Economy featured

Earning a Living in Troubled Times

June 5, 2023

Some people are lucky enough to have a career that is a calling. They may be well paid to do what they love, to do something that is needed and that utilizes their unique set of skills and talents. But those who are so fortunate are few.

Most of us are not so favored, and are pushed to find a career that pays the bills, bills that keep increasing as we are groomed into incessant consumerism. And some are less lucky than that, finding instead only a job, or more likely a series of jobs, which usually don’t pay much and are usually less pleasant and less respected than the jobs, or careers, that pay more. And then there are those who are even less lucky, who lose whatever job they have, can’t find another, and struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

I am arguing here to consider opting out of the rat race, or even, if you’re a teenager, never climbing on that treadmill in the first place. Am I—gasp—going against the convention that all youth must aspire to go to college so they can have decent careers? Yes, actually. Unless you do have a calling, toward a profession that requires such an education, it’s questionable whether a degree is worth the debt now saddled on our young people in exchange for a college education. I don’t regret going myself (at age 42), but it was really the education itself, not the enhanced employability, that I wanted, and I managed to do it without debt.

What I’m suggesting is that you avoid being tied to a job you hate, one where you feel your work is not producing anything really needed, or where you have to cater to a boss you call vile names in private. If you hate Monday mornings, if you would gladly give up everything about the job except the paycheck—this is not a good way to spend your one precious life!

Yes, you have to earn a living somehow. But there are more ways to meet your needs than money, and more ways to acquire money than employment. Besides employment, you can get by via reducing expenses, doing things for yourself and acquiring the money you still need via a variety of small income streams in a household rather than one fat paycheck. I am inspired here in part by a workshop I attended years ago, led by an Iranian woman from Denver. She said a household was more secure if it depended on a variety of income streams rather than one well-paid job that could be lost, leaving the household destitute. A household is better positioned for this approach than an individual, as different people will have access to different income possibilities.  Examples: maybe someone in the household can fix cars—their own, and others, for a fee or a trade. Maybe someone else knits, someone babysits or sits with the elderly and disabled, does massage or online editing.  Someone could sell baked goods or produce. There could be a musician. Perhaps you could start a small business.

Some acquired skills may not be legal to practice without a license, especially if you live in a city. And getting the license may be expensive and time consuming. But I suspect that as things break down—we already see the early signs—the underground economy will grow, and the Powers That Be will have more important things to worry about than whether people are taking care of each other’s needs without Official Authorization.

Eliminating expenses is just as good an answer as finding new sources of income. The skill to fix cars—or electronic gadgets, or toys, darning socks, repairing a roof leak, all these things can save the household the much higher cost of paying someone else to do it—and can become a saleable skill as well.

Most importantly, especially if you are not stuck in a city, gardening and small-scale farming can eliminate much of the expense of that most important expense item, food. This includes raising chickens or other fowl for eggs and meat, raising other livestock for milk or meat, and maybe wool; making butter and cheese, pickles and jams, canned and dried and frozen food for preservation, growing berries and tree fruits, making your own wine and beer, foraging for berries, mushrooms and nuts, hunting, fishing…acquiring the necessary knowledge can be a lifetime study, one I consider highly rewarding. And no household needs to do all of these things; you can trade with others. If there is a beekeeper in your neighborhood, then you don’t need to keep bees, to have their pollination services and a chance to trade for honey. You also help support the bees by planting things they can rely on in seasons when no crops are in bloom.

Is it necessary to mention the absolute imperative of having reliable access to clean water?

Gardening and other food-related skills, are key to resilience. Even if you only grow a quarter of what your family eats, it’s good to know you don’t have to worry about that quarter. Here too, the onset of societal decline may make things easier, if something Dmitri Orlov said at a workshop I attended years ago is accurate: in a time of breakdown, no government is going to enforce the rights of absentee landowners. If possible, however, you should work toward having a piece of land for growing your household’s food, in your secure possession.

One place I’d advocate for spending more money, is on investing in your own energy supply: probably solar panels but possibly a windmill or micro-hydro system if your locale supports those options. For greatest security, it should be an off-grid system, but this does cost more and require more maintenance. Your investment need not be of a size adequate to provide all the electricity you think you need now—it could supplement the grid now, reducing your bill, and provide all the power you actually need if and when the grid goes down for good. There are reasons to think solar panels may never be cheaper than they are right now.

Finally, a thriving network of trade relationships makes your whole community more resilient. This could be formal, as in an intentional community (to look for a community you might like to join, you can search the directory at the Intentional Communities website, ). It could be a Mutual Aid and Disaster Relief group in a city. Or it could just be a network you and others develop, among households in an area scattered among non-participating ones. By creating and participating in such a network, you are pioneering a new—and old!—way of surviving that doesn’t rely on the faceless mega-corporations that own our governments and media. You are therefore making your family more secure (and healthier, if you’re growing your own food) releasing yourself from what could be a hated treadmill sucking up the hours of your life, and withdrawing support from The Machine. You are voting with your feet (or maybe your hands) for a better way of life, and pioneering the possibilities for others in your area. All that is reason enough to begin exploring your options, weighing your skills and assets, and maybe making a plan to make a break for it, exiting the rat cage. The door is open.

Mary Wildfire

Mary Wildfire lives on the Hickory Ridge Land Trust in West Virginia with her husband Don. She endeavors to grow more and more of their food, while continuing her quest to figure out how to save the world. Currently she’s writing novels set in the near future, because she thinks the depiction of a positive future is dangerously neglected.

Tags: building resilient communities, informal economy, self-provisioning