Work Is The Force That Gives Us Meaning

Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’

And the poor boy’s on the line –Chuck Berry, Promised Land

By Lambert Strether, who blogs at Corrente. Portions of this piece were originally published at Corrente.

Every so often Yves gets a request from a reader who — not to be unkind — thinks she’s Dear Abby and asks for advice. Lately people have been asking for what starts out sounding like career advice but ends up more like “What am I to do?” (given that population has increased by 13 million since 2007 and jobs have decreased by 3.2 million that’s not such an easy question to answer).

So, slipping into a more complete disclosure mode than my lambert persona normally allows, I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice, and when I outline my mad career you’ll see why. My first job, if you don’t count collecting soda pop bottles — free money! — was in Junior High School: Shelving books at the local library for 25¢ an hour, if I recall; that’s when I got my Social Security card. Then: Mowing lawns in the neighborhood (I got a lot of work because I priced badly). Dishwasher. After a brief college career (it was the ’70s), with volunteer work in brackets: White metal jewelry caster, (writer), packer, assembler; braider tender, braider tender, braider mechanic; runner, coordinator, paste-up artist, typesetter, production manager; paste-up artist, [writer, desktop publisher], desktop publisher, freelance desktop publisher, production manager, editor; technical consultant, consultant, consultant, consultant. Independent consultant. [Blogger.] Data analyst. Landlord / site developer / blogger, which is where I am today: Three jobs at once and (I like to think) only good at the last one, also the only one fun, and the only one worth doing. Maybe I’ll go full circle and end up collecting bottles again! Quite the narrative arc. Anyhow, if I count right — the guys in shipping would never let me help because I’m terrible at counting — that’s 27 jobs, so I maybe I’m qualified to answer “What do I do?” if I get around to it. Probably, readers, many of you have had careers like mine, and so you’re just as qualified as I am!

So, was it all worth it? All that work? I mean, for anything other than paying the bills? I think so; up until the dot com crash ten — no, thirteen years — ago, I’ve enjoyed every job I had, never angsted about any of them, and always moved ahead. (For a critique of “work,” Jack Crow asks the essential question: “Why shouldn’t everyone have it easy?” A hard question to answer. To pre-empt the moralists: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. This is what Fiction means.”) I loved shelving books using the Dewey Decimal system ZOMG!!! and I loved all the factory jobs, because they taught me to break down work into steps, and even more importantly, forced me to live in my body for the first time. (Though looking back, I was lucky to have come up before all the factories were turned into lofts; I don’t envy the young people of today working in retail or, Heaven forfend, in one of Amazon’s robot warehouses.) I loved the precision and deftness of mechanical paste-up — anybody out there know what a waxer is? — and even more so the art of typography. And when all that went digital… I had a pretty good run, after I integrated my humanities background (a rent). For awhile. I’m also qualified to give advice on being poor, since I’ve been poor at least three times, even if my professional upbringing has always enabled me to “pass,” and will until my teeth go.

The first time I was poor, working in the factories, I didn’t even know I was poor; even if “Insurance, what’s that?” I could afford an apartment and books and some entertainment on a factory worker’s pay. (My first caster job paid $2.25 an hour. After three months, they gave me a raise to $2.35!)

I got poor the second time after the dot com crash. I had naïvely assumed that I was making more and more money because my mad technical skillz were getting better and better, which was true but irrelevant. All the money was from the bubble, which burst for me in late 2000, at a conference where I also watched the hanging chads counted on CNN in my hotel room. Following a shot at my own consulting firm, which temporarily succeeded, but then failed, owing partly to my less-than-stellar (INTJ) marketing abilities, but mainly to IRS Section 1706 (the same law that caused that Texas guy to fly his small plane into an IRS building), which prevented me from leveraging skillz into billable hours without going through a rent-sucking intermediary — which, of course, wanted nothing to do with me.

In any case, after a year or so drawing down the cash I had, and after several months in Philadelphia without electricity or gas, when I blogged from various WiFi outlets around town — WiFi was new then, and much more open — I landed a job, in a month when Bush created 500 jobs, nationwide, with a humongous rent-sucking corporate content provider that actually needed the not-yet-atrophied technical skillz I then had to offer. I was then not willing to leave Philly, because I had grown to love the grit, the slack, the Reading Terminal, and my under-the-radar apartment off an alley where the rats were so smart they carried little tools, and so took on what was in retrospect the major stressor of a two-and-a-half hour commute (each way). After a couple of years of stabilization and dental care (though I did have to dodge the “Let’s get you on this assembly line to pull all your back teeth and then bill the insurance company!” scam), I began to realize how angry and unhappy I was, not only with the commute, but with the cube, and how happy (by comparison) blogging made me — even though I was at that time very much in “More and better Democrats” mode (and goodbye to all that). So I began thinking of the Starbucks solution: A throwaway job. With health care! And time for blogging!

Fate intervenes! When, in 2006, my mother died, I was psychologically prepared to let go of the cube and do what I really wanted to do, which was blog. I felt that, with a “this old house” — partly mine, partly a family member’s — and the inheritance, I would be well-equipped to make a go of it. My mother always said: “Do what only you can do!” and I was going to do just that.

Fate intervenes and I am poor for the third time! Most of the inheritance is stolen and pissed away by a family member, in such a manner that I have no recourse (trust me on this), and instead of this old house and capital, I have this old house. I adjust. I figure out how to become a landlord — yes, readers, I am a rentier — and I figure out how to build a very smallish clientele the Drupal skills that I had developed blogging.

Time passes. It slowly becomes clear to me that I, and “this old house,” are in a slowly deteriorating situation where the most likely outcome is some sort of collapse — and how very meta that is. The fabric of the house, because it was built before the era of speculative styrofoam pediments, is wonderfully tough, but there just isn’t enough money to simultaneously support the family member, keep me, and maintain it. Two of three, only. And work in the great state of Maine is very hard to find, especially if you are not young, are heavily over-qualified, and are carrying — for all the reasons you read here — a chip on your shoulder the size of Mount Katahdin.

So that, dear readers, and dear advice seekers, is my resume.

* * *

So, to play Dear Abby for a moment, I’d answer “What am I to do? like this–

I really do believe that my mother had it right: “Do what only you can do.” That’s not the same as “Do what you love and the money will follow” because plenty of times the money doesn’t follow. (The great mathematician Paul Erdős was, essentially, a couch surfer, and what of that, given all the proofs?) Finding your calling isn’t easy — it took me twenty-odd jobs, after all, to find mine. (I actually tried to be a poet back when I was a caster, but found I had nothing to say). And finding your calling doesn’t necessarily make you happy; after all, I’m as angry now as ever I was in the cube, though granted for different and I hope better reasons. However…. Well, I won’t go so far as to say you’ll know that your life has meaning, since that raises philosophical questions, but I can say that you will feel that your time on earth is not being wasted. That’s a great feeling. (“Do what only you can do” is a lot like “Be the best you can be,” but… I was certainly the best white metal jewelry casters I could have been, but there are, or were, a lot of white metal jewelry casters in the world, some of them, surely, as good as me.)

Looking back, I’d also say “Volunteer for something.” If you’re disemployed right now, for example, it’s vital to your well-being to get out of the darkened house into the light and connect with people. Avoid depression at all costs! (Because “depressions are depressing.”) Volunteering is an excellent way to force yourself forward and keep in motion. Pragmatically, for me volunteering (the bracketed jobs in my career) was a great way to pick up skills: I learned desktop publishing as a volunteer, and on the job I got through that skill, I picked up the skillz that… Well, the dot com bubble trashed them, but I had a good run there for awhile. And although my plan to “Blog and Grow Rich!” didn’t quite work out, nevertheless readers saved the house when the pipes burst in the first really bad cold snap.

I’d also say “Euthanize the rents.”* I made the terrible mistake of buying into the idea that an advanced degree — not the same as “education” — made the debt worth it. But the bubble burst, and in my experience, the degree wasn’t worth it. Wasn’t anywhere near worth it. (I thought it would take the chip off my shoulder. Can you imagine?) And — thanks, Joe Biden! — because student debt can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, it’s very, very risky. Far more risky than starting a business! In retrospect I would have done better to have become an electrician or a plumber. So, before taking on student debt, think once, twice, and then again.

