I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income. But I soon came to realize that there is something else: The fear of the unknown. Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out? Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state? The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.
Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food. He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow. I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway. That guy was hungry.
Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.” It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.
When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?” Um, look for another job, maybe? What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?
Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries. When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless. I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”
But I didn’t know.
I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern. A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds: “What will you do for money?” I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings. You don’t have any, now do you?”
As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment: You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.
Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms. There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event. Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death? Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3? It turns out that it is.
I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism. The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans). The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs: reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing. Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away. This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly. In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.
But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press. The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates. Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need. Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables. The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.
When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless. We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners. Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement. What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit. The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century. I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.
Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.
But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice. Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need. Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us. Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us? And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.
This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others. But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.
The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money. This is because we have built our entire identities around work. The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away. We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer. Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide. While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.
And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century. Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.
I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies. But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.
Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”
Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).
Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).
Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).
Spencer, David, “Why Work More? We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).