Back to Back-to-the-Land?

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A cousin of mine, who happens to be an economist, is concerned about his daughter's job prospects. She's 24, fresh out of graduate school, smart as a whip, and can't find a job in her field. She hopes to teach English, but the best gig she's found so far is as a camp counselor, and that will soon end. She's looking into working abroad. That made me wonder: Would such capable young people, if shut out of the job market for long enough, take matters into their own hands and build their own alternative economies, as some of their parents did in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s?

As it happens, I had lunch this afternoon with a builder friend who is a veteran of that movement. He pointed out that the original back-to-the-landers were reacting against consumerism and alienation from nature; in a time of  perceived excess, they opted for a kind of voluntary poverty. Could a poverty of options in the mainstream economy turn another generation back to the land? My friend and I agreed that, if we were young again and faced with unemployment or a lousy job, an alternative path of subsistence farming, communal living, and cottage industry might look pretty attractive.

In know, I know: The communes imploded, everyone involved ended up moving back to town and getting jobs, and the whole thing became a TV sit-com joke. But I also know a lot of builders and architects whose career choices and professional sensibilities were profoundly influenced by their back-to-the-land experience. What we now call green building was incubated out there on the hippie fringe. If we are stuck for a long time in a slow-growing economy, I'll be surprised if we don't see smart, capable, underemployed young people exploring such alternative arrangements of living and working. Given the contributions of former back-the-landers, that might be one of the best possible responses to a bad situation. --B.D.S.



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