But student debt is not the only rent. Euthanize all** rents, to which the emotions of fear, horror, and repugnance should be attached. Don’t give Big Money your rents: Get rid of as much plastic as you can, move your money to a credit union, and so forth. Don’t give Big Food your rents: Every time you eat a “food-like substance,” instead of food that’s good, clean, and fair, you’re paying rent. Rent to the intellectual property owners of the weird chemicals on the label, rent to the food chain, rent to the marketers. Stop it! Net positive to you: Better food makes you happier, cleans your body, and clears your mind. Don’t give Big Media your rent. Big Media wants to destroy the Internet so they can sell porn — Oh, I’m sorry, “interactive video.” So why support them in that endeavor by giving them one thin dime? If you can, cut off your cable. Turn off the teebee. Don’t give Big Oil your rent. If you must drive, consider Ride Sharing, or work out a pooling solution. Who said every household had to have one car? In each case, you’ll be saving money you probably don’t have, and removing physically and mentally toxic material (in the case of Big Media, especially) from your life. Why should you carry all that baggage around? And if you are dumping all that baggage because you have become poor, then consider that an advantage of poverty.

Finally, yesterday’s Dear Abby had a letter that I don’t need to quote, because you can write it yourself given the headline: “GIRL FAILS TO MEASURE UP TO HER OWN HIGH STANDARDS.” Dear Abby’s advice:

I do have a few suggestions, and the first is to stop being your own worst enemy. The more you dwell on what you think you lack, the more you will amplify those things. Find one thing you like about yourself and build from there. …The more you brood about yourself, the lonelier you will become. The more you think about helping others, the less time you will have to think about yourself.

And that’s good advice, too. Occupy Sandy, for example, was all about “helping others,” just like Dear Abby said. However, Dear Abby’s headline slips in the assumption that the “standards” are “hers,” when it couldn’t be more clear that the writer’s internalized them, and they aren’t really “hers” at all.

Similarly in the world of work: People who are DISemployed tend to blame themselves. (“Guilt starts as a feeling of failure. The wise ruler provides many opportunities for failure for his populace.”)*** But why are we regulating the economy by throwing people out of work? (Why isn’t there a Jobs Guarantee, for example?) That’s not to say that people don’t make mistakes; I’ve made a ton! But “our” society makes the penalties for failure vicious, brutal, and deadly. Losing your job shouldn’t mean the loss of your house, your health, or your life — and in too many cases, it does. Hopefully, some of the advice above can mitigate, at least. I know, I know, Job’s comforters….

Adding… I’ve gassed on about my own working life quite long enough. What about yours?

NOTE * I didn’t say “Euthanize the rentier. This is the “What am I to do?” conversation. The “What is to be done” conversation is that way.

NOTE ** Well, not all. Be pragmatic. I’m overstating the case to make the points.

NOTE *** It’s late, so I’m spacing on that quote; Frank Herbert, I believe. Readers?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Skeptic

    Feed my family. Pay the bills. Make a living. These are some expressions used to justify the Work Life. What they sometimes mean, in fact, is buy too much, live too large, get in debt, upsize always, LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM. And the Dream turns into the Broke Nightmare.

    Work is a vehicle to get free. I always wanted to be free not to have a better job. Work is not an object in itself as sold by the neo-cons. To always have to work is to be a slave. So, work, save, accumulate, not goods but capital and with that capital you can be free.

    One sees endless stories of Americans who had/have good paying jobs for years and yet still have mortgages, home equity loans, cc debt. Hey, these people do themselves in; they are the cause of their own misery. Grasshoppers enjoying the sun expecting winter never to come.

    I went the Ben Franklin route “A penny saved is a penny earned.’ I retired when I was 45, my younger wife when she was 38. I feed my family (partly out of my own garden). I pay my bills. I make a living on investment income.

    In my spare time, I also read that there are numerous cultures past and present which do not idolize Work and prefer not to engage in it if not necessary. By its own silly logic, I feel the Government should pay me for not working since I have freed up some work for someone else.

    So, less work, for me, is more. No work is most.

    There are major economists who feel the same way. Much of our work is predatory, damaging and non-productive. Let’s hear more about those economists and less about the GDP stimulators, debt peddlers, derivative alchemists and free lunchers.

    1. Really?

      Work is a vehicle to get free. I always wanted to be free not to have a better job. Work is not an object in itself as sold by the neo-cons. To always have to work is to be a slave.

      I’ve also noticed, especially in my latest little corner or corporate America, that the aim of corporate workers within the system (well, the smart ones anyway) is to become one of those who don’t work. Oh, they remain firmly employed within the system alright, but from day one (the young especially seem to get this intuitively, more than likely because they’re so attuned to the cues that their superiors are sending out), they’re overriding goal is to become one of those within the system who simply don’t work. “Work” these days seems to have been permanently relegated to those who “simply don’t get it,” and will thus be permanently marginalized. All in favor of networking, meeting going, power lunches, workouts on company time, and all the rest. So much so that it’s really developed into a sort of signalling device. Work too much, too hard, and too visibly and you’ll quickly be ignored, harassed, ridiculed, and targeted for elimination. Dress nice, pawn your work off on others, and deftly sidestep any and all laborious assignments and you’ll instantly be targeted as “upper management material.” Amazing, but true. Going on 7 years in my current sentence, and this observation just gets reinforced more and more every day.

      1. Moneta

        I have witnessed the same thing over the last 2 decades. The problem is that I love to work and thrive on making everything more efficient I knew this would kill me in the long term so early in my career, I saved and paid off all debt as fast as possible so I could quit and start my own business.

        No more big firms for me.

      2. Massinissa

        Well, we seem to be approaching similar problems to the Soviet Union:

        “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”

        But its not like we had this problem during the Cold War, I assume we didnt. This seems to be more related to the breakdown of western capitalism.

      3. jake chase

        I wasted ten years trying to find a job worth having, but fortunately never did find one. At forty I figured out how to live happily without one. The past 30 years have been right out of Damon Runyon but I would not exhange my life for anyone’s.

        It is a myth that one needs a job to prosper, or even to survive. What one needs is perspective, energy, a tough hide and a nose for horseshit.

    2. LifelongLib

      “I make a living on investment income.”

      How are you different from any other rentier then? I get your point about not working when it isn’t necessary, but that’s not the same as letting other people do the work (necessary or not) and taking some of the money that ought to be going to them.

      1. dan h

        It’s not…he’s delusional. This wonderful vision of letting your money work for you, the true American dream, requires oodles of losers to work.

        1. Moneta

          And that’s one of the reasons we are in our current predicament… 99% thought they could be in the 1% and set their lives accordingly.

        2. jake chase

          Not necessarily. There is nothing wrong with saving money earned honestly and investing it. The problem is created by bank money, which competes with savings and fuels speculation, driving up the cost of living and making things increasingly difficult for workers.

          We need limits on capital accumulation and inheritance, but you shouldn’t trash somebody merely for consuming less than he has earned.

          Bank money has gotten away from us. It is no more complicated than that.

          1. dan h

            I agree that you need limits to accumulation, and in order for those limits to work they need to be set at a limit which will outlaw anyone from being able to live purely off “investment” profits. The way he has described it…I stand by my original statement.

          2. dan h

            And I would argue that the limit should be set so low as to make the income generation potential negligible. The slope is too damn slippery. The clever and selfish members of our species, of which there are many, will game any system with such low hanging fruit.

          3. LifelongLib

            I don’t aim to trash anyone in particular. It just seems to me that investment pays people for having rather than for doing. And as dan h says, at some point that leads to an investor class that lives by controlling an essential resource that others need to do actual work, and then takes the lion’s share of the return while contributing nothing. There should be alternate ways to reward thrift.

  2. kjboro

    Thanks Lambert! Excellent advice that is all the better because grounded in your extensive experience and reflections.

  3. Aussie F

    Good advice. Always remember, no matter how strong and tight they build the wall there will always be gaps you can live in.
    I’ve survived as a street musician, open source software developer, maker of compost bins, builder’s labourer, farm worker, sub-editor, permaculture designer, and other jobs I would rather not remember!
    All the things our parents told us were good for us turn out to be a poisoned chalice: education, mortgages, red meat.
    Beware of vampires, and stay ahead of the game.

    1. Moneta

      My father used to say that he should be paid to wear logos, and always asked me if I would jump off a bridge if everyone did.

      He used to ask why anyone would want to be that richest man in the cemetary. He’d also say that money will not necessarily bring happiness, but it sure makes misery more comfortable (from French). But he’d also say help yourself and the sky will help you (also from French).

      When I was in university and wanted to change degrees because I was bored, he got upset and begged me to just get any piece of paper and get the h*ck out of there asap…. and it was cheap in those days.

      There are a lot of level-headed people in all generations. For some reason, most people don’t listen to them. Probably because stability looks too boring.

  4. Middle Seaman

    If you need career advise you cannot use career advise. People vary in a million dimensions. What works for you may ruin someone else. You can listen or read and then decide what may work for you. Then we should always remember that many have very few, if any, options. Spanish youth suffer 60% unemployment; they need jobs not lessons.

