Making a Living for Ourselves

US population by employment status: Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you assume most of the “not working” Americans not currently listed as officially “unemployed” would, if they had the opportunity, be working at least part-time, the real unemployment rate is 25-35%. Surveys I have published on this site in past suggest that the under-employment rate (people feeling that the work they are doing is significantly beneath what they are capable of doing) is well over 50%.

By now it should be pretty clear that our economic system is incapable of providing meaningful work for the majority of the population. Real unemployment rates (not the fabricated rates published by our governments) are in excess of 25%, and the number of people employed by companies with over 500 employees has dropped dramatically every year for the past 15 years. All growth in employment now comes from small entrepreneurial organizations. Every month in the US, 150,000 more people enter the labour force.

Yet there is no educational program of any size that teaches people how to start their own small, community-based sustainable enterprise, and entrepreneurial start-ups have a colossal failure rate. Most MBA and Commerce programs provide case study based programs that are aimed principally at teaching students how to be better middle-managers in (or consultants to) large corporations — yet those corporations are shedding jobs, not adding them, every year. Entrepreneurial programs offered by community colleges and community business development offices are generally focused on the least important parts of small business: legal structure, regulatory compliance and record-keeping (or on the ghastly process of seeking vultures who will bleed them dry with “venture capital”).

Partly in response to this need, I published my book Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work three years ago, to explain the six key attributes that differentiate Natural Enterprises from the mainstream of struggling entrepreneurs. The book asserts that these Natural Enterprises are what we need to create, by the millions, so that we can all make a living for ourselves, so we are no longer dependent on others to create jobs for us.

A book alone, however, is not enough. Until millions of Natural Enterprises exist as models that we can visit and learn from to create our own enterprises, we need extensive programs for online and in-community study and for young people to learn hands-on in secondary school. These programs need to be developed cooperatively with local Natural Enterprises in each community — because this learning needs to take place in the community, not in the classroom. These programs would equip both new entrants to the work world and the unemployed and underemployed, to sidestep the horrific, demeaning search for wage-slave corporate jobs, and instead create successful Natural Enterprises of their own, enterprises that meet real human needs in their communities.

The initiative for such programs will not come from educational institutions (too threatening to the education establishment, and not enough corporate subsidies to fund them), nor from governments (which have no clue about how to stimulate employment other than foolishly offering subsidies and tax breaks to big corporations to attract them to their area). And it certainly won’t come from the private sector (which doesn’t want any real competition, nor any reduction in the number of desperate applicants for the few jobs they need to fill).

If it comes, it will come from the same place that other viable, sustainable approaches to major social and economic problems (like the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate, and the end of the ruinous debt-dependent industrial “growth” economy) will come from: self-organized groups of informed citizens working in their local communities.

Natural Enterprises are self-organized and self-managed, egalitarian cooperative partnerships (collaboratives of potential suppliers, customers and workers) founded to co-develop and provide products and services that fill real, unmet human needs in their community, in a way that is socially responsible and environmentally and economically sustainable, and which allows each partner to do work that he or she is uniquely good at doing, loves doing and cares about deeply.

That probably doesn’t sound like any organization you know. Not surprising, since there are not many of them out there now. Most of us are afraid to even try making a living for ourselves (which is just how the corporatists want it), and most of what little is taught about how to start and operate a community-based enterprise is wrong (since the vast majority of existing small enterprises are badly structured and run, economically unsustainable and founded to sell products and services rather than to fill unmet human needs).

In my career advising entrepreneurs I found a few true Natural Enterprises, and learned of others from consultation with colleagues and extensive research. They are amazing places to see. People in these enterprises enjoy going to work every day, love what they do, choose their own hours and are beholden to no one. They are the opposite of the stereotype highly-stressed, overworked, ever-struggling grow-or-die entrepreneur.

Yet what they do is not extraordinary. We could all be doing it. The hardest part is learning some basic (and currently rare) skills and capacities, such as how to find partners, how to collaborate effectively in a non-hierarchical self-organized environment, how to do world-class market research, how to think critically and creatively, and how to iteratively imagine possibilities — to co-create and co-develop an offering with the people who need it, the people who can provide it, and the people who care about it, so that the financing and marketing are provided organically and virally by the community, and so that the risk of failure is reduced to almost zero.

