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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