My 20th Century Experience of 21st Century Work
(c) 2013, Davd
This is not written mainly to tell a personal story—it’s written “for example”, since i obviously know my own experience better than that of others. Its main message is that today, becoming someone else’s employee is seldom a man’s best use of his talents and energy… while two generations ago, as summarized with general rather than personal facts in the “Life After Jobs” post, it often was. I was working then—50 years or two generations ago—as a student en-route to a well-paid fulltime job that fit my abilities and interests. If i were that age today, i doubt i could get the same fulltime jobs i enjoyed in 1966-88; a job of the same name wouldn’t be as good as they were; and with luck—maybe also some prayer and reflection—i would know better than to take the fulltime jobs most men of my ability and social origins can get today.
Specifically, 50 years ago, i was completing my Bachelor’s degree en-route to a Ph.D., and then to being Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and full Professor—which during the third quarter of the 20th
Century, were good jobs, well-paid by my standards as a local truck driver’s son1. During the last quarter of the 20th Century, those jobs lost the independence and choice-of-tasks which had made them more enjoyable than most other jobs that paid about the same.
In 1990, the terms of work changed for the worse in the specific workplace where i was: The Administration unilaterally stated that “faculty” could be required to teach evening classes, off-campus weekend classes, and summer classes, which were optional before. (Tradesmen got overtime rates—150% to double their normal pay—for evening and weekend work, in those days; and regular-school teachers were free to go where they liked when the children were on summer vacation.) Research, which was one of my special strengths and the most enjoyable part of the work for me, was less valued than when i was hired and promoted. I went to a psychiatrist for job-related stress, which turned out to be good luck, because it led to losing my job with a severance payment.2
Since 1990—since i was still in my forties—i have not had a “job”. I’ve worked, i’ve earned money, but i never had a regular employer. I was 47 years old when the severance terms were determined and i ceased to work for what i’ll call a run-of-the-mill university, not the worst and not the best, in the early spring of 1990. I have not held a job since then. Colleagues who wrote to me in the 1990s told me indirectly that i’d got out at the right time—the quality of work life got worse rather than better in that decade.
The severance payment was ruled to be income by the bureaucracy, and i received “EI” only briefly before choosing an alternative programme that paid me a poverty-line stipend while i started a small commercial herb garden. From 1991—when i had very little crop to sell—until 2005, i was “the herb man” who supplied several fancy restaurants and a few produce managers with culinary herbs and “garnish flowers”. For about eight of those years i supported my youngest child—provided food, clothing, and shelter—and for one i also supported his next older brother. Much of the food and shelter, was produced by my labour and some of theirs, gardening, building, fishing, foraging3, getting in firewood.
Our income, for a household of 2-3, was at or below the “poverty line”; but we ate well, dressed adequately if not fashionably, and had a 4-cylinder pickup truck (which logged more mileage for the garden than for our “pleasure”.) Living on Vancouver Island, we ate a lot of seafood, much of it foraged and a significant amount bought from the fishermen who caught it. Most important, my hours of work were more flexible than they had been as a professor, even before the imposition of evening and off-campus4 teaching assignments. Other than the day i drove to sell to several restaurants two hours from home, i could take time off-work when the boys stood to benefit; and on the sales driving day, one or both usually came with me and we enjoyed some ocean beach time when the selling was done.
I had a whole lot less dollar-income than my professor pay rate had been; but we lived well—and neither when i was a professor nor when i was a herb-gardener, did we ever eat money.
I do believe, as i wrote in the first of this series, that the hey-day of the job was from 1950-1975. In 1900, most Canadians, Americans, and Nordics were self-employed [as farmers, most often; but also as fishermen, loggers, mechanics, teamsters, blacksmiths, cleaners, …. and a few as professionals.] In the 1930s, jobs were scarce and not well paid. In 1940-45, most men who had jobs were soldiers or otherwise working for the war. In 2000, the “conventional wisdom” said that it took two working-class jobs to support a family (though at a level of spending and consumption well above “basic necessities”.)
Of my five sons, one has children; he is the one who is self-employed. A friend from B.C. sent me a beautiful photograph of his new sailboat, taken as he headed off on a weekend cruise through the islands of the northern Gulf of Georgia. He built that sailboat, and is self-employed as “Windjammer woodworking.” Two friends near here became unemployed when a major wood-products factory closed in Miramichi: One is now a sawyer, the other, a farmer—both self-employed. The famous ecoforester Merve Wilkinson (now deceased) was self-employed; as is Bob Eichenberger, author of the book L’Ecoforesterie. I don’t know the details of any of their incomes or finances; but indications are that all are5 living well—and that a significant part of their prosperity is direct subsistence.
I believe that a man’s work is a very important part of who he is—which makes a strong case for self-employment, on your own or probably even better, co-operatively with friends or kin. As i wrote before: If you take a “full time job” make sure that “job” is well fitted to your nature and interests—don’t go taking a job if you don’t love the work involved.
The history i’ve seen in my lifetime tells me that such jobs are increasingly scarce. The self-employed men i know show me that it’s more likely to turn out well, to identify a kind of work well fitted to your nature and interests, and take it up “on your own”—where “you” is a plural pronoun as well as a singular—than to “get a job” working for wages.
My income as a herb gardener was rather low, but my life satisfaction was rather high. My self-employed friends and kin are happier, i’d say significantly happier on average, than those who work for others.
1. There were trades jobs that paid better—some of us used to joke that a full Professor was well paid if he got 80% as much as the lead hand on a paper machine. Most trades jobs, it seemed to us, paid a little less than an Associate Professor with the same seniority, was paid. The main reason most of us were “university faculty” instead of tradesmen, was our interest in our fields of study. Some of us were also there because kinfolk wanted us to “go to university” rather than trade-school after Grade
2. The terms of the severance included not disclosing those terms; so even if i wanted to, i would not be permitted to state how much the severance payment was. (“Less than a year’s pay and more than
a week’s,” should be vague enough not to violate the prohibition.) My pension entitlement was a separate matter; it became “locked registered retirement savings” which i could not spend before retirement age.
3. Most of what we foraged was shellfish, but we also gathered some edible wild mushrooms, berries, and “fiddleheads”.
4. “Off campus” could mean a 3-6 hour drive each way to the location of the classroom, plus an overnight stay between two classes; and a single father should not spend the night that far from his children.
5. In Merve’s case, was …. bless him.