    One thing, if you have a decent life/job be happy and humble. At 65+ I started a new career with decent success. It’s my 3rd rewarding career; I feel fortunate.

  5. Goin' South

    What a great Sunday morning read! And I’ve known since you were based at Eschaton that we had something in common.

    A peripatetic life looks like a very pathetic life to the strivers, but to those who live it and reflect on it, it is an always interesting existence that aims at more than fitting in with the Joneses. The theme in mine is to create a space where I can be free of wage slavery and still enjoy a few of my hedonistic and philosophical tendencies. The effort has failed a few times, but I’ve always been anxious to try it again. Experience has taught me many of the same precepts you present in this piece–experience plus some in-born tendencies I suspect–and my most recent effort is going quite well at this point.

    One thing I might add: those who live moving from one thing to the next are usually people who delight in learning new skills. In fact, many of us get bored with something once we attain some mastery of it. But age’s limits do reduce that delight. It does become more burdensome to re-tool as we get older, though I’m sure it’s still “good for us.”

  6. craazyman

    Well Lambert, when NC goes IPO and you’re landlord for half of Maine, don’t get snotty and forget where you came from. :)

    I know what ligatures and kerning are. I’ve pumped gas, delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, hauled bricks, laid cement, been a bank teller, done proofreading, typeset books, directed and produced off-off-off-Broadway theater, and worked on Wall Street as a stock tout. The order in which these occurred is not what one would expect.

  7. Jim Haygood

    ‘Landlord / site developer / blogger, which is where I am today’

    Kill the Landlords! Just kidding, Lambert, I’m an evil landlord myself.

    Here’s some advice from Napoleon Hill’s book Outwitting the Devil, which was finally published in 2011, 73 years after its writing. Hill is engaged in conversation with the Devil:

    Q Aren’t the schools and churches your bitter enemies?

    A Their leaders may think they are, but I am impressed only by facts. The truth is this, if you must know it: the churches are my most helpful allies, and the schools run the churches a close second.

    Q Do you realize that your charge is substantially a sweeping indictment of the two institutions of major importance which have been responsible for civilization, in its present form?

    A Do I realize it? Man alive, I gloat over it! If the schools and churches had taught people to think for themselves, where would I be, now?

  8. Really?

    By far the best blog post on NaCap in recent memory! Hate to get all biblical, cause for the most part I don’t subscribe to that stuff (the savior parts anyway), but perhaps service unto to others should be the new goal for the young, rather than work for work’s sake, or the more odious still, work for money’s sake and/or personal glorification. I hate to continue belaboring the point, but capitalism’s insistence on turning everything into an economic transaction has brought us to this point. Good totalitarian capitalists/banksters all know that once everyone’s preoccupied scrambling for coin every day (which they pretty much are now), they call all the shots. And in that lies the seeds of our destruction, as the money will never stop flowing upward and impoverishing the lower classes, who themselves will increasingly be made up of the former members of higher and higher economic levels of the economic shell game; the unskilled laborer today, the white collar professional tomorrow.

    1. Larry

      I agree. We need to meet our needs, whatever those are, as a society. Let’s just say we should always be working to improve the human condition. Money as presently orchestrated is often times an impediment to societies desire (as are our fearless leaders). I often think about what the hell are we all doing as I look at the traffic jammed up on the highways, people going here and there, and for what? For what is all this energy and effort expended? In the end we’ll find that it was expended for very little gain in terms of improving the human condition.

  9. Ep3

    Well, first, I believe it’s important for all of us to share our experiences. When real life ppl are the face of the stats, then will things begin to change.
    The thing that is terrible about our society is how we judge success and hard work through our bank accounts. A rapper is not successful for his lyrical skill; it’s when hes on MTV cribs showing the river that flows thru his bedroom. We think that someone who throws a ball deserves to be paid more than a doctor. Money has become the motivator and the measuring stick for how we value a person. We don’t think of blogging as a worthy career because… You don’t make any money doing it. But the sports hero who throws a ball, he makes $25 million a year and is celebrated and given parades and always on tv and gives advice on things he’s not even an expert on.

    1. Larry

      I’ll not begrudge an athlete getting his paycheck, given that many tens of thousands of people pay to watch him play live and in person, and another untold millions watch from a distance on TV. Now, maybe you think we shouldn’t watch sports, but I for one am not passing up the chance. If you want to be upset at sports, please be upset at owners who fleece an often unwilling (though not vocally protesting) public who are subsidizing the capital accumulation of the owners of sports franchises. That is truly the rub. The athlete getting his check has nothing to do with the politician rolling over and dying for the big time owner.

  10. Tahoe58

    What a great Sunday morning read. The trail of effort and experience is most engaging, and the general sense of … just keep swimming, just keep swimming (Finding Nemo reference) … is good advice (I believe). My path has not been all that dissimilar – though the use of my degree and education has been mostly fruitful. I think the most important part that I took from this is, there are many many that struggle through these decisions in determining their path. While in the process of raising two children ~ one realizes that ~ just as my grandfather said many years ago ~ I don’t care much what you do, just make sure you like doing it because you might be doing it for a while (oh – and the provision that whatever it is you do – it should not kill you or someone else, or land you in jail).

  11. Jennifer

    Thank you for a terrific post. My husband and I did what we were “supposed” to do and it’s worked out but I worry about my kids. It’s a heartless world right now and feel for those who are really stuck. I think your advice is spot-on, for anybody.

  12. JGordon

    As a fellow INTJ (although I’m also somewhat schizoid) I certainly understand the chip on your shoulder! This is one rotten society to be born into, and it’s even more rotten if you happen to have a strong inner core of decency that makes you want to do the right thing while all the liars and cheaters around you are doing their thing and getting ahead. That’s not something to have anxiety about; what it is is a sign that the culture is on its deathbed.

    So, my advice for all those who are bummed out about being newly shed from the market economy: well look, you’re just experiencing a bit early what everyone will be going through soon. Take the opportunity to learn skills that will be of actual use in the future, such as growing plants and target shooting. With whatever money you can scrounge, stock up on hand tools, solar panels, and ammo, etc (garage sales, craigslist, whatever–the stuff shouldn’t be new–you have to be creative about getting stuff cheap). Start raising rabbits and chickens. If you have a lawn, tear it out and start growing food on it. Or, as Lambert said, you can volunteer–but don’t just volunteer at some charity or something. Go visit your neighbors and see if they could use your help with anything. Offer to plant trees in their yard or watch their kids.

    Because the key to getting through the future will be the personal relationships you build with people today. You need to ask yourself right now, “who do I know who will do things for me even if I don’t give them any money?”. And if the list you come up with is short, like it is for most Americans, then you’re going to be screwed. You need to fix that.

    Anyway, look up youtube lectures of the incomparable Dmitry Orlov (another INTJ). Dmitry is the guiding light in my life who helped me to get a handle on what I should be doing after I experienced being pretty much cast off from the market economy, and hopefully his advice can do the same for you.

    1. Really?

      An INTP here, employed in a rather large cauldron on INTPs; all predictably, ruled over by a relative handful of impudent, self-serving, ladder-climbing ESTJs.

      1. JGordon

        Oh yeah, INTPs are cool. I like being one of the few who can get all the neat Star Trek allusions you types always seem to be throwing out. I once read somewhere that ESTJ where the type to be most likely to be sexually attracted to day planners, and for the most part that seems to be true.

        It’s a sad comment on our society that they’re the ones running it.

        1. Really?

          I can spot an ESTJ a block away just by their walk. Short, staccato little steps hammered out like a metronome on speed. Their walk will always say I’m important, I’ve got someplace important to be, and I’m late(!), even though they’re more than likely 15 minutes early. A typical ESTJ will expend more frenetic energy just sitting still for an hour than I will all day long doing everything. I like to pick them out in meetings (I would say social settings, but I’m pretty much anti-social in large groups altogether) and just watch (marvel at) them, although even that is exhausting for me. Yeah, I’m generalizing a bit, but not by much.

          ESTJ’s are also renowned “strokers.” They simply must be stroked and deliver strokes in return in their day to day, all of which is particularly amusing to introverted intuitives. INTPs in particular don’t much like to be personally complimented at all, much preferring their work itself to be recognized for quality and especially ingenuity (within context, many if not most INTPs would regard the term “slacker’ as a compliment). Needless to say, people like me almost always find the typical employee of the month/quarter/year awards not only silly and overly personality based, but as actual demotivators in most cases as well.

          Overall, I’ve found the Meyers-Briggs framework to be quite enlightening over the 25 years or so since I first became aware of it.

