What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part Two

[This essay, written in 2000, was never published on whywork.org nor anywhere else.  It is not my best work, and I couldn’t figure out how to say what I actually wanted to say in it, so I set it aside and left it unattended for years.  However, over the years many people wrote to me to ask what else I had been planning to say after Part One, so I dug this up and am posting it as a follow-up to Part One.  Substantial revisions need to be made before I will consider it final.]

What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part Two
by D. JoAnne Swanson

In Part One of this essay, I discussed my belief that freedom from wage slavery begins in the mind and heart.  Re-thinking the nature of work, jobs, leisure, and the profit-at-all-costs economy are crucial tasks.  So many of us hunger for alternatives to the Puritan work ethic and the rat race, and I knew I wouldn’t get far envisioning such alternatives if I didn’t learn to decolonize my mind first.  But that’s just a start.  I live in a society in which income is tied to jobs and investments in the market economy, and I knew that no amount of visionary thinking would bring about a new job-free society in and of itself.  Even with a new attitude about work, I knew I needed to come up with creative, practical ways to achieve freedom from wage slavery.

It breaks my heart to see so many people, especially my friends and loved ones, spending their entire lives feeling trapped in mindless jobs, waiting for retirement, and never probing the deeper reasons for their dissatisfaction with work.  Wage slavery is a lousy way to live.  Period.  Despite our vision of a world where people’s basic needs are provided for so they don’t have to take jobs they don’t care about (or worse, jobs that destroy the environment or harm others) just to pay for food and shelter, all of us who yearn for deeper freedom must find ways of dealing with the fact that our culture doesn’t operate on a model like that.  The question “How can I set my life up so that I don’t have to have a job and be a wage slave for the rest of my life?” takes on new meaning.

It’s an excellent question – one I’ve devoted most of my life to investigating – and because everyone’s situation is different, it’s a question that everyone who aspires to freedom from wage slavery needs to answer in their own way.

In my own life, I found that some of my most deeply ingrained habits and unexamined patterns of thought presented the biggest obstacles to freedom from wage slavery.  It took me more than ten years of striving to make ends meet in the workaday world, and many long nights of poring over book after book, before I understood enough about the nature of work, employment, leisure, and my own psyche to feel ready to embark upon the path toward making wage slavery a thing of the past for me.

But even after I had begun the process of confronting my own limiting habits of thinking in earnest, I found that a whole new set of questions presented themselves.  Okay, I thought…so I don’t want to be a wage slave, and it’s okay to want that, even if others don’t approve.  (Even to get to that stage, I had to give myself permission to allow my countercultural desires room to speak out, rather than smothering them with a lot of guilt and taboos about laziness).  In an ideal world, nobody should have to be a wage slave.  How am I going to find a way to live job-free, and do my part toward making a world like that possible for others?  Alongside a continued commitment to new ways of thinking, I still have certain basic needs to consider…food, shelter, clothing and warmth.  How will I get those needs met, with or without a steady income from a job?  And how can I use whatever freedom I might find to work toward a world where we ALL have those needs met?  I’m not living in isolation, after all, and my choices are inextricably intertwined with those of others.  Nobody can do this alone – of that I am convinced.  In fact, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now if my loved ones hadn’t believed in me and supported me throughout every step of this process.

The next step, it seemed, would be to put together a viable plan.

But along the way, in the process of making a plan, I found there was even more internal work to do.  To get to the root of this desire to live a job-free life, I had to ask myself some difficult questions about motivation and willingness to radically change my life.  How far would I take this, really?  Was this truly my highest priority in life?  What was I willing to do to remain job-free?  What would I do if push came to shove?  Would I truly and honestly go to a soup kitchen to eat, every day if necessary, in order to avoid the nine-to-five grind?  If I couldn’t pay rent or housing costs any longer, how long would I be willing to crash on a friend’s couch, live in my parents’ spare bedroom, or dumpster dive for food?  What sacrifices would I make, and where was I unwilling to compromise unless forced?

I asked myself questions like the ones Bradford Angier poses in his book One Acre & Security:

Many a modern worker, tied to a wage or salary and penned in the city or seam-bursting suburb by the daily grind whereby he ekes out bare support for himself and his family, has been awaiting the opportunity to escape to the uncrowded places where he can take charge of his own life and live it in a happy, decent, and invigorating way.

But can he cope with country life?  Can he subsist off the land?  Is he still strong enough to strike off on his own?  Can he put up his own house?  Can he feed everyone the year round from the family garden?  How can he earn extra money regularly?  These are among the thousand questions that beset every refugee from the rat race in his search for the good life.”  (p. 11)

My heart sank when I read that.  Even though I had frugal habits – for example, I shopped mostly at thrift stores, had no kids or pets, bartered haircuts for web design work, had no expensive habits like drinking/smoking/gambling, and so on – I had to admit that at the end of the day, I was a whitebread urban middle-class softie, and I had a long way to go if I really wanted to work toward self-sufficiency outside the world of wage jobs.  Would I have to live a rural life?  Housing expenses might be cheaper that way…but I knew little to nothing about cooking, preserving food, off-grid sources of energy, gardening, or anything else related to rural life.  So I answered most of Bradford Angier’s questions with a discouraging “probably not,” and “I seriously doubt it.”.

Hmmm, I thought, if I’m unprepared to live the life of a rural homesteader to provide for my needs, then what else could I do to reduce my expenses and pave the way for the job-free life?  I could:

  • Couch-surf indefinitely, and offer my hosts help with chores or other needs
  • Join a squatters’ group
  • Buy a van, RV or camper, find a more-or-less-permanent campsite, and live in it
  • Find a property caretaking arrangement – room and board in exchange for landscaping, yardwork, painting, electrical work, or other odd jobs
  • Take on domestic or nanny work in exchange for room and board
  • Keep my income under the taxable amount, so as to legally pay no taxes
  • Find other ways to have a rent-free and mortgage-free home (e.g., offer to help or pair up with someone who already owned a house and land, and had room for another person)

I wanted to live a much simpler life – that much was a given.  I didn’t want to remain stuck in the rat race.  But here’s the rub: I also wanted a good measure of leisure time.  I didn’t want to trade a job-centered city life for a rural homesteading life in which I’d have to work just as hard, perhaps even harder, while also trying to give myself a sudden crash course in how to provide for my most basic needs from the land due to my lack of homesteading skills.

In addition to books like Charles Long’s How to Survive Without a Salary, I read some of the writings of folks from similar backgrounds who’d left their city ways behind and taken up rural life, and I found myself intrigued by the possibility that some of the things that seemed unremarkable, routine, and ordinary under city wage slavery conditions – things I took for granted as a lifelong city-dweller – could become deeply savored luxuries under conditions of forging a homesteading life.  Perhaps, I thought, the sense of gratitude this would engender might be worth the extra work of a rural life?

Or, perhaps, I’d have to join a group of some kind, and find others who wanted to go this route.  Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to swing this alone, no matter how much I wanted to.

What I learned, if anything, was that there would be no quick-fix solutions, no matter which way I chose to go.  If I wanted to be truly free from the wage slave life, it would be a lengthy and psychologically challenging process.  It might even be the challenge of a lifetime.

(Copyright D. JoAnne Swanson, 2000. All rights reserved.)