Thursday, December 2, 2010

Living Arrangements

Not long ago, I met with my cousin, whom I hadn't seen for a couple of years.  We talked for a bit, catching up on family news and so on.  Our conversation turned toward employment, and how it was getting to be increasingly difficult to find meaningful employment with a humanities degree, how many of his friends and classmates were in the same boat, and so on.  Likewise, there was a headline in the last couple of days about there being 100,000 applicants for 1000 flight attendant jobs, a soberingly dispropotional response.  And, waiting in the wings, is the increasing number of "99ers" -- people who have run out of unemployment benefits.

As the world slowly sinks into a new dark age, it is clear that the most useful metaphor is "the bubble." We've seen the technology bubble burst in 2002, the housing bubble burst in 2008, the dollar bubble probably bursting in the next several months.  Lost in the cracks is the "standard of living bubble."  While is alluded to from time to time by apocalyptic writers and in shows like Downsized, the impending end of the consumer economy (and all the associated service jobs) are going to cause some serious changes in the expectations of people, as well as how they map out their future existence. 

One response to this has been for people to move back home to live with parents, or perhaps siblings or other relatives, when they can't find work, the work doesn't pay enough to support an independent existence, and so on.  This is fine for the moment, but what becomes of these people when their parents and relatives themselves find that they are in financial trouble, that the home is being foreclosed on, or one of the many traditional forms of wealth drain strikes?

There are three forms of living arrangements which I expect will emerge over the course of the coming years.  The first of these is likely going to be a greatly increased servant class.  As middle class wealth drains away, there are going to be people who have social backgrounds of good standing, but little in the way of family or friendship ties, nor will they have the means to obtain good employment, if it can be found.  Even minimum wage jobs may face fierce competition.  As a result, I expect that people who still have some means will be looking at the glut of labor in the nation and realizing that there are quite a few people who would be willing to be domestic servants in return for room, board and a small stipend.  While this may seem like a return to a demanding and harsh existence, consider that the alternative (starving in the cold) is going to be worse. 

The second, I believe, will be the emergence of clans as a social, economic and political structure.  While the traditional clan has largely been organized family groupings and common ancestry, I think the near-future equivalent will involve people who have a common social positioning, shared viewpoint, and so on.  Additionally, not all members would necessarily be related, as shared interests would at some point lead to social bonds that could be recognized to be as strong as what biological relatives share, if not stronger.  This type of arrangement will likely grow out of the need to establish some sort of mutual defense or order in an area, as well as simply banding together to be part of a larger bargaining/social unit.  Given that law enforcement funding has been on the decline, this type of arrangement seems inevitable.  Some of the advantages are sharing resources, a stable form of leadership in an area, and a sense of community which might not otherwise occur.  Obviously, disadvantages would exist, too, especially for those who were on the outside of a clan arrangement and looking in.

Last, I think that communes could be expected to grow in number and importance to people as they find a need to share resources, living space, and so on.  While I think communes might mimic some characteristics of clan arrangements, I expect that they will have looser ideological ties and will not be as rigid in terms of who belongs, who doesn't, and will likely not exert much social, political or economic influence outside of a very small area.  Far from being places for organized slacking, such as during the 60s, they will fill an important role for people who need to find some means of cooperative living.  As an aside, while monasteries somewhat mimic communal existence, they tend to be highly ideologically united and marked by a lifestyle of discipline.

Obviously, while we would like to continue living the lives which post-World War Two society has provided for us, the troubling economic times are going to force us to consider other ways of living and doing things.  While I don't necessarily consider these arrangements to be ideal, I think they are definitely going to evolve and become recognizeable components of human society once again as we descend into the new Dark Ages.


  1. A very good post - might we expect that many more people will also start living in their automobiles (i.e., no apartment or home)? Short term (i.e., in the near future), for most people, the car is essential for living (commute to work, run errands, etc.), and it is possible to sleep in the car (depending upon the interior layout and size, some cars are much more comfortable than others). Cars a much less expensive than homes, and both will be depreciating assets in a deflationary environment. The "car as a home" philospophy also allow for maximum mobility to move to other areas of the country where the jobs exist at short notice (i.e., no lease or no need to sell a home).

