The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

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.

References

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).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).

Merry-Go-Round

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I’ve been thinking about the experience of the first day at a new job.

I’m sure this is partly because work (and the lack of it) is never far from the thoughts of those who, like myself, have been unemployed for a while.

When we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves, we’re worrying about just how we’re going to jump on this crazy old merry-go-round again without being summarily flung off on our noses while the pretty painted horses that stop for no one keep circling and the riders laugh their arses off at the schlub who can’t keep his balance for more than five seconds.

And the tinkly calliope music keeps right on playing, mocking our incompetence.

Can I still hack it?  Do I still remember how to sing this song?  Or has the economic vampire of long-term unemployment sucked my bones dry?  Self-confidence tends to be one of the first casualties of those who can barely remember their last paycheck.

So, yes, I’ve been thinking about how a new job would mean starting all over from zero.  You barely know where the rest room is located, much less who does what and how to get things done in the corporate culture in which you’ve found yourself.  It’s a little like parachuting into a foreign land with nothing but a crude map and a canteen of water.  You’re going to have to live by your wits for a while and, most likely, depend on the kindness of strangers.

The trigger for this line of thought was a post on Simple Dream in which Automattician Lance Willett reminisces about his first day at his current gig.  “I was new, overwhelmed and maybe even scared,” he confesses.  He then goes on to explain how his curiosity, willingness to ask questions and “investigative mind” has been the key to his success.

I particularly like the way Willett admits that he has no idea what he’s doing, the precise sentiment I expressed in yesterday’s post.

As John Michael Montgomery sings, “life’s a dance you learn as you go.”

While visiting family over Thanksgiving weekend, my mother suggested that we apply for “food stamps.”  These days, that translates into SNAP food supplement benefits loaded onto an EBT card.  Although these are federal benefits, they are administered by the individual states.  And each state has its own rules.  We quickly discovered that, in California, as long as I am still drawing unemployment benefits, I make too much money to qualify for SNAP.

Now I feel positively rich.  For one thing, I’m doing a lot better than those who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits.

But, hey, 2014 beckons, and things are bound to improve in the new year.

After all, when my unemployment runs out, I might become eligible for SNAP.

Unless, of course, I leap back on that merry-go-round before then.

If I do, you’d better believe that I’m going to hold onto that pole as if my life depended on it.

 

The End of the Rainbow

rainbow

I am one of those softies who wears his heart on his sleeve and is a bigger pushover than the Pillsbury dough boy.  So, of course, I have a job in which I have to do things that make people cry.

Like, for instance, performance evaluations.  No one likes to be confronted by his or her shortcomings, and there is no better way to rub it in one’s face than putting it in black and white on official looking paper.

If that weren’t bad enough, I have had to “write people up” for petty peccadilloes such as failing to come to work, sleeping on the job and using words that will not be printed in a family newspaper.

And I didn’t just start doing this, dearies.  I’ve been pretending to be a supervisor for more years than I’d like to admit.  You’d think I’d have skin thicker than a bank vault by now.  But every time I think I have it all under control, one of my people goes out and does something like get cancer or retire.

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a retirement party for one of my people.  Not just anyone, but a really experienced person whose depth of knowledge cannot be replaced.  If that’s not enough, it was someone who is really good with customers, has a cheerful attitude and seldom complains about anything.  (Big sigh.)

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not all about me.  After a lifetime of work, a person deserves a measure of freedom to travel, enjoy the grandkids, pursue hobbies and not be tied down by an eight plus hour daily commitment that, like any job, can suck the life right out of you some days.

It does seem like there should be some reward, if not a pot of gold, at the end of the rainbow.

A few others who have retired in the last three or four years showed up at the party.  They appeared happy with the free time that their new lives offered, and if there was any regret about having stepped away from the daily grind, I was unable to detect it.  Sure, they missed seeing some of their favorite people every day, but the trade-off seemed to balance.  There was much talk of breakfast clubs and lunch clubs and get-togethers.

We work for so many years of our lives that it becomes a constant that we tend to take for granted.  With so many people being out of work in the current difficult economy, this has begun to change somewhat.  Even for those who are out of work, however, there is always the hope of a job just over the horizon, that we will once again find our place in the nation’s economic engine.  “What do you do?” is one of the first questions asked when we meet someone at a cocktail party.  Too often, our employment transcends the nature of our job responsibilities and becomes our very identity. What we do becomes who we are. As the Bible says, “establish the work of our hands.”

All things, however, must come to an end one day.  Going back to the Bible again, I think of the verse from Ecclesiastes about “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  Made famous by one of my favorite sixties’ oldies, the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn.”

So, amidst the egg rolls, the potato salad and the cheesecake, I must come to terms with the fact that it is time to say goodbye.  Don’t be a stranger, come and visit us, and enjoy your new life.  After all, you’ve worked hard for it all these years, and you deserve it.

And who knows?  Someday, if I’m lucky, the party may be for me.