New Directions at LivingSmall

New Directions at LivingSmall

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what to do with LivingSmall. While the practical posts on cooking, gardening and chickens will, by no means be going away, the focus will be shifting a little bit.

There’s been a lot of discussion chez LivingSmall about the recession/depression, and how it’s not going away. Every morning, the newspapers are full of stories about “recovery” and no one seems to be discussing the fact that we can’t go back, we can’t have a recovery that is predicated on the same boom-and-bust cycles fueled by easy credit and that aren’t backed by anything real, in particular, by jobs that pay a living wage. It’s not just manufacturing jobs that are disappearing anymore. At Cisco, all of us in tech writing were watching our jobs go to India, or Ireland, or Israel, or anyplace else where people had decent English skills and lower wages (and usually government health care).

I’m also interested in the national conversation about what exactly constitutes work. I’ve wanted to freelance for ages, so I’m pretty excited about not having a “job” anymore. However, I find the national discussion about what constitutes work, and what constitutes a job very disturbing. You would think if we’re trying to reboot our economy, we’d want to create an environment that’s hospitible to small businesses and entrepreneurs, but in fact, we’ve done just the opposite. With the Democrats caving on health care reform, and leaving all of us who are self-employed or working for small businesses hung out to dry, we’re all at greater risk of medical bankruptcy. We can’t buy into unemployment insurance even if we wanted to, and without “employers” we pay 15% Social Security tax instead of the 7.5% one pays when working for an “employer.” All of which was enough to keep me out of the freelancer pool until I was forcibly thrown into it.

And so now what? The big corporations are steadily throwing more and more American workers overboard, credit is tightening, and no one is addressing the reality of what a real recovery might look like. There’s a big opportunity here. We could actually start to rebuild along more sustainable lines. And what intrigues me, and what we’re going to be exploring here some at LivingSmall is — what might that sustainable recovery look like? Is there a real chance for us to think about our lives and livelihoods in a more creative way? Can we create a discussion about changing our lifestyles that posits a world in which less stuff leads to more freedom for us all? Readers? What’s your experience been? How has the recession inspired you to make changes you’d maybe resisted, but that you’re finding fulfilling?

9 thoughts on “New Directions at LivingSmall

  1. I like it. I lived in Michigan before moving to Alaska, and I’ve been intrigued by the idea that hard-hit places like Michigan have the potential to be the leaders in sustainable recovery. Not just getting things back to “the way it used to be,” but something new, something like what Bill McKibben talks about in Deep Economy.

  2. Well I loved what I did, and I’ve managed to carve out a bit of a niche that allows me to continue to love what I do. As a victim of the current budget crisis in California, specifically that bit of red ink which has so drastically affected Education at all levels, my cozy little job at our local community college where I advised, assisted, supported, mentored and made many friends with students who were writing transfer application essays to 4-year universities, is long-gone. With experience from my years at Stanford, which included a stint on the Admissions Committee for their Graduate School of Business, and also running the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarship application process, I will (not very modestly) admit that I’m pretty good at what I’ve been doing. So, by means of conducting a couple of application essay workshops to get my name known by the current crop of students, and also by trolling the writing gigs on Craig’s List, I’ve gone out on my own, and ended up getting paid a bit more for a bit less of my time than I would have been making on the payroll anyway. Downside, is that I rarely meet any of my “clients” face-to-face now. Upside is that many of the ones I’ve worked with in the past are now coming back to find me for help on grad school application essays. HUGE downside is that I cringe at having to charge even a steeply discounted rate directly to students who, I firmly believe, should have access to this assistance as a part of basic student services. So, that’s the “livelihood” part of your answer, Charlotte. I’ll be back anon to chime in on the “lifestyle” segment 🙂

  3. I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the news out of Detroit — artists buying houses for almost nothing, fixing them up, building neighborhoods and gardens and even, in one case building a solar electric system to power a small neighborhood. People are opening businesses because it’s cheap to do so, and apparently there’s some redevelopment credit. It’s not that we lack creativity as a nation, it just seems that we’re so hobbled by this erroneous burning desire to “go back to how it was.”
    And Carroll — the dismantling of the once-great California public education system is a tragedy. I remember telling my students at Davis in the 90s, when fees were going up, to stop yelling at me and go home and ask their parents if they’d voted for Prop. 13. I think the implosion of California is going to be one of those historic train wrecks that we’ll all look back on and ask “how could we let that happen?”

  4. Year-over-year my little family’s combined income is down more than 65% (even though we’re at the same jobs doing the same work in more hours) so for most of 2009 we did not buy anything except food & gas & water & the like. Here’s my conclusion, at the end of an unsolicited buy-nothing year:

    * we bought a lot less
    * we did without
    * what we did buy was high quality, durable and really did make a difference in our lives (good cookware, for example)
    * we networked more — buying a new-to-him bike for my 7yo from a neighbor, for example

    We already made extensive use of public things, like concerts in the park & libraries, so that didn’t change. We did not make very much ourselves. I didn’t feel like I had the time. If our income continues at that level, however, I’m definitely learning to sew and also to refinish furniture! Actually I think I’ll learn to refinish our furniture anyway.

  5. Here’s another thought. I read somewhere that 100 years ago, the American household was a unit of production. Today it’s a unit of consumption. I keep trying to imagine what it would look like for a household to be a producer. I think it would have to be a household not of a nuclear family or a couple but of an extended family because of the amt of work involved; but beyond that, what does it mean? Must we all have chickens? Hunt or fish? Make our own clothes?

  6. OK, last comment. It seems to me there’s an opportunity for freelancers to band together & create an artificial company which would provide health care for its members, lower that social security #, offer a 401(k), etc. Something like a co-op, I guess — somewhere between a co-op and a small company.

    Gov’t & finance is a game; can’t change the rules, can only work around ’em…

    The job of the future? Accountant.

  7. So maybe it won’t exactly be bartering — but if households are “producers” — and not just of things, but of services — then maybe there’s a way for small networks of services to avoid what sounds exactly like “privatization” when certain students’ families can afford to pay for admission application counseling whereas others can’t.

  8. Here’s a link to the story about artists colonizing Detroit, and even building their own small solar systems. I think you’re right Chris, maybe a first step is for us to start bartering with one another — it’s long been a wintertime staple around here among the out-of-work construction guys. Chuck just bartered help with a floor for an old car (since his died).
    Detroit’s hard edge — and dirt-cheap real estate — attract artists from around the world

    From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20090313/LIFESTYLE/903130306/Detroit-s-hard-edge—-and-dirt-cheap-real-estate—-attract-artists-from-around-the-world#ixzz0dZL5YdSz

  9. Facebook is planning a data center in Prineville, OR. Prineville is in Crook County, which has 17% unemployment. It’s primarily a ranching community, used to be logging too but not anymore. The town & the county are GIDDY. They say it’ll bring 35 jobs.

    Interesting, in light of this discussion.

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