    I think there is a business opportunity for someone to allow for people who live in there cars to have somewhere safe to park at night, and have access to showers/toilets/laundry - for a small fee.

  2. Some years ago, I was discussing an early draft of these concepts with a friend. At the time, he thought that mobility would be the best way to go, both to avoid trouble and find greener pastures. At the time, I thought that it was a bad idea to try being mobile. In retrospect, I think he made some good points, just as you do here.

    One consideration, too, is that as people find themselves to make payments on either homes or vehicles, while the home can be repossessed easily, the car is more mobile and less likely to be repo'ed. While it's not socially acceptable to duck out on financial obligations, it doesn't take much thinking to realize that as people grow more desperate, they're going to worry less about what "respectable" society thinks of what they do and more about personal survival.

    Most vehicles can pull at least a small trailer, which would probably be enough to hold a family's "essentials" (spare clothing, some cookware, camping equipment, etc), meaning that a more nomadic existence would be within the reach of most people. While I hadn't thought about the possibility before, I could foresee "caravan communes" cropping up, which would just be a commune on wheels, moving to where there seemed to be more opportunity, etc.

    Also, I had read a while back about people taking old buses and restoring them to be like RVs. A shuttle bus or something would also be a possibility -- I saw an ad not too long ago for a snack food delivery van that was being sold for around $2500. It needed a new engine, or some sort of engine repair. Even a replacement GM engine would only be maybe $1000 used, good enough for the occasional move around the country. One point is that gas is probably going to get scarcer as time goes on, but while society is still in transition, it will probably still be available.

  3. Hi LS, nice post. I was thinking about these things too, even before facing our own impending foreclosure. My wife and I would like to get an RV and live like "gypsies". but if the RV is out of our price range we already have an 11-year-old van, paid for. We have friends and family from coast to coast and we've already started asking if they would put up with us for a while as we roam. On the downside, maintenance and fuel could be problems, as you point out. Might have to look harder at biodiesel or ethanol production.

    We have also considered the domestic servant or caretaker role, maybe help an older or disabled friend or family member take care of a plcae that's become too much for them, especially if it's got a big garden or a few critters to care for.

    We also have discussed with our age cohorts (45-55ish) the likelihood of the bankruptcy of the Social Security fund simultaneous with the meltdown of our 401(k) funds. We jokingly refer to our hypothetical clan/commune as "Rainbow Geezers." And don't forget churches and militias as alternative social groupings as the darkness closes in. Keep up the good work and come visit me at

  4. Biodiesel and ethanol seem to both be viable ways to go. I anticipate that one travel scenario at some point may be the "cross country moon shot." Imagine brewing a batch or two of ethanol, enough to get you to greener pastures, but not enough to make cross country mobility a regular event. Probably the biggest issue is going to be powering a starter motor -- if a vehicle is taken care of, by winterizing it and storing the tires correctly, it will last a long time without rotting. Getting the amps to crank a start will be the biggest challenge. IIRC, there was an additive which could be put in gasoline to keep it from forming resins.

    The partnership with an older person is a possibility. The breakup of the multi-generational nuclear family is going to leave a lot of people out in the cold -- sure, Junior might be able to help out, if he wasn't stuck a thousand miles away across broken roads and lawless territory. Obviously, building trust is going to be an important factor and probably would rely a lot on word of mouth. One idea I read a while back for an "underground business" was to be a bodyguard for older people -- they're easy targets by themselves, but are less likely to be bothered if they have someone escorting them to the store or doctor.

    As you point out, the meltdown of retirement funds is going to worsen the problem. Unfortunately, as we shift from a high tech medical society to a lower tech one, the advanced medical care we have now is going to go away, lowering lifespans. This is also going to have to weigh on the minds of people as they get older (I'm not too far behind you, myself, and it's crossed my mind from time to time).

    Finally, I think that militia and church groups will probably roll into something similar to clans, except that ideology will initially be the glue. If you remember the church group from A World Made by Hand (New Faithers, I think), they were a combination of both things. Eventually, intermarriage will probably turn it into something similar to a clan in nature.

    Great comments on both this post and the one following it. The more we think the long-term future out, the less surprising it will be when it finally rolls around.