Flutterby™! : opting out

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opting out

2006-07-31 20:20:30.642496+00 by Dan Lyke 10 comments

Back in 2003 I linked to a story about a guy who went from 100k/year to minimum wage with the .com bust. Today John Robb had a link to a New York Times article about unemployed men:

Indeed, a larger share of working-age men are not working today than at almost any point in the last half-century, which raises the question of how they will get by as they age. They may be forced back to work after years of absence, they may fall into poverty, or they may be rescued by the government. This same trend is evident in other industrialized countries.

The article is disconnected, it conflates those who've opted out (albeit often at the expense of home equity...) because they can't get the more rewarding jobs they used to have with those who aren't looking because they can't get back on their feet after, say, a prison stint, but I think that as a culture one of the things we're going to have to deal with as the middle class shrinks are people who want skilled professional work, but are disappointed that pushing paper (or, hell, brooms) for the government is a better way to retirement.

This popped up on my radar right now because I've been pondering what I do if my current startup doesn't work out, and then I read Larry's comments about leaving his most recent job:

While I love what I do for a living and I enjoy the travel I don’t enjoy the type of travel for the length of time this past project put me through. My family life suffered, my social life suffered and my work suffered from it. What contributed even more to this depression was my realization that I was not being fully compensated for the incredible number of hours I was putting in and billing for.

Recesssions, and depressions, result when people don't think that they're getting anything meaningful out of their work. They stop buying things, businesses stop paying salaries, cycle deteriorates. As that NYT story points out, this is a global trend right now, fueled on by the real estate bubble which has made homeowners feel like they're rich on the backs of younger workers who'll be struggling to buy those homes against inflated values supporting the second mortgages that the current owners have out on them. And, as has already happened in Japan and is likely to happen given the current trends and attitudes of the administration of the U.S., the attempts to pull the country out of the malaise will involve lots of government spending on infrastructure projects that will cost more in maintenance than they'll bring in economic growth.

Making a few politically savvy contractors rich, bringing on a whole bunch of meanlingless unskilled jobs, but doing nothing for the enthusiasm for skilled work that leads to real growth.

Everybody's stuck on "passive income" and real estate rentals and similar schemes, and that's fine, but we can't all be hiring teenagers to do each other's laundry, at some point people actually have to be working hard and innovating, and have to feel like they're going to be rewarded for innovating.

Don't know what to do about it, historically these things end up getting solved when a big war sucks the nation into a state of national emergency and gives everyone a common sense of purpose, and I guess that's what'll happen this time. But it'd be kinda cool if it didn't go that way.

[ related topics: New Economy History Sociology Work, productivity and environment Bicycling Economics Real Estate ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 22:09:09.176228+00 by: ebradway

I'm one of those unemployed men who went from a six-figure salary (or close to it) during the dot-com hay-day to living out of a VW bus. The biggest issue I had was a general depression in that all of the work I had done prior to the dot-com-bomb had either been unplugged, deleted, or generally obsoleted. As of October 2001, none of the projects that I had spent more than a few hours on were still in use.

So I decided to take a different track... Knowing that the tech industry was never going to provide the stable base of income necessary for long-term financial stability... I've been going into debt and living off of beans and rice, returning to school to (eventually) land a covetted tenure-track faculty position. My goal is to be in a such a position by the time I'm 40. Given that retirement for university faculty usually takes about 30 years, I'll be at least 70 when I retire. However, I will be lucky, once I land such a job, if I make half the salary I did in 2001...

And looking around at housing prices makes my head spin... New condos and houses in Chattanooga were selling between $250K and $750K. Even at my dot-com-days salary, the $250K would be a big leap. Once I get on as faculty, I'll be lucky to afford a $150K mortgage (that'll be paid off the same time I retire!).

So that leads to the question: Where are these jobs that support these insanely high housing prices?

When we first came to Boulder, we spoke to a real estate agent about buying. She was pushing us to buy a $750K house with a "carriage house" or "mother-in-law" for us to live in while we rent out the big house. The rent would have to be about $4K/mo... Who rents a $4K/mo house? And what happens if we have to go a month or two with it vacant?!?

The condo we rented was one the market for $179K. We pay almost 1/2 in rent what the mortgage payment would be AND we don't have to pay the HOA fees!

While the economy in Boulder is strong, new jobs being created tend to be consideraly lower in pay and satisfaction. So, more people are being hired to wash the laundry of the small percentage who made it big - but it's harder to move up the scale and do things like buy a house...

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 23:21:39.494325+00 by: Dan Lyke

But "a home is your biggest investment", so it doesn't really matter if you eat peanut butter and crackers for the rest of your life, because the appreciation in your home will pay for your retirement. So by all means leverage yourself out the yin-yang with one of those fancy mortgages where your debt increases, because houses have been appreciating so fast that by the time your balloon payment comes due you can sell the house and make a profit...

