What Is Radical Un-Jobbing?

“…a person who is radical is one who examines the roots of issues. And a radical solution to a problem is one that arises from that examination, addressing what we sometimes call the root cause, rather than the more superficial symptoms.”
 — Wendy Priesnitz, “On the Meaning of Radical

Listen to the land.

For over 20 years now, I’ve been working to help build a culture of radical alternatives to conventional employment.

Why would we need such alternatives, and why are they radical? Well, for starters, I believe that our culture is in the early stages of a systemic shift — we might even call it a recession that may never end — in which jobs as we know them are “going away,” and we, collectively, need to figure out how we are going to navigate this change. Jobs are already very scarce and are likely to become even more scarce as global financial and ecological crises continue apace.

I also believe that “job creation,” often touted as THE answer to widespread unemployment, has some fundamental flaws that are far too often overlooked. There is a lot of talk exhorting people to just GET A JOB — any job! — and be grateful for it, regardless of what it involves or how destructive the work may be. But while having a job within an extractive economy that is parasitic on our land base might provide money that helps us survive, it also costs us a great deal — not just financially (though that is definitely a factor) but ecologically, socially, spiritually, and psychologically. I have often asked myself: What is wrong with our model of work such that the costs of having a job are so often overlooked, minimized, or outright denied? And why is it that when this model is questioned, one of the first barriers we face is accusations that we are “just lazy”?

My research has led me to the inescapable conclusion that the entire model of having a job — in the sense of supporting ourselves solely by working for an employer in the wage economy — is ripe for reconsideration. As more and more of us are set adrift from having a job in the officially sanctioned formal economy, it behooves us to start thinking seriously about how we are going to provide for ourselves outside the bounds of conventional jobs. We need to form alliances within our local communities — radical un-jobbing networks, if you will — in order to reconnect with the land and develop alternative, interdependent ways of sustaining ourselves, as we are rapidly heading into a world where many of us who have grown accustomed to bringing home a paycheck may never find a “good” job again.

Must this be reason for despair? Not in my book. While I certainly don’t wish unemployment-related suffering upon anyone, I also see no reason to shame anyone who yearns for freedom from jobs and a life driven by the demands they make. In fact, I have been a principled job-avoider for much of my life for positive, spiritual, ecologically driven and life-affirming reasons. I prefer to think of myself as “job-free,” rather than unemployed. For much of my life I have done the vast majority of the work that supports me outside the confines of a 9-to-5 paid job, and I invite you to join me.

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RADICAL UN-JOBBING is a process of deeply, critically, and systematically rethinking the job culture, the money system, and the entire concept of conventional employment in which having a job means working for an employer in the wage economy.

RADICAL UN-JOBBERS are people from all walks of life who work together to envision, develop, and promote practical alternatives to the way of life in which people are expected to support themselves by selling their time to an employer for money.

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Radical un-jobbing is about much more than a lifestyle change in which you quit your job or retire early. It’s about much more than sustainable living or business opportunities outside the 9-to-5 grind. It can be approached in these ways (and many others), but it isn’t limited to a set of specific behaviors. It’s an ongoing process of commitment to change, and it usually starts with asking questions like “Why work? or “What is leisure?”

Lots of radical un-jobbers quit their jobs, start their own businesses, or otherwise leave behind the world of formal employment…but paradoxically, it’s also possible — and sometimes even preferable — to be engaged in radical un-jobbing while still holding a conventional job. At heart, radical un-jobbing is a perspective — a way of re-examining culturally normative assumptions and ideas about work, jobs, leisure, money, social justice, and other interrelated subjects. My specialty, as a thinker and writer, is helping you find ways to dig deeper, such as:

  • Questioning norms and fundamental assumptions about jobs and work
  • Exploring the dynamic interactions between the job culture and you as an individual
  • Understanding how your own beliefs and attitudes about work affect your life
  • Preparing for a future in which more and more of the work that supports our communities is done outside of the wage economy