      2. subgenius

        INTP here, too…though I am unemployed, and have no resources (living on family-borrowed money for rent). I have a similarly disparate career trajectory to Lambert – farm work, bar work, event promoter, audio engineer, producer, artist, video editor, physics degree, house painter, a period dealing quite literally with other people’s shit, back to school for neuroscience and then AI, another music biz interlude, commercial IT during the dot com 1 episode, researcher, proposal writer, builder (eco-buildings), art director, laborer, and currently unemployed post-qualification and licensing as an acupuncturist. I also was a landlord renting (below-rate) rooms in my house to friends, back when I “owned” a house – which I then sold in order to study acupuncture. Of all these, only being a techie made me a “professional” income, but those ESTJs that tend to run projects tired me out to the point I couldn’t do it any longer.

        All changes of direction other than education choices were driven by situation – I never held an individual job longer than a couple of years before a bust, a sale and re-organization of the business, injury, etc.

        I studied acupuncture pretty much as a result of understanding the similarities of reality to the reports from the early 70s (Club of Rome, etc) and theorizing that a relatively potent medicine (which is what Chinese medicine is, when handled correctly) that relies on a relatively primitive technological base would be a good skill for the future and a passable one in the present.

        The sad truth turned out to be that these days you need either personal help from established businesses (thus need some connection to them) or considerable resources to get started as an acupuncturist – the only real opportunity is to set up a practice, and space seems to get priced on a DJI basis it seems (ever upward, to the point it no longer makes sense).

        Unfortunately I am also a bit of a stranger in a strange land, as a result of relocating to the US from the UK. This has added numerous complications to my life (anybody from Europe that thinks bureaucratic paperwork and interactions are problematic should try it here) – for example the confusing paperwork required whenever you need to deal with an authority, the lack of the education to be able to parse which laws are “LAWS” and which are mere suggestions (this may even be a very location-specific thing, I don’t know), and an inability to get credit because I have never had credit (despite having maybe $200,000 in a bank account at one time, while a friend who declared bankruptcy a year ago is already receiving offers for fresh cards).

        Luckily I don’t really have anything to give the rentiers – my diet is predominantly vegetables (from choice, but luckily the CHEAP choice!), I do pay rent (but probably not for much longer :/ ), haven’t had a car for 18 months (I live in hell-A and only fell prey to the auto after moving here and having such a difficult time getting about…things are improved, but only a little, seven years later.) and have never had health insurance or a pension.

        “People who are DISemployed tend to blame themselves” – That is me! And my wife (subconsciously)…

        As a result I am pretty much (at the age of 42.93) in a position similar to the current crop of graduates, and competing for similar jobs, without the benefit of youth and the concomitant energy and strength. And I really need a job, if only to keep a roof over my head while I look for any other options (which are seemingly very thin on the ground hereabouts). I have volunteered (eg yesterday, and on a drupal sprint, natch) when I can, but less than I would like – due to the time spent trying to get some cash to pay rent, or dealing with the exhaustion that such a position brings. More volunteering is on the cards, not least because it is the only way I think I might pick up somewhere to sleep and maybe some paying work down the line. Failing that, I will be homeless sometime RSN.

        It’s doubly annoying that ESTJ classmates seem all to have managed just fine…despite as a rule being poor at their actual practice.

        1. subgenius

          I forgot to add to that ridiculously long spiel that annoyingly I have only recently realised that all along I could have been giving away acupuncture… Unfortunately my licence is about to expire and I don’t have the resources to renew it…

  13. Susan the other

    What a nice invitation Lambert. Your mom’s advice would never have worked with me. My own mother’s advice didn’t work either. She like all her contemporaries always said you can be anything you want to be. Funny. My problem was that I never wanted to be anything. So I simply managed to do what I wanted to do, and I worked because I wanted to eat. So this was my work career, along with getting a college degree: I was a waitress, a slot machine attendant, a casino cashier, a waitress, a waitress, an editorial assistant, a big box cashier, an interactive CD designer (bored me to death), an artist and a landlady. But this is what I really did: I read my life away for long, long hours, I searched for poetry that spoke directly to me and found some, I learned to be a good cook, I learned to garden, I adopted 3 pound puppies, I had one daughter whom I raised always with good humor, I had a smorgasbord of quirky conversations with my husband, until I wore my knees out I took long hikes that got me much closer to heaven, and I amused myself doing pen and ink drawings which I then refused to sell. I’ve had a good life, not easy, not perfect, but certainly good. I wish I had been more patient with friendships. Somehow I always gave up on them before they ripened. I was just too impatient for the truth. Work is what I did so I didn’t starve; everything else I did was for my soul.

  14. JEHR

    Well said, Lambert. The reading of your resume made me feel very positive about what is going to come in the near future.

    The one thing that was most important to me was learning through formal education (and later self-education). I did not have enough money to continue past two years of university (1960-2) so I picked a profession that only required two years of training. Then after marriage, I enrolled in university again and continued learning until I received my first degree (1974). Later, I went back to school and obtained my second degree which fit in with the work I was actually doing (Adult Education 1994). In 1999 I went to art school and became a painter. My education served me very well and I have used the skills I learned every day.

    Thanks for your honesty and sense of humour. You are a jewel of a man!

  15. ambrit

    Good article Mr Strether. Reminds me of the character in Graham Greenes’ “The Razors Edge.”
    I’ve been there also: print shop work, Post Office, lawns, paper route, all varities of plumbing, farm work for the in-laws, and the dreaded retail.
    My main observation about the cultural matrix that keeps the “official” economy humming is: Fear. Fear of homelessness, hunger, the “Man,” indeed, fear of not “fitting in.” When has conformity not been a driving force in human societies? Unlearning how to be a good ‘productive member of society’ is the first, but essential task. Second, I’d say, as several earlier commenters have stated, is to redefine ones ‘society’ to a smaller and more manageable set. Notice how fragmented our “Modern” culture is? Fragmented all the way down to every individual. Not many of us are up to the challenge of pure Rayndism, or Sartian “Authentic Existance.” Those types also have a disconcerting habit of taking their own lives, and those of the ‘near and dear’ around them. (Jim Jones didn’t give all those people the Kool Aid by himself. They helped in their own destruction.)
    Thanks for bringing up a very important subject.

    1. charles leseau

      Do you mean Maugham’s Razor’s Edge? Or is there another book/play with that title? I’ve never read any Graham Greene.

      I agree fear is some sort of driver, an unfortunate one.

      For a UK site half devoted to both this (fear/anxiety) and the virtues of work avoidance and its attendant societal ramifications (and some excellent articles on semantics and their use and misuse), some of you around here might enjoy anxietyculture (dot) com.

      1. ambrit

        Mr leseau;
        AAAAARGH! (Gives self dope slap.) You are correct, it is Maugham.
        Greene is also somewhat of a philosophically involved writer. A lot of his best work revolves around his Catholocism and its’ attendant difficulties. His ‘thrillers’ are quite good and not all light reading. His perhaps best known work is the script for Carol Reeds’ “The Third Man,” which starred Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. Like Maugham, Greene worked for British Intelligence in a foreign posting for a while.

  16. papicek

    Just to set a baseline on what work is and what it is not, were you to quantify the utility of most jobs, you’d be in negative number territory. The “joys” of work, for me anyways, have come from the interplay with customers, clients and coworkers as well as the addition of knowledge and skills – my own personal human-capital formation. Work itself (maximizing the return on your wage) is about as noble as doing the dishes, though it gets lots of undeserved romantic treatment.

    cc @mikeroweworks

  17. Shutter

    (Daddy…) “Well Junior, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

    (Junior…) “What I already am. Me.”

  18. Clyde Ankle

    With student loans we are telling our children “take chances, spread your wings but don’t you dare fail” because if you do you will pay for the rest of your life. If you start a business instead you are free to walk away each time older but hopefully wiser. The conventional wisdom is NOT to start a business since it is almost certain to fail. But it seems that unless you have a clear career path or a lot of money for tuition, almost any path is less risky than student debt. It seems the conventional wisdom is turned on its head. Thank you for stating clearly what is now blindingly obvious. Taking on large amounts of debt without a way to repay it is RISKY.

    1. Larry

      When I was leaving college, I had a scheduled meeting with an employee from the financial aid office. Not personal, about 45 of my graduating peers were there. It was largely counciling on the importance of paying our loans and making that work. As a joke I asked what would happen if I just moved to another country and stopped paying my loans? The poor woman was shocked, even though I was joking. It was only later that I realized how such an action would really hurt the system. And I graduated before they made these loans non-dischargable in bankruptcy.

