Redux: Earning a Living in the 21st Century

By | Friday, July 30, 2021 Leave a Comment
I came across this piece that I wrote back in 2009, not even a decade into the 21st century. And while a lot has changed in that time (a few months ago, I wrote a Twitter thread on how 2011 signaled a pretty profound cultural shift across the planet) and even some of the people I quote below have passed away, I think the thrust of my point here still stands. Possibly even moreso than it did when I first wrote it.

Despite some of the specifics being a little dated, I've kept the original text intact, other than to add a few notes where links appear to have died.

Without getting into editorial cartoons, I've just pulled together a small collection of December comments from comic industry folks, reflecting on the current state of the economy, their finances and health care...

Harvey Pekar, via Graphic NYC [dead link]...

Steve Greenberg, via The Steve Greenberg Blog [dead link]...

Joey Manley, via Facebook...

Julia Wertz, via Time's YouTube channel...

Erik Larsen, via Twitter...

Some of this has to do with the nature of freelancing; there's an inherent instability in income. But as Greenberg noted (if you read through his entire piece) the stability that once was taken for granted in corporate America is no longer quite so assured. Further complicating matters is that increased specialization means that the bills we pay go in more and more different directions simultaneously. (Consider almost any health procedure: where you once just paid a single doctor, payments now need to go to the hospital, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the pharmacist, the lab technicians, your primary care doctor, etc.)

Given that high degree of uncertainty and complication, it would seem that no one person can rely on a single revenue stream any longer. This really started back in the 1970s when a single income family was simply unsustainable and many housewives found they had to go back to work in order to bring in enough money into the household to survive. If one member of the household lost their job, there'd be another to at least keep things going for a little while. This has gotten more pronounced in recent years where we see people working two or three jobs in order to keep up.

Now what strikes me as particularly interesting is when you start looking at successful webcomic creators in this context.

Many (I daresay "most") successful webcomic creators essentially follow the same basic business model: give your comic away for free, and make money via advertising and selling books and t-shirts and whatnot. Charlie Trotman's upcoming book, Poorcraft, specifically speaks to being able to live comfortably while earning a viable living as a cartoonist in this manner. (Check the link for a better explanation from Trotman herself.) But look at that business model more closely. Folks like Trotman are making comics, but they're making money through multiple, simultaneous revenue streams. Some fans read the comics online for free and buy a t-shirt or mousepad or something. Others don't care about a silly tchotchke, and would prefer to have a printed copy of the book. Still others won't read anything online anyway, and stumble across a creator's booth at a comic convention. And still others don't care about the creator's own work per se, but would love to have a really cool sketch of Batman. While all of the income associated with that creator is centered around his/her comic in some way, they're all from different sources. Now, if your t-shirt vendor suddenly goes under, you've still got book sales to go on for a while until you can locate another one. If your transportation craps out and you can't drive to all the conventions you planned on having a booth at, you can still have money coming in from online sales.

These creators make their own form of security through diversification. Much the same way mutual funds have more security than individual stocks because they have a little money in a lot of different companies. "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."

I think freelancers, at least to a degree, have known and acted on this idea for many years. But it's a lesson that now needs to be carried over to the classic 8-to-5er as well. Admittedly, this is NOT an easy way to change to make! I've been struggling for YEARS trying to develop additional means of income for myself beyond my day job and I can tell you first-hand that is incredibly difficult to even think of, much less develop, multiple viable income streams! (I'm hoping my book alleviates that somewhat, but we'll have to wait to see how that goes.)

But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it will become increasingly difficult for one person to live on a single source of income. We've been seeing a trend (at least here in the States) of households including more extended family members; I think that's likely to continue to increase and broaden to something that begins to resemble a commune. (Clarification: That is NOT to say I think we're heading towards Communism! But I think more people will try to take advantage of living in greater numbers to diffuse common costs like, say, shelter. Think of the Fantastic Four: a man, his wife, her brother, and some guy they all know but aren't actually related to.)

One of my personal concerns is that of relevance. I see the speed with which technology is changing and how it's changing society, and to remain viably employed in any capacity means that I need to at least keep pace. Not too much of a problem now, but I question whether I can continue when I'm 70. (As much as I'm trying to save for retirement, I've pretty well resigned to working until I die. I don't think retirement as we know it today will be a realistic option 30 years from now.) Am I adaptable enough to flow with an ever-changing economy?

I think that people are starting to get that at some level. That's where Pekar's comments stem from. The plans he may have had for retirement 25 years ago when he agreed to appear on The Late Show are completely out the window now. This is a guy who didn't just freelance -- he had a regular, paying job with benefits and social security and all that. But he still needs to keep developing new forms of income at 70 years old to live. Granted, he didn't have a great-paying day job as a file clerk and American Splendor never netted him huge amounts of cash either, but that's going to be the dilemma more and more people face. Can you juggle multiple ways of earning income as you get older?


I don't claim to have the answers here. But I think the webcomic creators are on to something real and practical, and that more people are going to have to start taking their cues from them. You need to develop something current than has legs enough to build on for years. You need to be adaptable. You need to get creative. It doesn't necessarily have to be comics, but I think there are good lessons to be learned there.

Pay attention to the Charlie Trotmans and Jennie Breedens and Ryan Sohmers that are out there. Not just their comics, but their business models and ethics. What are they doing BEYOND just creating good comics? And how can that be adapted to fit the talents you personally have? How can you leverage your assets with others' to benefit everyone?

That, I believe, is going to be what it takes to live in the 21st century. I think there was another drummer a few years back who said something about getting by with a little help from his friends. Just something to think about.
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