always get the same set of answers.

I recently met a young man whom I'll call Jeff. After the obligatory round of introductions I launched into my usual routine. "What brought you to Nevada County?" I asked. Jeff explained that he and his wife moved here because she had family in the area. I asked what his wife did for a living and Jeff explained that she is a telecommuter working for a distribution company. She works via the internet so she was able to transfer her employment when they moved.

To meet the annual self-sufficiency wage, an adult earning minimum wage would have to work 60 hours per week, every week, all year. ... According to the same organization, more than 38 percent of households in Nevada County live below the self-sufficiency standard.

"And what do you do for work?" I asked Jeff.

He explained that he helps manage a seasonal rental property. He also teaches cooking classes. He also has a food business and works at farmers markets. And he does odd jobs when ends won't meet.

After a few more questions I learned that both Jeff and his wife have college degrees. Both he and his wife have student loan payments. Neither of them have retirement benefits. They pay for health care out of pocket. Together they are struggling to make a decent living. Based on my casual and non-scientific surveys of folks my age, this seems to be a fairly typical situation.

According to the Center for Community Economic Development, based on average living costs for Nevada County, the annual self-sufficiency wage (i.e. the annual income it takes to meet the financial obligations of living on one's own) is almost $30,000 for a single adult. To meet the annual self-sufficiency wage, an adult earning minimum wage would have to work 60 hours per week, every week, all year. That annual income increases significantly for larger households and for households with children. According to the same organization, more than 38 percent of households in Nevada County live below the self-sufficiency standard.

The economy is very different than it was even just 10 years ago. Traditional jobs are disappearing. Most of the available local jobs don't offer benefits. Entry level jobs don't pay a living wage and don't allow a person enough financial security to make it on their own. Skilled work and jobs for an educated workforce are scarce and, if available, are often temporary. A study published in Forbes magazine estimates that 40 percent of the American workforce will be remote or freelance workers by 2020, just four years from now.

The era where a person could grow up, get a skill or an education, and then get a long-term, well-paying job with decent benefits and retirement is over.

Between my wife and me, we have two college degrees and five jobs. Two of those jobs are at management level. Combined, the two of us work about 100 hours per week. We have one car. We have no retirement benefits. We pay for health care out of pocket. We don't spend frivolously. We have no savings. We live pay check to pay check.

The economy has changed considerably and it has become more and more difficult for individuals and families to make ends meet. Young people have a very hard time finding entry-level jobs. Adult children are living at home longer. People my age, who are in their prime earning years, are working more and earning less. Folks who had hoped to retire are still working or have picked up a part time gig to make ends meet.

A friend of mine recently admitted that she had been doing a really good job "masquerading as a middle class person" for the past several years. I feel like I have been doing the same thing and that most of my friends are giving similar performances. Both anecdotal evidence and research shows that most people are struggling in today's economy.

For most people today, work is harder, more time consuming, and less rewarding.

Hilary Hodge lives in Grass Valley. Her column is published by The Union on Tuesdays. Contact her at hhodgewriter@gmail.com.