Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lighting a Local Economic Fire

Consider these trends:
1. There has been sustained, increased interest in community living the last 25 years
Since 1990, with notable spikes in 1990-95 and 2005-07, the Fellowship for Intentional Community has been tracking the volume of inquiries about community living and the number of new community starts. Interest is up and has remained so for a generation. While there are many factors that combine to make this happen, one in particular is affordability. People are worried about how to make their lives work on their own (or as nuclear families) and are increasingly interested in experimenting with the sharing characteristic of community, to create a better quality of life without having to chase as many dollars.

To be sure, what this looks like is all over the map. For some groups it's how to leverage assets to have access to an even better range of amenities by virtue of joint ownership (things like a swimming pool, hot tub, woodworking shop, exercise room full of barbells and equipment, or even a space to entertain 20 in one sitting. 

For others it's how to minimize their carbon footprint and pioneer models of high quality living on a shoestring budget (read low resource consumption).

For others still, it's about being able to age gracefully in place, without counting on your children or the government to provide a safety net.

2. Marketplace turbidity
It is much harder than ever to predict the health of the economy, which means uncertain job security, as well as uncertain retirement funds. Here are three sobering factors that contribute to this:

a) In the global economy, more and more jobs are being outsourced overseas, where wages are much lower. There is no reason to think that this won't continue, unless energy costs get high enough that overseas transportation of goods is prohibitively expensive. Given that it's considered political suicide to allow energy costs to spiral upward, don't look for this mitigating circumstance to save domestic jobs any time soon.

b) We are going through unprecedented automation of jobs as we enter the age of robotics. This is not just about spot welding on automobile assembly lines, robots are expected to soon make inroads in traditional low-paying service jobs such as flipping burgers at fast food restaurants. Fewer and fewer people can expect to find decent full-time employment, or perhaps employment of any kind.

c) In conditions where it's an employer's market (too many workers lusting after too few jobs) wages and benefits are driven down. I have a close friend who's a philosophy professor. Recently he got bumped off tenure track—not because his performance reviews were poor,  but because the university could get away with it. Now he's employed as adjunct faculty, where they pay him half as much for the same work and can avoid offering tenure. His future as a professor is murky.

3. Boomers are retiring
Social Security is running out of money, and it's scary contemplating if the government will be able to accommodate the bulge of Baby Boomers entering retirement age with fewer younger workers contributing to FICA. Can we count on that money being there when it's needed? As a Boomer myself, I'm questioning that.

 • • •
So what does this add up to? 

If we want to get ahead of the curve (rather than just take our chances on surviving being buffeted about by macro-instabilities) we need to be thinking about what we can do to take care of our own economic needs at the local level. We need to be thinking about how we can create fair exchanges that meet real needs and about which people feel good in the delivery.

I think this is going to mean:

o  Local resilience
We need to be engaging on this at the level of people we know, who understand that we are in this together. When economic exchanges are not faceless (such as buying a book through Amazon), it matters that both parties feel good about the exchange, because everyone depends on good relations and a solid reputation for repeat business. (Hint: it doesn't matter whether it's barter, working for wages, or offering a service—the principle remains the same.)

o  Value-based part-time work
People don't necessarily need full-time employment if commuting is minimized or eliminated, and barter substitutes for cash purchases. What people need is enough work, and work that they feel good about delivering—because its aligned with who they are, and what they want to be known for. Work like that is not so draining. People get out of bed in the morning looking forward to it.

o  A little help from our friends
We need to be thinking about how to help people start and succeed at local businesses—not just for their own economic viability, but to create jobs for non-entrepreneurs as well. Everywhere there are people who have learned to be successful in business and we need to harness that skill to help guide others in developing sound business plans, and to be savvy about managing money. We need to make the shift to think of additional local businesses as a strengthening of the local web, rather than as competition for limited local dollars. We either succeed together, or go down together.

In short, we need to be real communities.

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