Living in the post-employment economy: on permaculture, sex ed, and perpetually closed doors

During my senior year of college, I attended the Women, Action, and the Media: WAM! conference here in Boston, hoping to find career ideas and opportunities. Instead, I found there were plenty of people doing good work, but few making a living–and most of the latter had put in years of unpaid or barely-paid work to get there. Few organizations offered entry-level jobs with a living wage and a clear career path. The only way I could see to get into most positions was to work unpaid internships, or start your own project on top of working full-time elsewhere, and keep doing it until either it became profitable or you gained enough experience to apply for one of the few jobs available.

And this was before the global financial crisis of 2008.

It was intensely discouraging and disheartening to graduate into a world where there’s so little relation between work and pay, and it’s only gotten worse.

Throughout the nearly seven years (!) since I graduated, I’ve been constantly researching jobs and careers and alternative life paths, trying to find a good fit. Every time I come across someone doing work that sounds appealing to me, something I could see myself doing, I look at how they’re doing it. And almost always, it involves a superhuman amount of work, an amount of hustling that I just don’t have in me, an extra source of income, or all of the above.

One recent example: I read Paradise Lot, a book about the how the author and a friend built a permaculture garden on a small urban lot in Western Massachusetts. Permaculture appeals to me immensely, and I still hope to learn it someday, perhaps while WWOOFing if I can ever make it work. But through much of the time described in the book, not only was the author designing his own garden, but he was also working at a local grassroots organization and writing a permaculture encyclopedia–while also recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

Another example: Heather Corinna of Scarleteen, a site that provides comprehensive sexuality education to young people, recently wrote that the site will go on strike unless they receive enough donations to make their work sustainable. Corinna writes that she has been working for 15 years without a living wage, often while working multiple other jobs at the same time, because she cares so deeply about the work–but she can no longer keep that up. And, as she notes, she’s not the only one; a lack of funding and jobs is endemic in the field. I’ve seen this firsthand: one of my friends is trained as a sex educator, but she’s in the same position I am, taking whatever administrative/clerical temp jobs she can find to make ends meet.

I thought about going into sex ed, briefly, when I was interning in the media and communications department at Planned Parenthood (also during my senior year of college). And then I saw there were no jobs.

It’s easy not to realize how many doors have quietly closed, until suddenly you see them all.

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For our souls and communities: why we need a work culture of regular sabbaticals

Hanging out with a goat and chickens while visiting a farm last year.

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.

The farm’s fruit trees and main buildings, not far from its solar panels.

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.

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This is the world we live in.

Recently, one of my friends posted on Facebook that you know the economy sucks when people tell you you’re lucky to have a job. She went on to say how messed-up it is that, instead of employment being the default and unemployment meaning you’re down on your luck, people are considered lucky to have jobs at all.

The same day, Sarah Kendzior tweeted about a man who could only afford to eat one meal a day while working an unpaid internship–which was in human rights.

And then I read that my alma mater just gave eight million dollars to its former president.

This is the world we live in.

There are so many solutions–and so much money and power standing in the way of those solutions.

And it’s damn hard to work toward solutions, toward a better world, while still living in this one.

I am reminded of David Cain’s piece, Your lifestyle has already been designed. Cain writes about returning to a traditional 9-to-5 job after spending time traveling, and realizing that he became both casually careless with his money and too tired to exercise or do creative things.

He notes that:

Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

I know this dynamic too well.

I should note that working a 40-hour workweek makes both Cain and myself luckier than the many, many people who work far more hours, including those who string together multiple low-paid part-time jobs just to get by.  

But even still, I often come home exhausted, especially during the busy times when I’m on my feet lifting things all day. It’s harder to have energy for activism–including activism aimed at building a just and healthy economic system–especially when that activism involves putting on shoes and leaving the house.

It’s also harder to live up to my community-centric values when the last thing I want to do after work is go out to a local event or meeting. And it’s harder to support small local businesses–when I’m tired and don’t want to go out, it’s so much easier to buy everything from Amazon instead. 

It’s a vicious cycle that’s really, really hard to break.

On the policy level, I can think of plenty of things that could break the cycle.

On the personal level, it’s just a struggle. 

Another thing money can buy: time

Money doesn’t buy only job opportunities, kindness, and compassion: it can also buy time.

Last night, I was poking around the Transition Lab‘s website (because yes, I still have fantasies about doing it, even though I probably won’t for a whole bunch of reasons), and I noticed an announcement about two new work-exchange scholarships they’re offering:

At Transition Lab, we face an irony: While building a new economy, we still need to charge tuition in order to pay our bills in the old economy. Yet, the students who would benefit the most from our program don’t have a lot of money, because the traditional economy isn’t working out for them. It’s a double bind that is preventing the new economy to take off.

So we are going to take an innovative leap to break this cycle: We are offering the two remaining slots in our 2014 Co-Creator Program as gifts in exchange for the gifts that students can offer our program. That’s right- full tuition to two students in exchange for what they can gift us in return. Really? Yep. Gifts for Gifts.

It’s great that the people at Transition Lab recognize this double bind and are working to make their program more accessible.

But it reminded me how easily money can serve as a substitute for time and energy. People who can afford TL’s tuition can just go, no strings attached; those who can’t have to come up with a skill that’s useful to others, and then spend their time and energy practicing it throughout the program.

It’s similar to all the festivals and events that offer volunteer slots in return for free or reduced admission. Those who can afford tickets have the luxury of spending their time however they want; those who can’t, don’t. Volunteering isn’t necessarily bad–it can be fun if you do it with a group of friends. It can be a good way to practice your skills and learn new ones. But it can also be exhausting. Sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy yourself without having to work.