Some Natural Enterprises I am aware of were established more by good fortune than intention: the right partners just happened to come together with the right attitude and right mix of complementary skills and capacities to succeed. Others came upon this success formula from practice — they were bright enough to learn quickly and inexpensively from their mistakes. What we need to do is create a “collaboratory” where we can practice creating Natural Enterprises until we are good enough at it to launch them and to help others learn and launch theirs. This collaboratory would not be an educational institution but rather an integral part of the community open to all, learning from each other using some basic Natural Enterprise frameworks and tools.

I’ve been asked by groups in several communities to run some one-day workshops to help potential entrepreneurs establish their own Natural Enterprises. I’m beginning to think that what they need beyond just than a few days of training is some facilitation to help each group create its own sustainable Natural Enterprise collaboratory so that they can put the frameworks and tools into practice in the context of their own community.

I’m also now envisioning co-developing a “Natural Enterprise Game” to help the members of the collaboratory practice. There is a group I’ve been in touch with that has developed a game called Co-opoly that might fit the bill.

So that makes three “ingredients” to enable a community’s citizens to learn to make a living for themselves: workshops offering hands-on training to learn the frameworks and tools for sustainable Natural Enterprises; facilitation of a critical mass of citizens in each community to create a Natural Enterprise collaboratory; and a Natural Enterprise game to let them safely practice Natural Enterprise formation and operation until they’re ready to launch them live in their community.

It’s an ambitious program, but one I’m going to start to “talk up” both at the workshops I’ve been invited to lead, and on this blog and other social media. I’d welcome your thoughts.

There are some who will wonder why, if I’m so convinced that our civilization is not going to survive the current century once we face the combined effects of the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate and the end of our industrial economy, I am willing to promote and undertake such an ambitious program.

I would answer that the skills and capacities that are needed to create successful Natural Enterprises are the very skills and capacities needed to adapt to and build resilience to face the terrible energy, ecological and economic crises I foresee for the decades ahead. And the citizens of the much smaller and simpler community-based society that emerges after civilization’s collapse will need to relearn how to make a living for themselves in any case. It’s not too early to start.

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9 Responses to Making a Living for Ourselves

  1. Steve says:

    Dave, this might be something for the Open World Village ( concept we are working on – a way of spreading the ideas gleaned from the first steps to set up sustainable villages in Sweden. each village would have an entrepreneur network that would benefit from the workshops. We finally produced an explanation in English … and have acquired offices and land on Majorca. Take a look at the Slideshare we presented at the recent Sustainability conference in Sweden Future Perfect.

  2. Eric says:

    You should check out the burgeoning hackerspaces movement.

  3. Bill Martin says:

    Clear and important ideas, Dave. Do you have any advice for the introvert who might develop a natural one-person approach to making a living? I know we are in community and affirm that, but I tend to work best as a writer/counselor/teacher. How do I maintain a respect for my introversion while learning how to build a viral living?

  4. Will says:

    Bill – I’m also an introvert but I teach online through a WordPress membership site, live webcam lessons and videos/PDFs for sale, affiliate products in the guitar lesson area. You might want to try that.

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  6. Melinda says:

    Oh yes Dave – Something like this can have a HUGE impact! Already have your book. To begin with, I would love to practice your principles in a non-threatening environment.

  7. Lee Bentley says:

    Your essay on making a living was very pertinent for our current situation. Twenty five years ago I was driven by desperation to start the sort of business you have described. By means of sweat, blood and tears I managed to build a business, build a home and raised a family. I have since passed ownership on to the employees with whom I worked for many years. I wish there was a way for me to further pass on what I learned in my quest for Right Livelihood. The skills are very evident in the third world, a willingness to let go of the pretensions of the middle class is very difficult for most people. Are there people who have had the basic business experience who could create a web based counseling group? Any ideas? Contact Dave, I’m up for it.

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