Taking a year off

by isaac black

The germ of the idea came when I realized how many books I need to read. It would be really nice to be able to read full time, I thought. Six days from today I will put in my notice at work and that will become my reality.

I have a cushy tech job with minimal expenses. Where most people my age might have made a down payment on a house, bought a nice car, or traveled across Europe, I have been saving for my exit. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, but I’ve had it for 4 1/2 years. With the end in sight I’m slumping across the finish line, scarcely able to muster the amount of energy required to keep my ass from getting fired before my stock options vest.

The plan is, by sticking to a budget, to live a year of my life beholden to no one. I will scrape together a little extra cash here and there, but day to day I will have no schedule and no obligations.

I realize what an enormous privilege this is, and I’ve included a small amount of money in my monthly budget to give away. But I’m careful to not lie to myself about who this is for: myself. I will have more time to involve myself in organizing efforts and I will educate myself more on history and political economy (Capital is on my steadily lengthening to-read list), but this is a selfish, decadent luxury I’m affording myself. I hope I emerge with something valuable to give to the cause of dismantling structural inequality. I hope I can establish myself as a writer. But these are ancillary goals.

I will blog periodically because I’m interested in what this will do to my routine, my sense of self, and my set of skills. I assume the like-minded will be interested as well. I predict, as more and more work becomes automated, that our society will either move toward income becoming separated from work (as in universal basic income, which I support) or toward even more wealth inequality, effectively thrusting the working class into peonage for the benefit of a few wealthy royals. If the former tack prevails, what will it mean for people to simply exist without the constant threat of poverty? I can’t answer that, but I can begin to answer it for me.

Despite my political convictions about wage labor, landing a secure, lucrative job helped me snap out of depression by giving me a sense of purpose, a disposable income, and the ability to learn in an environment where I felt needed. To be fair though, the depression came from a year-long search in a bad job market, as well as being part of a society where one’s status is linked to income and position. On top of that, I grew up Mormon, in a culture and religion in which rigid gender roles made my inability to make money feel like a serious failing to romantic prospects.

I haven’t told my parents yet. I once quit a job because the tedium of it was making it difficult to drag myself out of bed. I was living at home at the time, and the conversation with my dad was uncomfortable, to say the least. “You can’t just not work,” I remember him saying. Now, the circumstances are different, where I can just not work, using the money that I “earned” and saved. But to his mind, not liking a job was not a sufficient reason to freeload for a couple of months in his home. Not working a respectable 40 hours a week, like he had to do to support me and his three other children, is a moral failing in his eyes.

There seems to be a generational shift in ideals–as I and others of my generation have never had to worry about money in the way that those affected by the Great Depression (like my dad, in his 70s) have. We are moving up the hierarchy of needs, chasing self-actualization instead of just security. Except I have been poor, too. During the year plus that I was unemployed, with an English degree and about a year’s worth experience in community organizing, I did medical studies, temp work and substitute teaching to come up with enough cash to make rent and the minimum payment on my credit card, which I used for all my other expenses. I lived in a basement laundry room so I wouldn’t have to pay much in rent. Of course, even then–I could always get food, I had a car and a cell phone, and I had family half an hour away if I ever needed, god forbid, to move back in. I still had white, cishet, male privileges, a college education, and middle class institutional skills.

I’m very fortunate. But I’m tired. Part of that comes from feeling driven to spend my free time writing or making music. Self expression doesn’t seem to be something that I’ll grow out of, as I used to suppose, or that I can turn off. Also, as long as I can remember I’ve maintained a desperate hope that I can exit the office world by establishing an artistic career. The last thing I’ve ever wanted for myself is to watch a clock for the majority of my day.

To that point–while I’m sure my dad thinks my lack of desire to sit at a desk stems from laziness, half the time I’m at work I’m thinking about the cool things I could get done if I weren’t milking the clock. I’m excited for my time off, not for the TV shows that I’ll get to watch (though I do have a lot of movies to catch up on) but for the projects that I’ll get to work on. I want to fix up bikes, build guitar pedals, learn Spanish, write and try to get my writing published. I want to cook my own meals, work on my garden, go hiking and camping, volunteer at the local bicycle collective and get involved in activism again. Will all that add up to 40 hours each week? We’ll see, but I doubt it.

While I’m considering this upcoming year a huge gift I’m giving to myself, I am also running some risks. The lack of structure and urgency may trigger a slide into depression, especially now that winter is coming on. If I get hurt I could blow months’ worth of budgets on medical care; I will have only a catastrophe Obamacare health insurance plan. If I find myself in a serious relationship (doubtful, as I’m struggling to get over the breakup of my most recent one), my lack of income could complicate future plans. Future plans in general will become more complicated, as I may need to sell my car at the end of the year. And I’ll be out of money, a year behind the times in my field and with a gap in my resume as I look for work.

But a year is a long time. Plenty of time to worry about that stuff. In the meantime I get to plan my weeklong trip to Jackson and Glacier National Park. And after that, a trip to Moab. And after that, I’ll have all day to read.