What It's Like to Live on an Editorial Assistant's Salary

Young writers hoping to get their start in fashion publishing often look to editorial assistant positions to get their feet in the door. Although the job ideally combines a mix of writing and editing tasks with assisting a higher-up editor (or, often, the editor in chief), the reality is largely defined by the specific company’s culture. Put simply, these gigs are often heavy on the assistant front and low on the editorial portion. And, though they’re paid less than everyone else on the masthead, these ladies and gents tend to be doing the most arduous and time-consuming work.

This sacrifice, however, has long been considered a small price to pay for what usually turns out to be a coveted and permanent spot in the fashion industry. It’s hard to argue with that, but the short end of the stick these employees often receive becomes harder to ignore when you realise that most of them live in New York City—considered by most studies to be the most expensive city in the United States and fourth-most expensive in the world.

According to Glassdoor, the national average salary for an editorial assistant is $33,016, while New York City’s average is a tiny bit more, at $33,249. This may seem harmless, or even positive, at first glance but is less so when you consider that almost everything in New York, from an apartment to a cup of coffee, is priced at twice the national average. Technically, then, New York City–based employees should be getting paid significantly more than their counterparts in other cities. Alas, this is not the case, and it can make the dream of working in fashion while living in New York City, well, less than dreamy.

Consider the example of Hannah*, who worked as the editorial assistant for a high-profile fashion publisher for two years when she was just out of college. At $35,000, hers was a high starting wage by publishing standards but, as she told me, “really hard to actually live on.” Sure, the job was entry level, she conceded, but it required “a really solid educational background and a lot of work outside of normal business hours.” Not to mention that she was making almost double that income in the food service industry prior to switching to editorial assistant. “Most of my friends had higher wages and were under less pressure to make ends meet,” she confessed, further explaining that it put a huge strain on her credit rating and even her romantic relationship, when she and her boyfriend began trying to split their finances down the middle.

When asked whether or not she felt the low income was worth it, she seemed unsure: “There’s a misconception out there that you can move up quickly [in this job], but that’s not true of all places. It’s also a mostly administrative position, so it’s unlikely that you’re building up a great body of work during this time.”

Another young woman I spoke to named Clara* admitted that her tasks as editorial assistant for an online fashion platform ranged from delivering a five-foot-tall Ladurée cake to the editor in chief’s newlywed friend to creating spreadsheets filled with credit card company information so that her boss could settle on the best option. Editorial it was not, until two and a half years down the line when she was finally permitted to write for the site. “I was beginning to feel like an eternal intern,” she joked of that time.

As for the biggest challenges that New York City threw at these women while they tackled these jobs? “The rent is so, so high,” Hannah said, “and many people in the city make a lot of money, too, so being on the low end of the financial spectrum while having friends on the higher end can be really demoralising and put a strain on your social life.” Clara agreed, insisting that “there’s no such thing as saving money” if you want to maintain even a modicum of sociability. She recalled one particularly awful moment when she had to miss her best friend's birthday dinner just so she could eat lunch a few times that week.

In a time when other sectors like tech are offering young employees well-paid jobs with ample benefits, it’s especially worrisome to hear that corners of the fashion industry and its publishing capital might be fuelling an unpleasant fire. To continue attracting the finest talent, changes will likely have to be made, but whether or not those changes are actually possible in a city like New York is unclear.

*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of interviewees.

Do you have any personal experience working in fashion while living in New York City? Tell us about it in the comments!

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