Monday, May 9, 2011

Thinking Outside the Maze – A Rat's Perspective on the Race.

When you are out of work for more than a few weeks, thinking about the system and its implicit promise of a stable place in society in exchange for hard work and a willingness to follow the society's rules is natural. As population swells, technology modernizes and eliminates certain jobs and people live and work a greater number of years in developed countries, the system strains a bit. Rather than play the blame game, or fish for “hang in there's” that I don't really feel I need at the moment, I want to talk about what some other people have done in trying to “opt out” of the traditional school-work-retire-die plan that society tells us to expect. Let's try to understand that plan first.

A cliché image, maybe. An appropriate visual metaphor for sure.

Some of the criticism of the system here in the United States comes from the feeling that choosing a “default” path leads to massive debt which requires repayment in such strict terms that most people are forced to take whatever work they come by that is enough to keep themselves solvent. These careers are often taken independent of personal goals, individual aptitude, skills or training; leading to job dissatisfaction, lack of personal growth and stagnancy. The people trapped by this “gotta pay the bills” mentality represent well over half of the American workforce, and low morale keeps productivity only high enough to not lose jobs that workers need, but don't want. The critics of this system have termed it “wageslavery.”

For many positions that pay what American society would call a “living wage”, individuals are expected to have a college degree, as competition for jobs makes secondary education as a condition to “thin the herd” of applicants seeking a particular job. In the United States, this means that young adults are likely to start with significant debts to pay back through educational loans, without any guarantee of a career capable of doing so. As jobs become more scarce due to the inevitable march of technology, homes also become more scarce due to an increase in global population. More private loans are needed to finance homes whose prices are driven higher by supply and demand. Well before getting into any of the economic problems with credit or the recent mortgage crisis and housing bubble that caused an economic recession, it is little surprise that some people want to look for alternatives to the path society assumes adults will take.

Moments before head explosion from financial worries.

Some people have dedicated themselves to the concept of sustainable living, popularized as far back as 1978 along the fringe of American culture. The book “Possum Living” by Dolly Freed (18 at the time of writing) talks about her experiences living for five years with her father on a half-acre lot outside of Philadelphia without traditional sources of income. The book describes a life of living off the land, raising rabbits and chickens for meat and growing produce, making much of what is necessary for life, and trading for a lot of little luxuries that cannot be self-produced. Despite some unusually bad (and illegal) advice concerning resolution of disputes with “city folk”, the book, and the philosophy that followed it make for an interesting read. The life presented is very similar to, and some ways better than, a typical middle class lifestyle, providing that one is willing to eschew technology beyond trips to the local library for internet access. Perhaps not the best choice for the modern geek.

The life of the entrepreneur calls to others who want to drop out of the “rat race”, and starting personal businesses, making money online and developing as many streams of income as a person is able defines this strategy. Many, many books have been written on this subject and more than a few blogs are dedicated to nothing but this. It is difficult to separate the true success stories from wishful thinking and those who want to make this life a reality by selling promises of how to achieve success. Professional bloggers would fit into the category of the modern entrepreneur, as would those lucky few artists able to make a reasonable standard of living from their creative endeavors. The downside to this approach is easily apparent, with a lot of competition and great personal discipline required for any measure of success. It takes a lot more than writing a few hours a week and tossing around buzzwords like “SEO Optimization” and “Online Content Marketing” to make income capable of supporting a family like this.

No offense to the legit SEO/Marketing bloggers out there, but some people
seem to think that there are magic words you put on a webpage, and people give you money. 

Science Fiction titan Robert Heinlein wrote “There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch” in his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and criticism of those who write in dissatisfaction of the current state of the world says that people expect something for nothing. Libertarian sci-fi from the 1960s aside, I think that application of the Law of Unintended Consequences producing a large disaffected working public is more likely than a majority of people harboring an unrealistic set of expectations. People in general seem to be willing, even eager, to put in effort and time in exchange for financial security, but a complex set of problems denies many that opportunity, and even more are denied the opportunity of a career that is fulfilling in addition to “just paying the bills.”

I've done a lot of reading and thinking about this, one really interesting article from a professional blogger (who falls into the “entrepreneur” category, naturally) named Steve Pavlina way back in 2006 discusses the merits of a non-traditional income here. I wonder how many different ways there really are to be 'unemployed' but capable of living without collecting unemployment or any other sort of financial assistance, and if one of these ways is right for me. Is anyone out there making a living using one of these, or a method like it? Maybe you know someone who does or did. If nothing else, it is something to ponder and dream about while looking for a new place back on the traditional mouse wheel.

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9 comments:

The Angry Lurker said...

God I feel depressed now......squeak!

G said...

I'm still on the wheel...but started blogging to investigate other alternatives. Not for the short term quick win - but more for a way of growing an alternative income stream should i need it. Plus it makes me write everyday...something I've traditionally been bad at.

Astronomy Pirate said...

I am currently grappling with the unemployed problem, I refuse to go on benefits or take a bottom wrung, unsatisfying job though. Unfortunately I've been shot down for jobs I have wanted working in science, education, or library. I am going to be teaching a non-credit astronomy class at the local community college though, so that is a form of non-traditional income that I think should work out great for me.

LilPixi said...

Wow, what an awesome, AWESOME post!!
I struggle with this CONSTANTLY!

I've never been one for the misery of the rat race, and being that I'm currently on a fixed income of financial aid, while I do get by comfortably, I'm always thinking about ways I could maybe one day make a much more substantial amount of money in doing something I love or can at least tolerate.

This is a really great & interesting blog you have her, Doc. It would be my ex boyfriend's dream blog! "Geeks" are great! =)

Rob said...

Great stuff man, a little bit to think about before I pass out tonight is always good.

Alpha said...

I've always wanted to try living off the land...

Kelly said...

I know what you mean by society's expectations. The rat race, wage slavery that you talk about here and all of that- that goes with it, is too true. I would love the idea of people being able to live off the land and live happily without the strict path we are pushed into by this confining system we've surrendered to. From birth we are expected to go to school, get a degree, get a job, make accumulating money our primary goal to pay the bills and eat, then you grow old and finally die without taking the time to enjoy more of life. It would be better for all of us to choose our own way to live rather than play monkey see-monkey do with each other. This is a very insightful post and you provide ideas here that people should think upon.

Take care, dude. Maybe one day our species will learn what it's like to really live but I'm not holding my breath. :)

BigMike said...

I am currently working at a job where I love what i do but not the people i do it for. So i have started planning for the future. I will open a bar/resturant in a few years... You cant get rich working for someone else.

Moobeat said...

thanks for the post!

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