      But that is not to slag the college, which I think did good work. By and large it is an indictment of society that says you need a degree to get ahead in life, but is too cheap to foot the bill. F-35 fighters that will never fly? Sure. Universal higher education? Eh, too many hippies in the 1960s. No.

  19. John

    For those who have been disemployed, I say count your blessings for you have been liberated and can see things as they really are.
    You have been abandoned and betrayed by the violent and strange hustler culture that is America.
    You are now trapped in enemy territory with few resources. But they have left you with one very valuable resource, your time. In fact, it’s the only thing that is yours.
    Use that to subvert the rentier.
    In fact, that mission is yours if you choose to accept it. Work to take down Hustler America. (Thanks, Morris Berman)
    Volunteer. Gives things away. Shirk a lot. Find a way to do service without compensation. Avoid paying any rent. Kill the TeeVee. Limit the propaganda data stream. Take the Myers-Briggs test. Learn who you are. Learn who your friends are. Learn who the enemy is.
    Learn to pass as just another Hustler. Take none of it seriously. Take up meditation to deal with the stress. Drink coffee or take long morning walks when everyone else is in the cubicle.
    Use the anger of the betrayal to move forward.
    You are in alien territory and can make it. Find your allies. Be compassionate and kind.
    Think like an illegal alien. Help them. They are your brothers and sisters.
    As for my experience, I went from a Corporate Boot Camp university to the US Army via the draft in 1968. The cognitive dissonance of that experience revealed and alienated me from Hustler America for the duration of this lifetime. My good fortune.
    Remember, the Rentier, the Hustler and the Borg are the same. They want you body and soul.
    Live free and flourish.

    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      Curious you should mention Morris Berman. The frequent commenter here who goes by “From Mexico” reminds me of Berman’s perspective on things, and if I recall correctly Berman is now living in Mexico. Might they be one and the same?

      1. casino implosion

        My reaction to every DownSouth/FromMexico comment is the same: “Not another learned quote, you pedantic gi….ooh, that looks interesting. Got to put that on my “to read” list.”

  20. Reader2010

    If you can revisit some points the Englightenment thinker Rousseau argued, you will find work itself is not much meaningful. To be idle, according to Rousseau, is the goal of life.

    1. JTFaraday

      If Rousseau were writing today, he would probably find himself saying “Man is born free and everywhere is in jobs.”

      Then the peasants and the salonniers would join forces and harass him off the continent.

  21. KeninSD

    Thanks, Lambert!

    I’ve often wondered about the regulars here, so I read through your entire post which is not something that I often do.

    But, what the hell is a braider tender? I know that the google will tell me but half the fun is getting answers from all the INTF’s here, or whichever M-B label applies and compels them to tell me what they know.

    I also have wandered through life and work and responsibility and wondered why I am not fit for regimentation, group think and saying yes to the prevailing stupidity. So, your post and many of the other replies, especially Susan’s, have helped.

    Rather than expose my CV, let me observe that exchanging my life for money has never been a simple bargain as the hiring party has always had a very different understanding of what my life is worth to them than mine to the tasks for which I was employed. The term not a “team player” comes up a lot in my discussions with them.

    But, I do know that whatever my life is, theirs is worse as they are thoughtlessly tied to small things like accumulation of objects, social status and fear of loss. And, while I struggle with the temptation of all those things, they are less important to me than knowing that I am able to engage them on my terms and leave when they expect that the money bargain should be as important to me as it is to them. That and I still don’t say yes just because!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Braiders make all kinds of cord: Venetian blind cord, yacht cord, macrame-style cord, etc. The braider machine interweaves thread from spools to make the cord which is run onto a drum. Spools run out, drums need to be doffed, machines crash, etc.

  22. Kokuanani

    One of the things that bugs me about the current “there are no jobs” situation is that there really is a lot of WORK out there to be done; there’s just no one/no resources to PAY for it.

    I am “retired,” but I volunteer in the third grade classroom of my local school. Nearly all the teachers there are saints [and have been working without a contract for almost two years]. The needs of the kids are tremendous and varied, and one-teacher-per-classroom can’t meet them. There are no “reading specialists,” or counselors, or tutors, or math specialists or any of the other human resources that would help these kids. Most of these kids have parents who, when they’re around, don’t have the skills to help them. And this is THIRD GRADE — kids who are falling behind here aren’t likely to make any great achievement leap anytime soon, if at all.

    So, in this small corner: there’s tons of WORK — just being in the classroom, reading to kids, helping them with their homework. Running an after school program to help the parents who are at one of their three jobs so THEY can’t pick up their kids. On and on, and for a good cause, for the future of our country.

    In a wider sense: any of us can look around and find a myriad of jobs to do, work that needs to be done, whether it’s winterizing the elderly neighbor’s home, training the unemployed who need training, picking up roadside trash. And we’re not even to the “big” make-work projects like infrastructure.

    I’d like to see this point of view explored: there’s plenty of “work” and the benefits that go with it; there’s just not a national will to provide those things to our citizens.

    1. JEHR

      Yes, what you say, Kokuanani, is so true. The discussions around the Job Guarantee have made the idea that there is lots of work to be done very plain. But the goal of the wealthy cannot be attained (indentured servitude) if everyone else has work at a living wage. That is the reason that no one is really serious about creating jobs, not the President, not the Congress and not the Federal Reserve.

  23. Rick

    We seem to be about the same age. I’ve had just over 30 W2 jobs, two professions, and one twenty year run.

    Things are tough these days, employers have the upper hand and are exercising the power even if it hurts them.

    One suggestion: don’t get old. My mid-twenties son in the same field as I am gets called back, I don’t even though we both have received degrees in the past five years (mine is a masters).

  24. PQS

    Lambert – so inspiring!

    Work is, as many have noted, just a way to pay the bills. I learned long ago to pick out the things I liked about my work and ignore what I hated, including the fact that I had to do it, which I hated. I’m the sole provider for my family, which I have deliberately kept small.

    I earned two degres – in History and Secondary Education. My plan was to teach high school as a history teacher. Didn’t work out – school district just blew me off, cum laude grades and all….so I ended up in commercial construction on a very big project. I’ve been there ever since, working for both small and large companies. In every place I’ve ever worked, it is always the negative personalities that make work tiresome and frustrating. Since the Global Economic Meltdown, the pressures are enormous – I’ve actually seen situations where more work actually went for far less money year by year.

    The work itself is challenging and interesting – building things is truly good for the soul, and that includes even paint and carpet fixups for large multinationals who couldn’t care less. The workers who do this work take huge pride in their skills, as well they should. They are often funny, insightful, and interesting people, and I love being in the field and working with them to solve problems and keep things moving. Going up the educational food chain – not so much. Engineers and architects and, god forbid, owner’s reps, are often very distressed people, and it’s gotten way worse with the Global Economic Meltdown. I try to be patient with people, because so many of them are also caught in a brutal system that wants them to do more and more with less and less. But Lord, is it hard to be kind to others when they seem intent on taking out their problems on you: THE CONTRACTOR.

    This doesn’t even begin to cover the huge problems with management, which, as one can imagine, are enormous in construction, where “people skills” are derided as wastes of time, and bosses routinely use management techniques straight out of Dickens. I’ve learned to draw a line in the sand and ask for what I want – clearly, repeatedly, and loudly if necessary. Otherwise, you’ll just get trampled and ignored.

    I would like to change careers, but I haven’t figured out what to do yet, so I just keep trying to make my situation better by asking for more and always, always, looking out for a better deal with more freedom and less hassle. (Recently I convinced my Scrooge McDuck boss to let me work from home one day a week, since I commute a very long way. It’s been great for my well being – and my pocketbook.)

  25. Dan Kervick

    Great piece Lambert. I think the American attitude toward work is schizophrenic. Almost everyone sees the willingness to work as a virtue, but they often find the work itself and intrinsically detestable, and forever dream of liberation from it. I think this schizophrenia is rotted in the social pathology that comprises the endlessly recurring American tragedy, a looping chain of social problems in which each link leads to the next, and the whole continuously regenerates itself:

    Commerce-based radical individualism and personal striving for gain ->

    Economic insecurity and loneliness ->

    Experiences of frustration, alienation and abandonment->

    Increased self-reliance as a psychological response to these experiences->

    Entrepreneurial initiative as an expression of self-reliance->

    ->Regeneration of commerce-based radical individualism.

    People struggle and suffer within this system, but they are trapped in narcissistic melodramas of self-importance: whether it is the importance of their titanic personal achievements which are at the center of the melodrama, or the importance of their own suffering and self-pity which are at the center. So they respond with dreams of personal freedom, transcendence and liberation from the demands of the work system, rather than finding ways to forge social solidarity and spark social transformation.

