I.  INTRODUCTION

 

In the following notes want explore, as a practical ideal, the notion of factories in the countryside run on part-time jobs.  By "in the countryside" I mean in areas out beyond the exurban fringe of our existing metropolitan areas.  And by "run on part-time jobs" I mean that most of the people working in these factories – those doing routine wage-work -- would be employed 18-to-24 hours per week.  

Now whether such factories would be profitable is, of course, an interesting question.  In many ways it is the most interesting question, since on the answer everything else must ultimately depend.  But for the moment at least what interests me more -- and what should interest my readers -- are not the factories themselves so much as the new kinds of towns that might develop around them, and the new lifestyle that would become possible for the men and women who reside in those towns.

The lifestyle itself is easy to imagine.  Being employed only part-time outside the home, ordinary working people will have a lot more free time at their disposal than they do nowadays: time which they could use to construct their own houses, cultivate small gardens, cook and eat at home, and care for their own children instead of placing them in daycare to be cared for by strangers.  In other words people could start doing a lot more things for themselves and each other – directly and with their own hands – which now they pay others to do for them.  You could call it a compromise -- or better yet, a trade-off -- between the age-old longing for the simple life and the economic imperatives of a modern industrial society. 

But whatever you choose to call it I would like to take a few moments to sketch what I think are some of its natural advantages: ways it would enable ordinary people to make a more efficient use of their limited time and resources to satisfy their needs and desires.  These are the “soft paths” to which my title refers.

ii.
First and most obvious of course are the advantages to the individual.  She (or he) will have much more personal freedom than has traditionally been the case along with an enlargement in the scope and variety of activities that compose a working day.  Instead of being bound to the daily routine of a nine-to-five job repeating the same set of actions week in and week out she will find herself spending half her working life as her own person, leading a far more varied and independent existence than is possible today: an existence much closer in spirit to the one in which we evolved as a species, and to which, I presume, we are adapted by nature. *

I’ve often wondered whether it was to something like this that scripture refers, where it is written:

“Thou hast left thy first love; remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen?”

And is it really just a coincidence that those areas of our modern economy which have most stubbornly resisted the techniques of mass-production or else have yielded to them with inferior results  – the building of our homes, the preparation of our food, and the care of our children -- are also the areas of activity that offer us the greatest intrinsic rewards: which afford us opportunities to satisfy our instincts for workmanship, to express ourselves with the works of our hands, and to exercise our manifold capacities for reciprocity and affection?

I do not know the answer to these questions.   But I do know that the new way of life I am proposing is one that will make the pursuit of happiness a far more agreeable enterprise than it is for most Americans nowadays, and one with better prospects of success.

iii.

Let me turn next to the family, which not only is oldest and most universal of all human institutions but also the one primarily responsible for the transmission of our culture and civilization.  What effects would this new lifestyle have on the family? 

To begin again with the obvious it is clear that parents would start spending a lot more time with their children and each other than is possible today, and that they would be doing something besides watching TV while plunked on the couch.  Home and hearth would become again what until recently they always have been: scenes of domestic activity where every family member has useful roles to play and real responsibilities to meet.  There certainly will be no shortage of quality time in the sense of opportunities for parents to interact with their children: to talk, joke, and play around with the as they share in the daily chores of life, or engage in more serious conversations whenever the occasion seems appropriate.  Thus would the human family to be restored not only as a functioning economic institution but in its age-old role of nurture and support.  

 iv.

Something similar can be predicted for the institution of marriage, which not only is the biological basis of the family but also the foundation of its stability. The bonds of matrimony will certainly grow stronger once the earnings from two part-time jobs together with the contributions of two adult sets of hands are required to support an independent household.  

Contrast this to the typical situation today where we find that both parents are employed full-time outside the home and can thus afford to live by themselves if they are so moved.  Small wonder so many marriages now end in divorce!  But under the terms of the new household economy I am proposing walking out of a marriage becomes a much less convenient option than it is now -- which means that fewer couples are likely to go through the traumas of divorce, with all this implies for the happiness and emotional security of their children, to say nothing of themselves.

v.

We should also consider the possibility of a return to a more traditional, three-generation form of the family -- not under one roof necessarily, but perhaps under two, at opposite ends of the garden.   The advantages are manifold.  For one thing grandparents, once they live close by, will be in a position to help look after their grandchildren – during the period they are still infants and toddlers especially -- on those occasions that inevitable arise when both parents need to be away from home at the same time.  And by the same token, later on in life when the grandparents themselves have grown old and are no longer able to live by themselves, their children and grandchildren will be in a position to help look after them.

As an alternative to daycare and nursing homes alone this old arrangement deserves our consideration.  For not only does it offer a more natural and humane way to deal with these age-old problems of care, but one that is infinitely more affordable as well, at least for most working-class families.

vi.

Let us now turn to the issue of retirement.  We have all read those stories in the newspaper about how Social Security is going to go broke and may not be there for the next generation.  The aging of the baby-boom generation, as we all know by now, means that the ratio of people who are drawing money out of the Social Security system is growing to fall in relation to the number of people who are paying money in, a trend that seems destined to continue.  What this portends, the experts keep telling us, is one of three things: either a reduction in Social Security benefits, a rise in the future age of retirement, or an increase in taxes on future workers’ wages.  None of these is an attractive alternatives politically speaking, to say the very least.

