Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining work and money involves an examination of what’s important to us, how we educate ourselves, what sort of work we do, and what sort of world we want to live in.

“To find out what one really wants, and what it costs, and how to pay what it costs, is an important part of everyone’s life work. But it is not easy to find out what we like or want, when all our lives other people have been hard a work trying not just to make us do what they want, but to make us think that we want to do it.” ~John Holt, Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story

In those two sentences, from a book published in 1978 – around the time he coined the term “unschooling” – John Holt put his finger on a problem that people are feeling even more strongly today: How do we make enough money to live comfortably, how do we find work that pleases us, how do we arrange our lives to be able to afford to do that sort of work, and how can we ensure that our children won’t struggle with these questions? Those questions about redefining work and how they interrelate with the rest of life are also the basis for my life and my work.

For instance, in this 2010 article, I suggested that work is actually redefining itself. Then I looked at how kids who learn without attending school (“unschoolers”) are well prepared to thrive in a world that’s already quite different from the one in which their parents and grandparents came of age (and for which our school systems were designed). The very ideas of work and the value of money are changing in the face of social and economic upheaval, and ecological decline. Many unschoolers have quite a different – truly radical – outlook on those topics.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in his book Sacred Economics, “True wealth is sovereignty over your own time.” Control of their own time is something unschoolers develop, because their education has taught them to trust their own instincts about pursuing what is important to them. So it’s not surprising that an unschooling dad, Michael Fogler, borrowed from unschooling to coin the term “un-jobbing” and write a book about it in 1999 entitled Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook. He describes un-jobbing as “living the life you truly want to live without major, full-time employment and still making your ends meet.”

I’ve written about unjobbing (as I prefer to spell it) as well, since I have been doing it (while unschooling my daughters) since the mid-1970s (before either of those words was coined). One particular article prompted someone (who admitted that he dislikes his job) to comment to me that unjobbing seems to be a self-absorbed luxury. I pointed out to him that, in fact, a variety of motivations are at play for those who are trying to redefine work and income, most of them not about luxury at all:

  • Baby boomers are getting to retirement age and wanting to continue to work as a way of staying active and relevant.
  • Other people are still jobless due to the last recession or corporate downsizing, and are looking for creative ways to pay the rent.
  • Those with jobs find themselves working harder for less buying power.
  • Some people are convinced there is a need for a new type of economy and a move to things like green technologies, which are solutions for issues like climate change and resource scarcity.
  • Some people worry that more economic hard times are ahead and want to be prepared by developing greater self-reliance.
  • Still others are just plain burnt out and fed up, wondering if there’s more to life than the nine-to-five grind and are willing to trade some purchasing power and stress for a simpler, healthier, and more convivial lifestyle.
  • And then there are the parents who want to stay at home with their children or elderly parents.

Fogler identified the common ground among all these people who are redefining work when he wrote in Un-Jobbing that, “What we have going with our jobbing orientation is chronic national busy-ness (alias ‘business’), which has proven itself to be unhealthful for humans and our planetary home. We must look in another direction. We must put less emphasis on jobs and more on cooperation, simplicity, and serving one another. This may very well involve meaningful work, but that’s not the same as jobs.”

“Meaningful work” is the Buddhist path that says even the humblest job can have meaning; it’s also part of “Right Livelihood.” Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others … Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Parallax Press, 1998).

In a letter to the editor published in The Progressive, author and philosopher Wendell Berry took that idea a bit farther by addressing the issue of work’s quantity and quality. He said that we need to ask a variety of questions about work before we suggest people are doing too much of it: Questions like whether or not we chose our work or feel compelled to do it to earn money; about how much of our intelligence, skill, and pride is involved in our work; if we respect the result of our work; and what are the ecological and social costs of our work.

The problem my friend alluded to when he commented that unjobbing is a luxury is that although there is much important work to be done that has positive ecological and social benefits, there is often not enough willingness to pay for it. And expressing one’s deepest self, redefining work, or even worrying about the consequences of one’s work is difficult when struggling to pay the rent. That is where simple living and minimalism come in, along with developing some self-sufficiency skills so we can create or mend some of the things we cannot afford to purchase.

Economist Juliet Schor figures we will all be living that way at some point soon – in what she calls the Plenitude Economy. She wrote about it in her book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (entitled True Wealth in softcover). The Center for a New American Dream has summarized it in this video. Essentially, Schor describes her notion of a post-consumer society as redefining work and money. It is one in which people work fewer hours and pursue re-skilling, homesteading, and small-scale enterprises that can help reduce the overall size and impact of the consumer economy.

But what about those whose mental or physical health issues preclude working at any sort of job (let alone redefining work), and performing self-reliance skills or homesteading? That’s where a universal basic income comes in – an old idea that also has caught people’s imagination again, with a number of jurisdictions announcing plans to test the idea in the near future.

Whether you think all of this is a prudent reaction to confusing times or a utopian (naïve?) luxury, I see a compelling convergence of ideas in economics, education, sociology, and governance. And I think that redefining work, money, and education holds the germ of a solution for a happier, more convivial, self-reliant, better educated, restorative, “civil” civilization. At the very least, it’s hard to deny what British author and popularizer of Zen philosophy Alan Watts once wrote:

“If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing – which is stupid!”