Sharon August 5th, 2008
Ok, everyone who thinks that your job will still be there in five years raise your hands. For those of you with your hands up, how sure are you? How secure are you in a deep, systemic crisis? 70% of the economy survives on consumer spending – what happens if 50% or 80% of that dries up – if really all we’re buying is food and oil, and not that much of that?
The truth is that the one thing that all of us should be planning for is a job loss – and by this I don’t mean a short term job change, but a job loss in a deep Depression with extended, widespread unemployment – where there is no unemployment insurance anymore and most of your neighbors can’t get work either. Is this inevitable? No, merely probable, I think. But probable enough that we should be prepared for it to happen.
Now I realize this scares the hell out of most of us – and not much less me than you. My family buys groceries too. But that’s what happened in the Great Depression, and where more than a few people think we’re headed. We can all be happy if we don’t go there, but we should be ready for the formal economy to stop feeding and housing us.
So the question becomes – what are you going to do to keep body and soul together? What are you going to be when you grow up – how are you going to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head? As the formal economy begins to tank, we have to look to the informal economy – that is, the economy made up of subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under-the-table work, domestic economics, and self employment in cottage industry. That doesn’t mean none of us will work in the formal sector, but all of us need to be able to shift as much as we can to the informal economy – to save our precious cash for the house payment and thus provide food and heat by barter or subsistence work.
If we do have formal sector work, it may be in businesses we set up for ourselves, as more and more employers begin making layoffs. In many cases, we may want to (even though it is a Pain in the Ass when you are doing too many other things too) start the businesses now – begin doing a bit of extra work on the side in your potential cottage area so that you’ll have a customer base and experience when the time comes.
How do you decide what to do? Well, it is possible you already have an obvious and marketable skill – either that the work you do now could be done for yourself, or that you have a useful skill set you aren’t using. Maybe you used to buck trees and can set up a firewood business quickly, or your current skills as a nurse could be applied to a community clinic you set up. In these cases, the solution may be obvious.
In other cases, it may seem hard to figure out – what will the job market for marketing professionals look like? What will construction workers do in a housing bust? Now might be the time to reorient yourself, gently or broadly – instead of building new houses, get in on some retrofits and start learning home reinsulation, instead of corporate marketing consider setting up a business providing something useful – bulk food, water filters, fishing worms and equipment, warm clothes, farm-direct products – or perhaps local marketing help for those products – to your community.
The one thing I warn against is allowing your enthusiasm for some project to warp your perspective about its future. I’ve met a number of people who blithely expect to make money marketing high-value organic produce or their exquisite hand knit objects or something like it. And while there certainly will be markets for some knitted goods and food in the future, the truth is that what we are seeing is rapid economic deflation – money is disappearing. That means people aren’t buying stuff – and those who have, up to now, been paying extra for quality may not have the spare cash to do so – so while it might make sense early on to rely on high value, high effort products, the idea that enough people will be going out to expensive restaurants to allow them to pay $25 lb for your basil or $40 to give you a fair living wage for knitted socks is unlikely. The same is true if you do crafty cute stuff with no real use – funky beer mugs and wall hangings are lovely, but they are salable in an affluent society, not a poor one.
Nor should you be duplicating immediately things we have a lot of – adult clothing, for example, may simply not be bought in many cases, since people have enough in their closets for a lifetime. Eventually making clothes may well be an important project again, but short term and long term may well be different, and we all need to be flexible. Think *practical* and be adaptable – be able to produce not just a high value product, but an immediately useful one that people might need.
What might people need in the short term? Food. Warm blankets. Firewood for heating. Insulation. Childcare when both partners are working multiple jobs. Elder care. Medicine. Distractions – theater, gambling, alcohol, sex, dance, drugs, music, things to make them laugh, newspapers or the electronic equivalent, cartoons (and yes, even struggling people will find some money for these things). Shelter. Shoe repair. Security help. Toiletries – obvious ones like soap and toothpaste, and things to make them feel attractive – even under the Taliban, women used perfume. Education – people will still want better for their kids, and training to get new jobs. Tools. Anything that breaks and wears out easily. Handymen, plumbers, midwives, doctors, nurses, ministers of every faith, anyone who can fix, mend and repair. Livestock handlers and dog trainers. Gardeners and people who can teach how to adapt to low energy life.
You may need to do more than one of these things – in the short term, the money may be in helping those who can afford it retrofit their homes, for example, while in the long term it might be in growing food. Or you may find yourself doing several seasonal things – cutting firewood, growing plant starts, building furniture or sewing in the winter, milking spring to fall. The informal economy is going to require multiple skill sets, rather than the single job we’ve been used to – and our ability to get out of the mindset that says “I have this one job, and that is the only thing I can or should do” may be the thing that defines most how well we do in the coming difficult times.
It is worth thinking what you will do in this new economy – maybe only watch and thank G-d you got to keep your job. But just in case, it is worth making plans, and perhaps putting a foot into the informal economy, testing its waters and building the beginnings of a new personal economy along with the old.