Are you relatively new to this fine metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York at one time... except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and currently resides in Brooklyn Heights. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question comes from a Corsican visitor who doubts the myth of the NYC rat race.

Dear Native New Yorker,

I'm a foreigner, so, please, excuse my poor English.

New Yorkers are considered in France like workaholics, having no time for anything else than their job, having breakfast as they walk in the street, eating pre-cooked dishes at their desk, working at least 12 hours a day and 7/7, for a boss who can fire them at any moment in the minute.

But every time I come to New York City, as a tourist, I can see some people in restaurants, in parks, shopping or quietly strolling with their children... are they all tourists like me, retired, or have they all been fired the day before?

Is New York addiction to work a French fantasy for the most part? Thank you dear Native New Yorker.


A Corsican

PS: I live in Corsica island, and French people think we are all lazy. This is a French fantasy!

A Native New Yorker responds:

Dear Corsican,

Those French people sound like judgmental assholes! Believe me, I know what it's like to have an oppressive foreign culture invade your homeland, disparage the natives as lazy and force them to adopt a new language and culture. I come from a small island society myself: a neighborhood called Park Slope, in the south Brooklyn archipelago.

A young Jake Dobkin takes a break for fresh air during a Young Trotskyite Conference upstate. (Courtesy Private Jake Dobkin Collection)

Growing up, Park Slope was a socialist paradise with its own language ("hippie-speak") and culture (revolving around a communal market called "The Food Co-op"). But about 20 years ago, financiers and lawyers began to invade, buying up homes and forcing many of my people out. Those of us who remained were forced to abandon their native habits—now when we speak, it's all about interest rates and equity and housing prices. Natives who don't accept this re-culturization are looked down upon as backward and lazy—bygone relics of a quaint, obsolete era.

But we are not lazy! For though our habits might vary, the fabled work ethic of which you were told is exhibited by almost all residents of our great city. It's not just our corporate parasites who work long hours. So too do our public sector employees in health, education, and government. Some, like our Public School teachers, even put in many additional hours without pay, preparing materials and grading papers long into the night. Even our creatives, those shaggy bloggers and designers, routinely put in ten or twelve hour days.

We do this at great personal cost: spending less time with our families, forgetting to exercise, eating sad desk lunches pulled from the local food carts while pecking away at our keyboards with one hand. Why? It is not out of a love of work. It is because New York is an extremely expensive city, with economic inequality rivaling countries like Nigeria. How bad is it? Well, our city's median household income is about $50,000, and our median rental price is $3,800 per month in Manhattan and $3,000 in Brooklyn. That doesn't leave a lot of money left over for food—unless you're constantly hustling.

So who are all those people in the park on sunny afternoons? Well, as you guessed, some are students, retired workers, or tourists, and some are employed, sneaking out for a few minutes of sunlight to fight off the scurvy you get from being strapped to a monitor during all daylight hours. But many of the rest are our city's vast numbers of unemployed (8.6% of us) and even vaster numbers of "partially employed" (15% by the "U-6" count), who have some work but not enough hours to fill the day. As in Europe, our young people are the worst off: the unemployment rate for them is a staggering, Great Depression-like 30%.

But what, you will ask, about the hipsters? Surely some of these bearded layabouts are trust fund kids, or else working one of those fake new economy "jobs" like social media manager or artisanal coffee buyer that involve two hours of work a day. This is not true, or hardly true (once in awhile you see a 30-something skateboarding in Bushwick at like 2 p.m. on a Tuesday wearing a pair of Beats headphones and a $300 Bathing Ape sweatshirt and you do wonder). But this is by and large a malicious fantasy perpetuated by TV shows like Friends, which are designed to make you feel bad about yourself and to distract you from the fact that a life of wealth and ease is unattainable for the vast majority of our fellow citizens.

Most of the people you see at the coffee shops are just doing jobs that don't involve office work, like freelance writing or design, but which still involve putting in many hours for low pay. They are at the coffee shop, or in the park, for a little human companionship and change-of-scene, before they have to go back home and bang out another 10 list posts about why Ryan Gosling used to look goofy or whatever lamentable thing they have to do to make rent.

These problems aren't going away, either: with the decline of organized labor and the rise of technology, workers have less power than ever, and fewer and fewer people are going to have well-paying jobs in the future. Years ago, our city's manufacturing class was decimated. But soon, much of our current "service economy" will go the same way: already jobs in law, medicine, and finance are getting sent to cheaper places, through the power of the Internet. Almost no job is safe from this technological upheaval, so the proper attitude of the Native New Yorker towards the unemployed and under-employed is solidarity, for any of us may soon be in their place.

Over time, these trends will lead to one of two outcomes: bloody revolution, or a more egalitarian society. Since bloody revolution is in no one's best interest, I suspect that when push comes to shove, our society will begin moving towards policies like a higher minimum wage and a more progressive tax system, to redistribute the massive wealth of our highly productive society from the rich, where it is concentrated, to the 99%, who are currently suffering and who will suffer more in the near future. This money could eventually form the basis for a universal basic income, as they are contemplating in Switzerland, or else pay for the intensive education and training that will allow our workers to compete more successfully in this brutal 21st century globalized society.

The Industrial Workers of the World gather in the North end of Union Square in 1914. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

This argument is actually quite old. In his classic 1930 paper "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren", Keynes imagines "a fifteen-hour week" and a general change in our societal values, coming out of the upheaval of increasing mechanization:

We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

These ideas probably seem familiar to you, my Corsican friend, for France and many of the European democracies have been extending their social safety nets in this direction for decades. But to many of my American readers, and even to some of my fellow Native New Yorkers, it may seem unjust and immoral to expect healthy people to be paid more to work fewer hours, or even to be paid while not working at all. But to them I would say that this is a situation that already exists in America, for the rich who do no work and earn their capital gains. If it's good for them why wouldn't it be good for the rest of us?


A Native New Yorker

N.B.: The greatest song ever written about the travails of the working man is Billy Bragg's Between The Wars—although some of these songs are pretty good.

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