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10 Non-Jobs: Career Alternatives in a Broken Economy

Peter Z. Scheer
Managing Editor
Peter Scheer grew up in the newspaper business, spending family vacations with his mother at newspaper editors' conferences, enjoying daycare in editorial departments and begrudgingly reviewing his father's…
Peter Z. Scheer

The economy is getting better. Didn’t you notice? We’re in a “technical recovery,” which is economist jargon for “screw you.”

About 25 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed or have simply given up looking for a crappy job. Millions more — the lucky ones — are unhappy and underpaid. More than 6 million Americans have not worked in 27 weeks or more.

With a lost generation graduating into this jobless economy, we’re going to have to come up with some creative ideas for staying fed and housed without a paycheck. Here are 10 survival schemes, ranging from adventurous to asinine. Hey, beggars can’t be choosers — and we’ll all be begging soon enough.

(One rule: no freebies. Internships may be good for résumé building, but unless they come with three squares and a cot to sleep on, they don’t qualify.)

Go Back to School

Now would be a great time to get that master’s in sustainability — especially if you qualify for student loans to cover the saltines and ramen you’ll be eating for the next couple of years.

You don’t need to get a full-blown postgraduate degree to get loans, either. Try picking up a cheaper certificate or taking classes. I have a friend who lives off of the loans he got for a distance learning animation mentorship, whatever that is. The debt he picked up is scary, but so is homelessness.

Join the Peace Corps

In exchange for 27 months of your life, the Peace Corps will fly you to an exotic land and pay a stipend comparable to what the locals live off — in other words, just barely enough to keep you alive. When you return home (hopefully to a friendlier job market), the Corps will provide $7,425 in “transition funds.” Other advantages include free language training, possible student loan deferment or cancellation, and “affordable” health care. On the downside, you could end up as a glorified sanitation worker in the Kyrgyz Republic. Adventure!

Teach Abroad (or For America)

As long as we’re globetrotting, why not make a little money while we’re at it? According to “Good Morning, Vietnam,” teaching English is a rewarding and oddly comical experience. It also pays (unless you’re volunteering with those Peace Corps hippies).

There’s another way to go: Some people hop around the planet from post to post, teaching the children of diplomats and admirals at schools that specialize in American education.

Either way, the cost of living in foreign countries can be significantly less than it is in the United States.

Not a fan of the Travel Channel? Teach For America is looking for idealistic young people and aspiring lawyers to go to work at schools right here in the States. Like all teachers, the work pays (not well) and, as a bonus, you get to help raise children while politicians and business leaders talk about what a terrible job you’re doing.

Occupy Someplace

From Liberty Square in New York to City Hall in Los Angeles, urban camping is all the rage. Bring a tent and some signs. Donors will provide food and whatever else they can. It helps if you’re in a city like Los Angeles that supplies restroom facilities, trash bins and a sympathetic local government. No rent, free food and good company — who says the American dream is dead?

Start a Business

It’s popular in politics to point out that small businesses create jobs, but what if nobody’s hiring? Why not start a business of your own? Getting a loan from anybody for anything is difficult these days, but it can’t hurt to try. The Small Business Administration has a super-fun website that gives IRS forms a run for their money. Bless the bureaucrats who decided “7(a)” and “CDC/504” would be good names for loan programs. That’s not at all confusing or opaque. Anyway, dream big. You might just have the next Godfather’s Pizza sitting in your brain. Actually, half of all small businesses fail within five years, but hey, five years from now Banana Republic might be hiring again.

Then again, why deal with all the fuss of a business when you can just create, scavenge and sell on Craigslist, eBay, Amazon, iTunes and the like? A friend picked up a stack of L. Ron Hubbard books on tape that had been donated to would-be Scientologists. “You’re an L. Ron Hubbard fan?” I asked, incredulous. “What? No,” he explained. “eBay.” Speaking of L. Ron Hubbard …

Join a Cult — or a Monastery

Yes, there are still monks, not to mention nuns, and they take applications. There’s a downside for fans of sex and worldly possessions, but who even has worldly possessions anymore?

Don’t believe in God? Fake it until the jobs come back.

Failing that, there’s probably a creepy collective out there willing to feed worshipers of His Holiness John Doe. Just don’t drink the Kool-Aid — seriously.

Enlist

Congratulations! You just won a free trip to Afghanistan (return flight not guaranteed). Try not to bomb anybody.

The military has long understood the power of economic suffering to drive recruitment, hence the college tuition, signing bonuses and free health care. But with troops withdrawing from Iraq and the Pentagon facing the threat of budget cuts, it’s not quite the meat buffet it was under George W. Bush. For the first time in years, the Marines have a waiting list.Get a Grant

Foundations give away ridiculous amounts of money every year to fund projects that are generally safe and wholesome. Think of such a project and start applying.

Or look for something more practical. Example: A journalism fund is offering $5,000 to independent journalists. That’s not enough to pay the mortgage, but it’s real money for good work. Just remember to maximize traffic by writing your stories in the format of numbered lists.

Go to Prison

Go to jail, directly to jail. Do not pass go, do not take this seriously. Crime doesn’t pay. Then again, California spends $49,190 per prisoner per year. That doesn’t make up for all of the overcrowding, rape and guard beatings, but it’s room and board nonetheless. Just remember to shiv someone on the first day so they know you’re not a bitch.

Try, Try, Try to Survive on What’s Left of Public Benefits and Credit Cards

This is both a terrible idea and, I’m assuming, what a lot of people are doing.

Most states have whittled their poverty programs down to almost nothing. Anyone applying for disability, welfare or food stamps should remember not to take no for an answer. In Los Angeles, Public Counsel provides free representation to make sure applicants get their full benefits — they are often otherwise denied for bogus reasons.

President Obama won an extension of unemployment benefits by agreeing to also extend the Bush tax cuts. He has since asked Congress to continue payments for an additional year, but Congress is stalling and some 2 million people are set to lose their unemployment checks come January.

Food banks are hard-pressed, but they’re doing the best they can.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid recipients face constant threat from opportunistic lawmakers.

With all this going on, one would think of those devastating debt statistics and assume people are putting what they can on the card, but actually credit card use is reportedly in decline. The CARD act brought restrictions the banks don’t like and they’re less eager to spread the plastic than they were before the crash. Consumers, meanwhile, are starting to pay more with cash, having already experienced the tonnage of human misery dropped by that last debt bubble bursting.

***

There you have it. Ten ideas for getting by. Feel free to mix and match. You could always go back to school and then join the Peace Corps to work off that debt, or occupy Wall Street until the man arrests you and takes responsibility for your food needs.

Most of these ideas won’t work, and the opportunities above that aren’t completely stupid are probably hard to get. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Peace Corps and Teach For America are overwhelmed with applications right now. Just don’t give up. And if you have any better ideas, we need to hear them. Tell us in the comments below how you’re getting by.

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