For the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of research into alternatives to the traditional job market that no longer offers much opportunity. Especially alternatives that involve either travel, farm work, or both–because I have both a terrible case of wanderlust and a strong urge to work with my hands close to the earth.
Last spring, I was seriously considering WWOOFing–volunteering on an organic farm in exchange for room and board–for the summer. I even visited a few potential farms, but in the end, I decided not to do it for two reasons: I didn’t want to be separated from Steve, and I didn’t want to come back to Boston in the fall with no job or way to pay rent.
Now that spring is around the corner, my dormant desire to sink my hands into mud and dirt is back. And are my fantasies about WWOOFing. But for the same reasons as last year, I don’t think I can make it work.
Through all of my research and yearning and fantasizing and facing hard realities, I’ve become more and more convinced that we need a national job culture of regular sabbaticals. Of stable, living-wage, permanent jobs that give employees the option to take a year off (ideally at a reduced pay rate, or unpaid) every x number of years, with the guarantee that their jobs would be waiting for them upon return.
This could solve so many disparate problems. Like reducing the workweek to 21 hours, it would spread out work among more people, thereby reducing unemployment. It would force employers to cross-train their workers more effectively, which would result in a more skilled and innovative workforce. It would have the potential to reduce carbon emissions.
It would also give employees time off to travel, volunteer, or pursue other passions. I’m focusing mainly on travel in this post because that’s one of the things I most want to do, but people could use sabbatical years to do so many things: make art or music, write a novel, hike the Appalachian trail, start a small business, turn a yard into a food garden, work on a local farm, volunteer locally, get involved grassroots activism, stay home with children, do anything you’ve always wanted to do but felt you couldn’t because it wasn’t practical.
This would be good not only for the workers, but for their employers, who would gain more well-rounded employees with new skills, talents, and perspectives. And it would be good for society as a whole–both because it would give people the chance to create, innovate, and make the world a better place, and because it would strengthen communities.
Not just in the obvious ways–that many people would stay home and invest their creative energies in their communities–but in a somewhat counter-intuitive one–that it would give more people the freedom to travel. Or, more accurately, the freedom to travel and then come back.
One of the main reasons I haven’t traveled long-term is because I’m unwilling to give up my home and community here in Boston. This is where my friends are; this is where my life is. It’s taken me years to build up the circle of friends I have, and I am grateful for it.
I am convinced, on both the personal and political levels, that communities are what save us. We need them for social support, for helping each other through life’s small disasters and the bigger ones that are getting more and more common with climate change, and for building the local, sustainable economies that are our only alternative to a destructive system.
So many, if not most, of the inspiring travel stories I’ve read involve people who give up their communities, their homes, in order to see the world. And while I admire the long-term travelers, the perpetual nomads, the people who live in the uncertainty of not knowing where they’ll end up–I could never do that.
I have roots here. And I don’t deal well with uncertainty.
A sabbatical year would make it possible for people like me to see the world (by some combination of WWOOFing, couchsurfing, travel hacking, and work exchange), and then come back to our home bases. We would no longer be trapped between wanting to see the world and needing the security, stability, and support of a strong community. (It wouldn’t solve the problem that air travel in its current form is utterly unsustainable, but that’s an issue for another series of posts…)
I don’t know how to make this a political reality, in a world where even the existence of stable, non-temporary, benefits-having, living-wage jobs for everyone is so far from becoming a reality. But I’m going to start by writing and talking about it, by planting a seed. Who knows how that seed will grow?