Radical un-jobbing is also a kind of ecologically inspired conceptual framework, or a lens through which I have come to view the world. It is informed by, among other things, my North American middle-class academic upbringing, my age (late 40s), my personal and family job history, and my European (Swedish and German) ancestry. It’s also heavily informed by what I have learned from:

I make no claims to completeness, relevance of my ideas for your specific situation, or ideological purity of any kind. As always, I encourage readers to use their critical thinking skills and draw their own conclusions. I am being up-front about my worldview in detail because, like my feminist foremothers, I believe that:

1) There is no such thing as a completely objective or neutral point of view.

2) Being aware of and explicitly identifying one’s point of view is an important component of intellectual honesty and respect for one’s readers.

Radical un-jobbing is not a path for the faint of heart. There are no quick fixes here — no lists of 10 steps toward a job-free life. It’s not just about quitting your job or attaining “financial independence.” (I don’t believe in “financial independence” at all, actually, and I don’t believe that everyone can find a job they love.) I believe that the desire for freedom from the job culture has very deep structural, ecological, social, and psychological roots — much deeper, in fact, than most of us imagine when we first start asking “Why work?” and answering that question with “Because I need the money.”

If you set out to explore this path in earnest, and stick with it over time, it will call for fortitude, patience and courage. You may be taken into some deep places inside yourself and into the dark heart of our culture as you unravel, layer by layer, just how deep the conditioning of normative job culture goes, and just how thoroughly entrenched are the forces of the status quo. Quitting a job and figuring out how to get by without a salary can be just the beginning! Radical un-jobbing is a transformative, lengthy and challenging process; I would be doing my readers a disservice if I were to put forth false promises that make this sound easier than it actually is. The job culture is a complex system with many dimensions:

  • Psychological
  • Emotional
  • Socio-cultural
  • Spiritual
  • Physical
  • Financial
  • Practical
  • Ecological
  • Mental

Furthermore, there are tenacious social, cultural, political, and economic forces working against those of us who decide to walk the path of radical un-jobbing in a deep and committed way. Sometimes the magnitude of the changes necessary can feel overwhelming, and at those times it’s all one can do just to keep it together and maintain a basic level of awareness. This is part of the process, and not a reason to give up.

None of this is meant to scare you off or discourage you from taking steps toward quitting your job or working toward freedom from the job culture. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is my hope that an awareness of the hazards and demands of this quest will better equip you to deal with the inevitable ebb-and-flow process of leaving behind beliefs and habits that keep us stuck, and adopting healthier, more ecologically sound ways of life.

As someone who appreciates the mystical, the scholarly, and the creative in equal measure, I do my best to integrate all these dimensions into my work as a radical un-jobber. Here is the prayer I say, whenever I sit down to write:

May the words I write serve the greatest good of all who read them, and may they help us build a beautiful and thriving culture of joyful leisure, work, and sustenance within a context of community interdependence and deep ecological wisdom.

Accordingly, if I’ve done my work well, I hope that it will speak to the best in you — heart, mind, body and soul alike. I write not to provide facile answers, but to inspire principled resistance to the job culture on all fronts, to encourage deeper questioning of the status quo, and to support stronger, more resilient relationships and interdependent land-based community alliances.

Much as I enjoy writing about these topics, I do not want to position myself as a role model. I’ve spent a good deal of my own life experimenting with various ways to survive outside the confines of wage labor jobs, and although I live quite simply by North American middle-class standards, I have not succeeded. I’ve also come to believe that only partial withdrawal is possible for most people. I’m here to share ideas, experiences, and inspiration; that’s my role as a writer. Let’s build a culture of radical un-jobbing networks together, as interdependent communities, one day at a time.

My best advice to people who want to know how to survive without a job? Learn how to listen to the land, and let it guide you.


(Note: This essay is a slightly revised version of a reader favorite on my Rethinking the Job Culture blog.)

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