    The goal, I think, should not be to escape work, since there is no end to the need for strenuous human effort aimed at improving the world, but to work with others to achieve a society in which the work that must be done is shared equally, and the benefits that flow from that work are shared equally as well.

    1. traveler

      “The goal, I think, should not be to escape work, since there is no end to the need for strenuous human effort aimed at improving the world, but to work with others to achieve a society in which the work that must be done is shared equally, and the benefits that flow from that work are shared equally as well.”

      Poifect. Work can be quite enjoyable. Much more so when the benefits therefrom are shared equally.

  26. different clue

    My jobwork history is simpler than many here. Lawnmowing/landscape labor, fast-food work, family-restaurant dishwashing/grill cooking/ part-time janitoring,
    low-level security guarding, and finally major hospital pharmacy-technicianing for 27 years now.
    I was raised wrong (details concern nobody here) and had to spend many years re-raising myself all over again. My college years were a pit of pain and a feast of fear. After several years of making $3,500-4,000 per year a chance opened up to study Pharmacy Technology at the local Community College. That led to the job with benefits I have had since then. If you need money to buy the things that only money will pay for, like health care and tooth care and so forth, then you will need a job as long as you need to pay money for those other things.
    Since going to a Community College for a sellable workskill worked out all right for me, I feel no guilt in advising other people to consider it as a possibility. I would suggest learning a skill which takes the least feasible time-and-money to learn in eschange for good chance
    at work-with-benefits at a midsize to major facility . . . most likely a hospital or some such where jobs still carry benefits. Use those benefits to the absolute max to make your physical teeth and physical health the very best they can be. Since America is on the way to failed Fall-Of-The-Soviet-Union collapse , decide what things you don’t need to have or do in life, and don’t get them or do them.
    I and everyone around me here in hospital pharmacy perform thingmaking service-rendering work. If you need to feel you are doing work for the money, hospital pharmacy seems like a “hard work” setting to me. That could well be true for other health-care tech-level service-level work.
    If you want advice on how to be happy in life, get it from happy people. Some of the people upthread seem to be happy and there is much good advice upthread.
    Lambert Strether has offered a very valuable Prime Directive up above . . . Euthanize Rents. Since not all Rents can be Euthanized, I settle for the lesser application of avoiding rents wherever possible, and shrinking the unavoidable rents as much as feasible.
    From what I have seen of micro-mini-midget landlording at the level of This Old House or Two or Three Old Houses, landlording doesn’t look like rentiering to me. Landlording looks like work. Small scale landlording is a job, and often a very badly-paying job.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “If you need money to buy the things that only money will pay for, like health care and tooth care and so forth, then you will need a job as long as you need to pay money for those other things.”

      Exactly! And you need good teeth in order to “pass.”

      * * *

      And you’re right on micro-landlording. An ill-paying job I am ill-equipped to do. Nevertheless, structurally, it is a rent. I didn’t earn it, I inherited it, along with my mad humanities skillz, WASP body type, etc.

      1. different clue

        Maybe I need to get very clear on the “professional economic” definition of rent as against the “lay vernacular” definition of rent. As a “lay vernaculist” I can only suppose that the “professional economic” definition of rent is the same as what I would consider to be an “extortionate toll” . . . money charged to pass through a gate in return for no good or service whatsoever. The only thing being bought for money paid for permission to pass through the gate is . . . permission to pass through the gate. Do I understand correctly what the “professional economist” means by ” a rent ” ?

  27. down2long

    Thanks Lambert. Graduated college in 1979 into the LAST terrible recession and that caused me to work at a million different jobs from toilet cleaner to acting in commercials (OH how I loved those residuals on national commercials. To someone who had been broke for ten years, it was weekly manna from heaven in four figures.)Of course catering. Hard labor in a tuxedo.

    That has given me resiliency which I have have come to appreciate – but last year when Chase took my current -but expired loan= building and my best friend died suddenly at 64 in the same week – I hated the resiliency. I wanted to die. I had thought by playing by the rules and owning real property my future was assured. I was wrong.

    I heard a quote this morning on the radio that makes this even more painfully clear:

    “Hope is good in small amounts. But as it adds up over time, it turns toxic and turns into denial.” This is Amerikkka today.

    Yes I am a retier, I rent beauitiful apartments and houses which I have lovingly restored in an area of Los Angeles which I worked very hard to clean up from the gangs (at not a small risk to my safety – “Watch out white boy, was the standard greeting.) I paid tenants to move and helped them buy houses with down payments and work with their lenders. I wanted to make us all better at the end.

    I simply refuse to believe that I am a retier as a Chase Bank or leveraged buyout destruction machine like Blackrock is.

    Now I have an apartment full of young tenants who just graduated from college last year and are bunking together to save money. Nice kids, well educated. Working for capitalists at “internships” just as I did in those lean years – which really, in my case, went from 1979 to 2003. And returned in 2006. It is true if you graduate into a recession your opportunity costs are enormous, and you may never catch up.

    But these kids – I despair for them. As my dear departed friend who was a huge pacifist used to say “It makes me want to take a gun and kill them” meaning the banksters, the government vermin, etc. who have ruined these kidds futures – and mine, and almost all of ours. I marched in Occupy and it was scary how little impact we had compared to the Vietnam War, pro-gay, and and anti-AIDS marches I partcipated in. (Yes we were ignored in anti-Iraq war marches too.) Humans are irrelevant in the good old US of A.

    1. LifelongLib

      different clue and you make interesting points about rent. I would say that a “true” rentier pays other people to do the work on his property and lives off whatever extra he gets from the renter. If you’re doing the work of maintaining the property then you may technically be a landlord but not (I would argue) a “rentier”.

      1. different clue

        I absolutely agree. Down2Long is not a “rentier”. Down2Long is a hard-working micro-landlord. Micro-landlording is hard work.

  28. G-Man

    My one add is the Credit Unions are even less regulated than the banks. Maybe it is just in my region of the world, but the Credit Union soaked me for far greater fees and actually tried to foreclose on my second before I sought out some assitance from my state NCUA.

    I am now back with the big banks because you can’t function in society let alone put a roof over your head without one. I realize it is just a game to them and for me to follow the rules to minimize the damage. It’s cash for me when I can get a gig that will supply it. They banks are so far asunder that they cannot afford to goad everyone wheres it appears the credit unions can slight you for the merest of infractions. Big banks leave you alone if they are still able to get something . . . or so it seems.

    In comment, I have had to take graveyard shifts and now work for $12/hr througfh a placement agency that collects 50% over what I make every hour. I only exist because my wife has a teachers job and a family foirtune that we are surviving off of. Wholly unsustainable. But what I have learned in my travails is that I am one of the few who is well off enough. Working graveyard for the largest retailer of all was an eye-opener. Talk about Limbo! A simple look at youir local craigslist jobs posting really shows how far this country and economy has fallen.

    Thank goodness for blogs and articles like this one. As the Talking Heads once crooned “Stop Making Sense”, it has become the mantra to make it in the corporate world today.

    1. traveler

      Have to agree, unfortunately, about the credit unions. Some get pretty slick. The one I use appears to be a big-bank-wanna-be.

  29. Abe, NYC

    My advice to those planning to have a reasonably conventional career: don’t delay having kids, have them in your late 20s or early 30s. Raising children has always been a lot of effort, but in this country it’s exceptionally difficult, especially until 4-5 years of age. You can have a lot of fun with your kids at that age, and watching them grow is an incredible experience, but until they’re in pre-K there will hardly be any time for your own development. If your kids are at school by the time you’re in your mid-late 30s, you will have the opportunity to make some change in your life. It’s much more difficult when you’re older.

  30. JohnB

    I’m a particularly strongly INT-something personality, so much so that it’s causing me quite a number of problems, but I’m lucky in having the knowledge/skills to be able to do a bit of work programming from home, and to earn a passing amount at that (with games too, so it’s not all completely boring work).

    It’s not something I want to do forever though, and one thing that interests me quite a lot which I may like to try eventually (if I can sort out my abovementioned problems), is to maybe try out some efforts into putting together a co-op business, and maybe even a wider co-op movement locally.

    It’s a pretty naive idea given my current limitations in interacting with others, but it’s a nice dream of how work and business could be transformed, to be owned and run by workers without an upper management crapping down on them, and without some greedy parasites at the top being able to gain unchecked profits off of everyone elses work.

    It’s really just another kind of rent-seeking in the end; I don’t give a toss who owns a company, they should not be able to extract massive personal profits off of employee’s work, forever into the future, even if they deserve some signiciant reward for setting up and running the company in the first place.