Nope. Homes are expenses. Houses can be investments if you're either timing the market or renting them, but historically houses do little better than inflation, so if you're not either making a profit on the rent (ie: What Ziffle has laid out here and elsewhere) or willing to sell when the market is high (it ain't money in your pocket if you can't convert it to cash), they're an expense. There's a possibility that, indeed, we've reached some sort of cusp and people are all of a sudden willing to permanently pay a much higher percentage of their income towards housing, but I'm betting against it. Betting rather very heavily against it.

And we've seen what happens before when people play this game with housing, and it's the recession that Japan's been in for a decade and a half. They had a similar run-up during the '80s, when the bubble burst the government did all sorts of build-out of infrastructure to try to keep housing prices high, and now they've got a decade and change of people stuck with houses they can't sell, or defaulting on them, and a crumbling infrastructure that they can't afford to maintain.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 09:50:48.033179+00 by: meuon

"Homes are expensive" - Yep, sure are. and Realtors, Banks and "Society" thinks you should be buying MUCH more house than you need, why? Because they make more money the more house you buy and the deeper in debt you go. It's like many games, the only way to win is to be aggressive/intelligent about it, or don't play. Buy or build as little house as you can, and don't expect it to be your main nestegg, just part of a plan. I mean, where are you going to live when you retire? Sell the mansion, buy a townhouse, condo or nursing home expense? - Everyone else will be selling their mansion at about the same time, who's buying?

I'm thinking.. our paid-for little place works as both an investment, but also keeps our living expenses low enough to enjoy other things, and invest elsewhere (we do).

Working, homes, "opting out" and such are all choices. Dan and Eric, you are both much better than I am in many things technically, and you choose to work in scenerios where you work on things you like, in situations you like.. for less money. Me? I'm a mercenary at this point, my #1 question is: You got a budget for that? And factor in equations like liking who I work with, that I have a lot of latitude in my work schedule and conditions.. and tolerate working in Java, JavaScript and now Flash/ActionScript (while enjoying the LAMP work).

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 12:00:50.367342+00 by: warkitty

I'm just holding on by my fingernails hoping that the skill I'm learning now will serve me well as the economy crumbles...

because no one makes a dime until someone sells something, and sales IS a skill. It ain't easy, but its one that always is needed.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 13:42:16.411078+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

Yep, and sales is one of those skills that I'm learning way late. At least I think I'm learning it.

I wanted to ramble on this on the front page, but in my organizing for the bike ride this Saturday we've had two largely graphical email blasts go out, sent out by some of the more sales-oriented folks, and one long all text plea from me.

The rambling all text one got better response, including people saying "I'm so sorry that I can't help but I've already got reservations for my vacation...".

I've always thought I was bad at sales, but I think, although I need to do more of this, that I'm bad at selling things to people, I'm good at getting people to participate in a shared project.

That's an insight I need to learn how to better leverage.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 16:30:35.058034+00 by: warkitty

People don't like conventional sales. They feel manipulated and will naturally balk, so if your sales-minded folk are more traditional in approach they'll not get the response of a heartfelt and sincere plea for help.

Sincerity is key, if you can fake that you've got it made:-D

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 17:21:36.99001+00 by: Dan Lyke

Well, those guys are doing great at gaining riders (with 4 days to go we upped our estimates 25% last night, which is gonna make us real popular with the food vendors...), but riders want a pre-packaged experience (I come, I pay my money, I ride, I don't have to think at all about logistics and I get pampered), volunteers want to participate in a community (I'm a resident of one of the richest counties in the country being asked to do a service job that my high school kids would get paid $10/hr to do, so I'd better be able to network while I'm doing it).

So I think it's largely a matter of what I'm selling to whom, and I need to re-think my product ideas and career focus to re-orient in that direction.

This project has been stressful and draining, but it's been very good for me.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 17:25:12.811051+00 by: Larry Burton

This project has been stressful and draining, but it's been very good for me.

Stressful and draining I can take as long as overall I can see it being very good for me.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-01 23:20:20.879462+00 by: Shawn [edit history]

I've spent a good chunk of the last ten years or so trying to get, and stay, away from sales. While I'm reasonably good at it [sales], I find it anathema to the core of my being. Now, in the last few years, I've come to recognize that our society and culture is based largely on sales (you must sell yourself to get a job, sell your party to those you want to show up, sell your personality so others will listen to you, etc., etc.)

It may be good for me to learn to sell, but that realization just makes me depressed.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-02 12:47:44.684829+00 by: meuon [edit history]

To Dan in sales mode: Whatever you think you are worth and are charging: It's not enough.

You are very busy, booked for months ahead, but if there is real incentive, you might be able to reschedule some other clients to work a project in.

I've been telling 1-2 people a week I just don't have time to do __[Wiki] right and make them happy right now... and it's true.

A client of a client is currently HAPPILY paying $1500/mth to host their employee handbook online. What's special about that; they log and report and who's seen it and that the have seen every page and pass the very simple tests on the subject matter: Sexual harrassment, dress code, etc.. IBM's been working on making this work for that company for over a year.. They can't make it work.

My Theory: The people with real skills may have changed gears and directions a little, but they are still out there. But they are harder to find.