But under the arrangement I am proposing this dilemma largely disappears.  Once work and leisure are integrated into the fabric of everyday life,   people will no longer feel the same need to retire the do todayy.  Instead they can gravitate towards easier kinds of work as they grow older and towards an even shorter workweek: 12 hours behind a check-out counter, for example, instead of 18-to-24 hours on the assembly line. And when they eventually do reach a point in life when they are no longer able work at all, they will not have to rely on their monthly Social Security checks alone to meet all their material needs, as we have already seen.  This means that their monthly benefits could be lower without compromising the quality of their lives.  

And finally, at the very end of life, when death finally approaches as it inevitably does, instead of being carried off to a nursing home somewhere at enormous public expense the dying person can stay at home, where hospice services can be provided at a fraction of the cost, in which specially trained nurses would come to the house for an hour or two each day to assist the family with the physical and medical care of the patient.  How much better to die that way, at home in one’s bed, surrounded by the voices of loved ones, than all alone in a hospital room or in a warehouse of strangers?

vii.

Let us turn next to the local neighborhood community, which, after the family, is the second oldest of all human institution, corresponding as it does to the primitive band and to the ancient and medieval village.  What new sorts of neighborhoods might become possible, and how might they differ from the ones most of us grew up in?

One thing is for sure.  We are going to see many more adults up and about during the regular course of the day.  With half their working lives centered around the home grown-ups are bound to be round on a regular basis, tending their gardens, doing routine choirs around the house, or engaged in some other useful pursuit – whether something as simple as painting a porch swing or mending an appliance, or some- thing as complex as a major home improvement project.   But what- ever they might happen to be doing the point is that these new neighborhoods of the future will no longer be the “deserted villages” most of us know, in which adults typically get up in the morning, climb into their automobiles, and drive away to work until the end of the day.

For the children this will have certain obvious advantages.  They will be exposed to the adult world of work to a much greater extent than is possible in today’s society, where most real work is done away from home and out of sight of the children.  Being the naturally curious creatures they are, children in the neighborhood will inevitably be drawn into the world of work: at first by looking, then later by asking, and finally by helping -- and thus in the natural course of growing up will acquire a certain amount practical knowledge and a number useful skills, things which nowadays completely pass them by.  

Another obvious advantage is that the same adults who are out working in their yards will be well-positioned to keep a collective eye out on the children in the neighborhood as they run and play among the houses, warning them away from danger and keeping them out of mischief, thus providing a useful extension to the family itself.  Friendly faces in friendly places, it is easy to predict, will make the neighborhood a safer and more congenial place in which to work or play.

viii.

Nor should we overlook the many other possibilities for sharing.  With so many adults at home during the day it becomes a simple matter of convenience to go next door to borrow a cup of sugar or to ask for a helping hand from the neighbor down the street.  Visiting and casual hospitality are sure to be more common occurrences once one’s friends and neighbors begin to avail themselves of some of their new-found leisure.

Or consider such a simple thing as a neighborhood post office instead of individual mailboxes in front of each house.  Not only would this save the postal service a good deal of  time and expense but it would provide a convenient spot where neighbors are likely to run into one another, exchange gossip, and pass along any news that might be of local interest.  

Neighbors might even elect to go in together to purchase a small neighborhood tractor which that they could all share in the spring to turn over their gardens.  Or they might organize house-raising parties in the old Mid-Western barn-raising tradition: a useful as well as a very pleasant way to get through some of the earlier and heavier phases of construction.  And, of course, there is the possibility of picnics on the 4th of July, a sure way to create a sense of local feeling and neighborhood solidarity.

ix.

Let me now say a few words on the subject of neighborhood planning.  What would be the best way to arrange the houses in as neighborhood if we intend to take maximum advantage of the new possibilities for sharing?

Here I think we have something to learn from the Traditional Neighborhood Movement, as it is sometimes referred to, which is already underway in a number of places in the United States.  One opportunity, in particular, stands out: a chance to get away from the contemporary practice of arranging our houses along both sides of the street like so many beads on a string.  The alternative is to arrange them around a central open space -- a village green -- which would serve both as a neighborhood park and a playground for kids (see Figure 1).

 

 

Plan for a Hamlet from The Art of Building a Home, 1901.  This was the earliest suggestion of grouping various combinations of houses and a break in the building line.  It was intended to give a unified impression from the standpoint of a traditional village green, which was supposed to serve the same communal gathering purpose out-of-doors that the two story living room did for the family inside.  The thought was to draw people to a place so that favorable and positive things might begin to happen to them. 

As you can see from the figure a second habit we might get out of is that of placing our houses back from the street with large lawns in front.  Instead we could arrange our houses close to the street, facing the park, and give them front porches, as was commonly the practice in most towns in America before the age of the automobile.  This arrangement would make for easy line-of-sight communication between the house and the park, and between the porch and any pedestrians who might happen to be walking by on the sidewalk that runs in front of each house.

Of course if the houses are set forward like this it means that the gardens will have to be located behind, in the long back yards that would stretch from the rear of each house, with the grandparents' quarters being located at the far end of the garden, but accessible by a small alleyway that runs across the back of each lot.  The advantage of this arrangement is that it would define a space -- bounded by the larger house in front and the smaller one behind -- of relative peace and quiet: a place not open to the street, where a person could sit and meditate, or think, or sing the baby to sleep, and not be bothered (see Figure 2). 

 


"It has been computed by some Political Arithmetician, that if every Man and Woman would work four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 Hours might be Leisure and Pleasure. What occasions then so much Want and Misery?”                             

                                                       Benjamin Franklin