    I firmly think worker-run, worker-owned business (combined with an MMT-inspired economy, with a public Job Guarantee) will be a big thing going into the future, and that while it may not totally replace fully-private/hierarchal bussiness (which will still be optimal in some areas of the economy), it certainly will be able to fill quite a large number of economic roles in modern economies, which are much more friendly to workers/society and their personal/social/professional health/welfare.

    So yea, that’s what I’d like to play a part in developing, not just as an individual business but as a wider political movement, where work is done on employees terms; could even eventually turn into a transformative ‘Libertarian Socialist’ movement in society overall at some stage (though that particular field of political thought needs a lot more development, before it can be put into practice; it is still quite incomplete).

    I appreciate articles on NC about groups like Mondragon and Valve (a place I would love to work) quite a lot, for these reasons, as it’s very interesting to read about successful efforts at worker-run business.

  31. hermanas

    Loved Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, “tell us about work.”

  32. kris

    Mr Strether
    Super hyper outstanding post. Everybody is her/his life strives for a meaning, for FULFILLMENT.

    I have been happy for long stretches of my life, but I found happiness quite boring, it was not FULFILLING.

    After communism collapsed in 1990, I started thinking about the meaning of life and decided to discard atheism in 1992, at age 21.
    By 2001 I decided to cut the TV cable, place my TV set on the street with a note “for free”. Currently I still rent from very good landlords, own a car in order to go to and come back from work and own a computer, and of course own my clothes. That’s it.

    I was extremely lucky to get a FREE engineering education in communism which to my surprise is in quite high demand here in north america, currently in Toronto, Canada.

    So, settling with being a christian orthodox after trying the mosque, new age, evangelists, catholics, I’d say it was worth it. I am 40 now and I enjoy every day.
    I have rejected all promotions at work and I have told my boss 3 years ago that I no longer want a raise.

    Life is beautiful, every day is better than the previous day, thank God.

    The way you’re going, I suspect you may be leading towards evangelizing your quite bright atheist boss :)

    Thx again for super hyper outstanding post.

  33. freedomny

    I try to control what I can by having no debt. But I am continually amazed by what happens in life. Was in Trader Joes this morning and saw a worker unloading produce. She turned around and I realized that she was once the owner of a restaurant I used to go to all the time pre 2008. She has got to be in her 50’s and she is a bright woman. If it could happen to her it could certainly happen to me. I had heard that she also has a job in the city during the week. So, it means this woman works 7 days a week.

  34. Finnucane

    I feel like I’m only starting to figure anything out, and I’m running out of time. If anybody asked me for advice (which nobody does), I’d say (1) avoid becoming an alcoholic, (2) exercise three or more times a week, (3) learn Spanish, (4) get a degree in nursing, even if you want to go on to do something else. At this point, I keep my thermostat low in winter and high in summer, I don’t have TV, I usually don’t keep alcohol in the house, I’m down to about 150lbs (at 5’8”), I make my own yoghurt (my main protein source), and I spend a maximum of $50 (and usually $25-$30) per week on groceries. That is, at age 40-something, I’ve turned off the TV and at long last learned a little bit of home economics, chronic bachelorhood notwithstanding.

    Progress? I guess, but still I can’t help but think “what’s the damn point?”

    I deeply resent my parents’ generation, because they were handed the world as their patrimony, and they left us with shit.

    1. kris

      Learn something hands-on, electrician, plumber even car mechanic. It matters nothing if you’re man or woman. Local college would be fine.

      Anything handson that relates to fixing things that get broken all the time.
      Odd hours of work, but guaranteed demand for that work.

    2. different clue

      How/where/what kind of groceries do you buy to live on at that low budget level? That would be valuable information for people to know.
      Do you get food from other sources and pathways besides buying for for money? Like . . . bartering work/skills for food? Finding food? Growing your own? Foraging in woods/fields/marshes?

      1. Finnucane

        I don’t grow or scavenge food (not now, anyway), so I’m dealing with groceries. I live in a crappy mid-sized town, so groceries are cheap and the restaurants are not at all tempting. I keep my spending habits in check by taking out $50 cash on payday and setting that in a special place as my grocery stash. I’m not poor, I don’t reckon, but I shop at the places where poor people shop – there’s an Aldi in town, and also a place that charges cost + 10% for everything. Anything that’s left over from the $50 goes into a can. That money goes toward paying for a trip to Europe in 2014 for my niece’s graduation from high school – a dollop of happiness in an otherwise bland existence.

        It’s not that hard, but bear in mind that this is just me – no kids, no significant other, not even a dog, so economizing is probably a bit easier for me than for most other people.

        1. different clue

          At $25-30 per week for some or most weeks, one hopes you are not slowly stealth-depriving your body of the full load of all nutrients needed to maintain sickness-free health over the next few decades.
          If you feel confident you are indeed meeting all your long-term full-spectrum nutrient needs, I would still be interested in what your basic staples are . . . and fun-filled flavor-agents as well . . . if you feel the information would interest and/or benefit the readership.

          1. different clue

            Well . . . I myself don’t know enought to say that for sure.
            It may be possible to sustain decades-long illness-free health
            on $35-50 per week if one eats enough ( plus margin of metabolic safety) of all the right things plus ZERO of ANY of the wrong things. For people hyroplaning on a thin film of money, the specific knowledge of what-in-particular is bought with that $35-50 per week would be very valuable survival knowledge to have.

  35. avg John

    Thanks Lambert for sharing. It’s especially comforting coming from someone as talented as you and nice for many of us to know we are not alone. Good one.

  36. Rufus T. Firefly, Jr.


    How about cashing out and emigrating out? Would that be an option for you? Can you get past that whole American Dream bullshit this whole nation has been brainwashed with? Can you get past that “USA is number one! USA! USA! USA!” and ditch this hell hole already? Or, is that unacceptable to any TRUE Americans?

    How come in this blog all discussions still cling on to that “hope and change” nonsense? Why can’t you people see reality and just say: “It’s over. America is a done deal.” Is accepting reality so painful as to rather deny it?

    Here’s the solution to your problem: It’s time to book out, my friend! Time to boogie! Time to hit the road, Jack! It’s time to ditch this bitch!


    1. traveler

      To go where?

      There’s a lot to be said for sticking around and helping to ‘fix’ things. Make things better for all of us. Doesn’t have anything to do w/Yankee-Doodle-ism. Has to do with there’s lots needs doin’ right here and right now.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      It’s certainly a thought that I’ve considered, though there’s always that “out of the frying pan into the fire” thing. Yes, currency arbitrage, even labor arbitrage.

      The problem is, the oligarchy is global. In terms of compliance, every place is becoming more like every other place.

  37. Myshkin

    “The world is basically a forced labour camp from which the workers – perfectly innocent – are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed”

    From an extremely dark Cormac Mccarthy screenplay, “Sunset Limited,” the film version has Tommie Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson engaged in a discourse from hell. Nasty sentiment but that line caught my attention.

    There are of course those occupations that we’d do for nothing, the pursuit of passions that a few are lucky enough to arrive at. I’m afraid most never have the privilege. Most of us are caught up in the dilemna described in the quote above.

    Life is quite finite and our best job is to find something meaningful to occupy us, as spacy and ridiculous as that sounds. There are those, shall we say the rentiers, who skim as much of the value of our work as they can get away with. That is important to remember when the talk of the value of work is thrown with great moral certitude by those who are doing the skimming.

    Best to all of you of varied work experience and quixotic careers who have have kept their eyes and ears open and most of all their minds.

  38. different clue

    What can those of us who still have jobs ( and I can’t be the only person here who still has one) do to help other people who still have jobs to keep those jobs? Yes, we should certainly try to change the mass-jobicide policy of the Upper Class BizNazi FedRegime which currently occupies our government and our country. But what can we the jobholders do in the meantime by our saving and spending behavior within the political economy itself in the meantime?
    I for example have suggested that everyone currently paying their bills by electronic autopayment should go back to paying with checks and sending those checks by mail. That would slow the rate of government-engineered slow extermination of the USPS long enough to see if enough people can systematically torture and terrorise enough Officeholders into repealing the various Postal Service Extermination Acts which they passed over the last few years.
    But that’s just me. There must be smarter people here who have other better suggestions about how people still earning money can target the use of that money to create a space for currently jobless or between-jobs people to earn some of that money.