And that’s not even getting into the many, many people who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, who wouldn’t have the time to go to festivals or events if they wanted to.

I want a different world: a world in which free time isn’t a luxury, but a right. A world in which people have the time and energy to explore who they are and what they want to do.

Reducing the standard work week to 21 hours, spreading out work more evenly across the population, and instituting a basic minimum income would go a long way toward making that possible.

Speaking of which, Alyssa Battistoni’s recent essay in Jacobin Magazine, Alive in the Sunshine, is a must-read. She argues that reducing the workweek and instituting a basic minimum income is necessary to achieve both economic justice and environmental sustainability–and would also give people the time to build communities and enjoy life.

Her analysis reminds me of my favorite book, Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, condensed into a form that’s both more succinct and more specific about policy goals. It also reminds me of this great video about visualizing a plentitude economy, made by Juliet Schor (whom Battistoni quotes) and the Center for a New American Dream:

This is the world I want to build.

(Note: just to be clear, I think Transition Lab is going great work toward building that world, and I’m not disagreeing with or attacking their decisions at all. I’m just using them as an example to illustrate my train of thought about the ways in which, in our current system, people with less money often end up with less free time and less control over how they spend their time.)

Things that give me hope

1.) New York’s Youth Poet Laureate, Ramya Ramana, reading her poem titled “New York City” at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration (transcript available here):

When I watch this young woman read, I can almost believe that change is possible. That the tides are turning. That we, the people, can and will rise.

Not just because of the beauty and fierceness and demand for justice that shines so clearly through her performance–although that alone is enough to blow me away.

But because this beauty and fierceness and demand for justice takes place at the swearing-in of a new mayor in the city that is America’s heart. The city that has been sanitized and stratified by 12 years of Bloomberg’s neoliberal policies. The city that has become an extreme–and extremely visible–symbol of an economic system that crushes lives and spirits.

The city that refuses to give up fighting.

In that fight, I see a world of new beginnings.

2.) Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “The arc of justice and the long run: hope, history, and unpredictability.”

Solnit argues that “[s]ometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.” She gives examples of social and political seeds that germinated for years, decades, even centuries before bearing fruit: the role of hip-hop in the Arab Spring uprisings; the influence of Thoreau’s writing, which sold few books when he was alive, on both Gandhi and King; the effect that a seeing a talented black trumpet player had on a young man who grew up to help end segregation by aiding the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.

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Robots and drones can’t replace us: even more ways to make a living in a green economy

I keep reading articles arguing that we don’t really need human workers anymore, now that machines can produce (and sometimes transport) stuff. It’s often used to call for a basic minimum income, which I support.

But it makes no sense to me. The making of stuff is currently the cornerstone of our economy, but it doesn’t have to be–and it really shouldn’t be, because it’s quite literally unsustainable.

And there’s so, so much work that needs doing–very little of which can be automated.

I’ve already written about twenty ways people could make a meaningful living in a sustainable economy, and I just keep thinking of more. Here are another ten:

1.) Staffing food trucks, especially ones that serve underserved neighborhoods–such as Fresh Food Generation, an exciting new project here in Boston. Food trucks are a great way to provide delicious, healthy food at low prices, since they have less overhead than restaurants, and they can travel to serve different populations.

2.) Picking up food scraps by bike and then turning them into compost, like another new local business, City Compost. If this model became widespread, it could make a huge dent in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by food waste.

3.) Working at haunted houses like the one in this video, and other creative projects that both bring joy to their communities and provide jobs for local young people.

4.) Making processed food products–yes, in the literal sense of the word, which is not inherently a bad thing–such as jam, cheese, butter, bread, baked goods, maple syrup, sauces, dips, canned fruits and vegetables, and candy.

5.) Journalism.

These days, journalism has become a “glamour industry,” one that’s closed to all but the most privileged–but we need the opposite. We need people with diverse backgrounds to report, uncover, analyze, speak truth to power, hold leaders accountable, help us make sense of our world.

6.) Massage therapists, meditation teachers, personal trainers, and fitness instructors who teach everything from aerial acrobatics to Zumba, ballet to burlesque, yoga to water aerobics: to make joyous movement, stress reduction, and physical well-being accessible to as many people as possible.

7.) People who fix things, such as this pop-up repair shop in New York.

8.) Photographers, videographers, event planners, florists, makeup artists, and other local small businesspeople who provide services for celebrations and life events (which I talked about a bit in this post).

9.) Scientists researching diseases and chronic illnesses. There’s so much work still to be done!

10.) Creating organic vegetable gardens in the yards of homes, businesses, and schools, like yet another Boston-area business, Growing for Good. This is a great use of existing resources to build local resilient, sustainable food systems.

It’s complicated: climate justice and the nonprofit industrial complex

A few days ago, this statement from Peaceful Uprising was making the rounds on my Facebook feed, and my friends were posting celebratory comments about the climate justice organization’s transition from a traditional non-profit model to a more democratic volunteer-based one.

My first thought was, “But, but–jobs!” In this post-employment economy, I hate to see any full-time job be replaced with contingent or volunteer work–even though I know that switching from a professional-based structure to a collective one can help bring marginalized voices to the forefront.

I know there are so many problems with the non-profit industrial complex, but I also like the idea of paying people to organize, because it frees up the time and energy they wouldn’t have if they were also working to make ends meet. And organizing is a skill, which deserves compensation just as much as any other.

Then I came across these tweets from Sasha Costanza-Chock, which crystallized what I’d been mulling over. He wrote them in the context of the immigrant rights movement, but they apply equally well to climate justice or any other movement:

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