So there we were at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed. Janelle-the-Waitress had just (in an act of almost saintly patience, not to mention budgetary consciousness) refrained from pouring an entire pot of coffee over Marty Harbibi's balding noggin.
Marty, not known for tact, had been expounding and pontificating, not to mention making a horse's backside of himself and insulting half the human race, by declaring that all wage-slaves are suckers.
I thought Marty had been the last one on stage. But I came out of an outer-space brain spin to see everybody else at the table staring at me. Ahem. It seems that after watching Marty and Janelle, I might have been going on a bit myself about work being a good thing but jobs being a very bad thing.
"Uh," I said.
Nobody else said anything.
I blushed. "Was I thinking out loud?"
"Well, you might call it thinking," Marty snorted. "Somethin' about how inventin' the spinning ginny caused everybody to get tunnels in their carpets and OD on Prozac."
"I didn't ..."
"No, of course you didn't," clucked gentle Mrs. Nat, reaching out from her knitting to pat my hand. "It all made perfect sense to me, dear. Jobs. Nasty things, I always thought."
"I def'nitely wouldn't have one, m'self," Nat agreed. "Don't like workin'" (said the man who's been breaking horses and leading 100-mile cattle drives since he was a tot).
"But some of us," sniffed Janelle as she made the circuit of the table, pouring fresh vaguely coffeelike beverage into everyone's cups, "have to have jobs. AND work. It's jes' the way the world goes."
"So how do you change that, Claire?" big, bald Carty challenged me. "You're the 'let's DO something about it' gal."
"Um. Well ... I've been thinking about that. And I don't have a wrapped-up-in-pink-ribbons answer about how to make work a more integrated, organic part of our lives instead of it being some foreign thing we leave our families and communities to do. After all, nobody appointed me the Anti-job Czar."
"And never will," snapped Marty.
"And if they did I'd resign in a huff, just as soon as I abolished the position. I mean, good healthy change comes from the grassroots up and doesn't have to be written into laws or regulations. Corporations don't have to hire experts to think up new ways of doing work - in fact, they nearly always fail when they try. Real change comes from people like us, changing our own lives and inspiring other people. I don't have answers. But I have ideas ..."
"Uh oh. Here she goes again."
"No, actually. Here I don't go. Here we all go, if we want to. The first step is just for more and more people to take their work into their own hands. Take an honest, open-eyed look at what our jobs are really costing us - in fuel, clothes, day-care costs, taxes, lunches out, dinners we buy because we're too pooped to cook, extra car payments, the gift exchange down at the office. Lotta people might find that their jobs - especially the second job in one household - are actually costing them money when they look at all the associated spending."
"Lot of us Gen-X types are doing that and deciding to stay home," nodded Bob-the-Nerd. "You Boomers work to darned hard."
"Then Gen-Xers have more sense than we do."
"Musta been all those drugs you did in the 1960s. Addled your brain," Marty grumbled.
"I have enough good sense left to keep recommending the most useful book in the world," I countered. "Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. You want to know what your job-lifestyle's costing you? Read that."
"Then start looking around for work you'd rather do. Work that enables you to spend less money and enjoy it more. Maybe work that enables you to homeschool your kids and take them along with you. Work that doesn't stress you 48 hours a week."
"Some people like stress," Carty said. "Keeps 'em sharp."
"Okay, then let those people find stressful work they enjoy. But you know, there are stresses and there are stresses. There's the stress of meeting a deadline on the most exciting work of your life. And there's the stress of simply forcing your body to fit into a schedule that doesn't fit your body rhythms, day after day, year after year."
"What kind of work are you thinking people could do without jobs?"
"Jeez, I don't know," I shrugged. "Seems that's something everybody will find in himself. You might ..."
"Become an Avon lady," Mrs. Nat chirped.
"Learn computer repair. Or security." Bob offered. "Or networking and system admin. Lots of home networks and small business networks nowadays."
"Be a cook or a caterer," Mrs. Nat beamed, politely not looking down at her plate of Hog Trough unidentifiables.
"Sell things on eBay," Bob said. "Crafting. Flea-market vending. That's getting bigger all the time."
"Do freelance deliveries or give rides to old people."
"Oh, I know. Take up reflexology. There's a great one to do from home. Even better as people get older and conventional therapies get more expensive."
"Become a psychic. Do pet readings."
"Be a revival preacher," laughed Marty. "They make good money. Until they get caught."
"Give hot-air balloon rides."
Yep. Contract loggers, home knitters, dog-biscuit bakers, all sorts of people manage to work at least somewhat on their own terms and their own time.
"Yeah, but wait a minute. Wait a minute," Marty interrupted. "All that works for a lot of people, fine. But you're never going to have ... uh, waitresses going independent. Or for that matter, hospital orderlies. Air traffic controllers. Receptionists. Nobody flips burgers at McDonald's because they just love it so much ..."
"Okay," I said. "You've got a point. This is a big, big question and there's room for a lot of answers. So maybe some occupations lend themselves to jobs. Maybe in some future 'jobless' society, a minority of folks will still have jobs. Or maybe jobs will still be a starting point for people who don't yet have the experience or contacts or whatever to go out on their own. But even occupations that lend themselves to job-jobs could be done via contract ..."
"Sure," Carty snorted. "If the IRS hadn't spent the last 30 years trying to wipe out that sort of contract arrangements."
"I know. It's a problem. But change happens. And sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, a lot of employers are now starting to cut off health care plans or scale back their pension funds. One of the big things that's kept people in jobs is that they've been bound by these 'silver chains.' Benefits. Start taking away the chains and both people and big employers have more incentive to go for independent contracting - because they feel they don't have so much to lose. Yeah, the IRS is in the way now. But ... well, things do change." I paused a second, trying to see out there in the cloudy future.
"Here's another scenario. Say there's a big plague. An influenza pandemic. Or a total fuel shortage that makes the crisis of the 1970s look like a hiccup. People can't come to work. Or because of contagion, they shouldn't. With the Internet, you could have a change to home-based telecommuting overnight ... which could eventually lead to true independent contracting -- because working off-premises is one of the IRS's criteria for deciding who's an employee and who's not.
"Even right now," I went on (wondering if I was beginning to get carried away again), "There's no real reason in the whole world that computer programmers, just to pick an example, should have to go to an office. They can do nearly everything at home and by Internet. So. There's an area where individual agitation for change could lead to cultural change. Tired of seeing jobs go overseas? Point out to your company how much money they can save by contracting with you to work at home. They can sell their big office building, while you supply your own office and equipment.
"You see? Before the big change is ready to move the world - and even if the big change never comes -- there's still an endless number of ways people can make themselves more independent, more free, and less captive in the grind -- and help move the world in a saner direction." I sank back in my chair, needing to catch my breath.
"Learn massage Nat suggested, flexing his old aching shoulders."
"Design costumes for plays," said Mrs. Nat, dreamily remembering something glamorous from her youth.
"Get a seasonal job and loaf the rest of the year. Work in a park or on a dude ranch."
"Yard cleanup and hauling."
The ideas flew as levels in the coffee cups sank. Finally, everybody pretty much ran out of steam - before even mentioning my very favorite independent occupation.
"Don't forget, somebody could always work as a freelance writer," I added.
Marty snorted. "That's not real work. That's what every slacker on the Internet spends half his life doing. Yammerin' opinions. Twenty-thousand freelance writers at the bottom of the sea would be a good ..."
"Janelle," I called, "Could you please bring over that nice, new, full coffeepot?"