      1. Ching

        It is expensive lesson, and painful indeed. But to be betrayed, I know the pain of being betrayed, and so I do not betray others. In comparison, I would rather be enlightened to the pain than be ignorant of it and do it to others. Some pains do not need to be experienced, of course, just like we know we shouldn’t drink and drive :)

        I’ve gone thru several rather unfortunate situations, and found that it is possible to be happy while being poor. I believe my financial situation is not much different from yours. Depressions do creep in, but if we’re mindful of it, we can work to manage it. And I am glad to read your post. Thanks a lot :)

  39. the idiot

    Thank you Lambert. I am at a crossroads myself right now, doing good work and making good money, but basically supporting an industry I abhor. It’s time for a change, and I appreciate your advice, especially the advice about rents!

  40. traveler

    Well, dang, I seem to be home. Thanks, Lambert.

    If you haven’t read it, a terrific book that kind of fits in sideways w/all this is Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life.

  41. steelhead23

    lambert – A few words about volunteering. During a prolonged bout of unemployment in the mid-80s, I volunteered with an NGO environmental organization and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Within a few months, I was being paid by the FWS, they taught me a useful water resource model and my career blossomed. But the primary thing was – volunteering made me feel useful – valuable and flat crushed my growing depression. If you are currently unemployed – volunteer, it works wonders.

    1. kris

      Absolutely it works. Anything you do for somebody else selflessly is the only cure for depression.

      Depression is basically reality being different from your unrealistic expectations.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Thanks for these great comments on volunteering.

        * * *

        I have to disagree that all depression is situational. Seasonal Affective Depression, for example, is certainly not.

        I guess what bugs me is seeing people treat depression as a question of character or personal morality, when in fact it’s about as much question of character as a broken leg. (“If you weren’t a weakling, you’d be running by now.”)

        That said, I think that getting moving, no matter the direction or how far, is the best possible approach, and volunteering certainly does that.

        1. different clue

          I have been depressed at times. And I have been in clinical depressions at times. And the two states are different.

          There are people who presume to “not beLIEVE in ” the existence of depression. I would like to put every one of those people on a chemical designed to give them a clinical depression long enough to where they are forced to admit that they have become educated on the difference.

          1. LifelongLib

            I went through what I think was mild depression after having a bout of the flu. And if that was mild I don’t even want to imagine what true clinical depression is like.

  42. Lambert Strether Post author

    I wish there were a way to aggregate these continuing stories. Clearly, this topic — meaningful work, and how to attain it — is not addressed in many other places. Readers, thoughts?

    1. ambrit

      Mr Strether;
      A continuing thread running through the comments is about how to cut lose from the “Official Version” (to steal a wonderful Latin American saying,) of life. Very close to the old Counter Culture movement of the Sixties. Heck, remember the Beats?
      That has been around for ever, sort of. A subtler theme I felt from reading the comments, was an angst about the seeming impossibility of reforming the existing system. Being one of the more despondent characters around here, I struggle to comprehend the world view of those with an optimistic outlook. There’s the dynamic I see. Doomsayers, fearing and yet welcoming the end of days, rubbing up against the Inspirers, pointing the way ahead, out of the morass.
      So, I’ll say it out loud: “Come on Synthesists! Show us the Middle Way!”
      NC is essentially a Think Tank for reformers and progressives. (Dare I say, old fashioned Liberals?) The more sparks it throws off, the more work is getting done.
      Lest I be thoughtless and unmannerly, I must aver that NC is a premier Muck Raking, trouble causing, truth telling site. Hooray!

        1. ambrit

          OOOOOOH! Orwell was right! “Right is Wrong!”
          As for “The Grand Synthesis”, it’s all a matter of perspective? Yikes! That’s sailing into dangerous waters.

    2. JohnB

      I think the main problem with attaining meaningful work, is that it’s just not how society and professional life is constructed to work right now; we have a monetary system which is prone to persistent unemployment in times of crisis, prone to monetary shortages (and over-reliance on debt-based money) during crisis, a housing market prone to overinflated prices/debt over time, and a cost of living at prey to speculative rent-seekers, who deliberately inflate the cost of oil and food.

      It’s depressing to face up to the current state of things, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to work at the problem from the bottom-up (grassroots/business), as well as the top-down (politics/government).

      I think an important step for solving this, is to remove rent-seeking abilities from private interests, and put them towards public purpose.

      I mentioned earlier Libertarian Socialism, and that I’d be interested in at some stage promoting co-op movements locally; one thing Libertarian Socialism (in some forms) promotes, is a gradual societal transition to worker-run/owned business, and towards more communal societies, and I think this may be essential to removing access to rent-seeking activity in some areas of economies (which would then lessen financial burdens, and allow room for more meaningful work).

      You can form co-ops around property, which can be used to form affordable housing that does not need to be prey to speculative property markets, and of course around business, where if the business is viable, profits can be shared between workers, instead of pushing wages towards subsistence. You can even try to setup local co-ops for providing food, in a relatively self-sufficient manner for the local community (whic may be partially resilient to speculation on food prices as well).

      You could even potentially back it up with some form of local currency as well, and also have credit unions, both of which may be usable to fund more meaningful work locally, which does not have to have a primary motive of providing profits above all else (much like how MMT would have government utilize money creation for social purposes).

      These are all incomplete/naive-enough ideas, based on a political theory which is at least largely incomplete/untested, but it’s my view that if you want to sort out the meaningful-work problem for everybody, then you either need to sort things out from the top-down (political/monetary system reforms), or from the bottom-up (widescale communal/co-op social reforms), and that in the absence of either, some people are going to be left prey to circumstances, because the economic system as it is, un-reformed or un-subverted, just won’t support a good life for everyone.

    3. different clue

      Lambert Strether,

      I think I see a way to aggregate all these stories in a place easy to find. And that is to create a topic to go alongside the other topics on the right side of the screen.
      And this post and thread could be the very first post and thread to be filed under this topic after you decide on a name for the topic. I will offer the topicname: Meaningful Work, Meaningful Life. Or you could give it any better name you wish. And this could be the very first post under that topic.

      (By the way, if you run enough Permaculture posts; will you create a Permaculture topic for people easily to go back and find them?)

  43. different clue

    I suspect people may be confusing “meaningful” work with “enjoyable” work with “useful” work. Is garbage collection “enjoyable”? I doubt it. Is it “meaningful”? I suppose that all depends on the meaning of the meaning of meaning. Is it “useful”? Let those who think otherwise be condemned to store a year’s worth of their own garbage inside their own house. Then lets see if they have smartened up enough to have an EDucated opinion.
    The ship of civilization sails upon a sea of unpleasant and often unbearable work. It was only the modern Fossil Energy Power Age which permitted large numbers of people the luxury of semi-pleasant work. That luxury will run out as the fossil coal, gas, and oil runs out. Then we go back to “work as permission to survive” for most of us.
    If this had been that and the other had been something else, I would be making the same tenth-to-quarter million dollars per year that most of my college hallmates now make.
    But after the $3,500-4,000 per year I spent 5 or so post-college years making before I went back to Community College to become a Pharmacy Technician . . . the $34,000/year that I make now feels pretty RICH to me. My work is meaningful to all the patients and third party payers who pay my employer to pay me to do the work. And the money my employer pays me is very meaningful to me. That’s all the meaning I need from work.

    I pursue other paths to meaning in my “MY time” . . . my ” off the clock” time. I’m grateful to have a comfortable survival job which permits me to do that. The only thing I could be bitter about is the repetitive motion injuries sustained on the job. But those too are a risk of life for many. Would perma-disemployed homelessness be better?

    So if we have a thread about meaningful work, I hope we also have a thread about meaningful life outside of work.

  44. Nathanael

    The rents I really can’t avoid:
    (1) Internet connection bill. This is the *completely* unavoidable one.
    (2) Phone bill. (Maybe could be avoided using Internet.)
    (3) Water & sewer bill. (This goes to my local municipality so I don’t feel bad about it.)
    (4) Property tax. (This goes to my local municipality so I don’t feel bad about it.)
    (5) Electric & gas bill. Actually, I could avoid this, it’s just very hard to completely avoid it, and quite easy to reduce it to a low low level. I’ve already reduced this very low through insulation, LED lighting, etc. I could reduce it more with solar or geothermal.

    1. different clue

      How are these “rents”? Aren’t these fees or payments in return for services rendered?

      If you pay a gas bill and an electric bill, you get gas and electric in return for it.

      If you pay a phone bill, you get “phone” in return for it.

      Now if these service or supply selling institutions charge “more” than the buyer thinks it is “worth”, or use the money they collect to buy dominating power over society and politics, then that would be extortionate toll-taking and/or domination power-building. And it would make sense for millions of people to try reducing their use of and payment for these things in order to attrit and degrade the power of these institutions.

      Again, what is the meaning of the word “rent” here? If I have to pay for food because because the food-grower is not my slave and does not work for free, is that a “rent”?

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