Thursday, December 03, 2009

Recession Diaries

Tales of Philly's young, educated and underemployed.

By Daniel Denvir

[Excerpted from the Philadelphia Weekly...]

Twenty- and 30-somethings are heading back to the basement in droves. According to a recent AFL-CIO report, about one in three workers under the age of 35 has been forced to move back in with their parents. Wall Street boosters and politicians may herald an economic recovery (despite the unemployment rate creeping past 10 percent or 17.5 percent if you include the underemployed and those who just gave up looking for work), but it’s more than clear that the so-called comeback has not trickled down to young people, who are more unemployed than at any time since the government started to keep track in 1948.
While people of color and the less educated are getting hit the hardest— 17.1 percent of black males are unemployed—things are quickly deteriorating for the college-educated work force. Experts say that one in five college graduates say they’re overqualified for their current jobs. It’s no surprise that I myself haven’t had the easiest time cobbling together a paycheck given that I’m somewhat blithely walking into a collapsing news industry. Many of my friends, however, young people with bachelors and graduate degrees and more reasonable goals, are struggling, too. Here in Philly, where the unemployment rate is just above the national average (11 percent in September), many of my peers—knocked way off their career paths—are joining countless others working in so-called survival jobs.

Daniel Denvir is a freelance writer independent journalist based in West Philly. He is a contributing writer at the Philadelphia Weekly and more can be found at
Read the article in its entirety at:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Redemptive Moments Without Disaster"

"We devote much of our lives to achieving certainty, safety, and comfort, but with them often comes ennui and a sense of meaninglessness; the meaning is in the struggle, or can be, and one of the complex questions for those who need not struggle for basic survival is how to engage passionately with goals and needs that keep such drive alive...Much in the marketplace urges us toward safety, comfort, and luxury--they can be bought--but purpose and meaning are less commidifiable phenomena, and a quest for them often sends seekers against the current of their society."

-Rebecca Solnit, from her latest book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Whittled Down Inspiration

I was delighted and honored to discover a really insightful post on my friend Libby Reinish's blog today. As you'll see below, she articulates her struggles (and recent breakthrough) with the dilemma that I have described here over the years, and graciously cites my old radio show and this project as an inspiration for her thoughts.

Libby was an early pioneer in the creation of Valley Free Radio before I joined the station's board of directors. She left the area to be the Prometheus Radio Project's full power-FM coordinator, guiding social justice organizations through the FCC bureaucracy to start their own radio stations. Now that I live 2 blocks down the street from Prometheus' office in West Philadelphia, Libby is Santa Fe, NM where she founded her own nonprofit, Santa Fe Community Gardens empowering local folks with the education and resources for growing their own food.

This self-described "community media activist turned urban homesteader" has also spent the last couple years, "[d]ocumenting my attempts at reducing the amount of trash I accumulate, the energy I waste, and the money I spend, while improving the food that I eat, honing some new skills, and learning to have fun without consuming so goddamn much," on her fantastic blog Whittled Down.

It's funny how inspiration works. After a few months of dormancy I have something to share with you all here, and an urgency to share more soon about my own experiences and observations. For now, here's Libby's...

-Matt Dineen
Passions and Survival

My friend Matt Dineen used to have a wonderful radio show on our local station, Valley Free Radio, called Passions and Survival. He still maintains a blog by the same name, which you should check out. His show explored what has been a central question in my life; how do we manage to follow our passions in life while managing to meet our needs for survival? I have struggled with this problem particularly since relocating to Santa Fe, where the job market was tight even before the recession and interesting organizations were hard to come by.

My initial solution was to separate passion and survival completely. I got a regular job so that I could make money to survive, and I endeavored to maintain my passions (which are outlined in detail on this blog) in my "spare time". As it turns out, this is a terrible plan. Being stuck in a chair in an office under the watchful eye of your boss, doing pointless work and getting treated like crap, is, as many of you are keenly aware, unbearable. It becomes more and more difficult to tend to your responsibilities at work because all you want to do is go home and plant things or play music or organize a gardening workshop or what have you.

My unhappiness at work was becoming so extreme and my desperation to escape so intense that I could barely stand it. What I did is probably a lot easier than for some people than it was for me. I quit. Without a plan (I really like plans). I had some savings that were supposed to go towards purchasing land, but I knew that if I didn't make this break now that before I knew it I would be a 30-year-old receptionist with a useless BA and no soul left in her body. I had no idea how much of this fund for my future would be exhausted as I held out for a job that meant something to me, but I was prepared to go the long haul.

As it turned out, I got lucky. Or the universe rewarded me for being brave. I found a wonderful new job that allows me to use my passions for history, media production, organizing, and even sustainable living. The position is part-time, and though that's a challenge financially, there are several benefits to working less than 40 hours a week. After a few months on the job, I can tell you that for me, running low on cash at the end of every pay period is much less stressful than feeling constantly drained at home and bored at work.

Working part time means that I always have enthusiasm and energy to bring to my job, because I don't feel overworked. When I need to put in extra hours to get something done, I don't think twice about it. Most days though, when 2 o'clock rolls around I breeze out of the office and find myself ready to get to work around the homestead by 3. Having more time and energy for projects at home means spending less money on stuff I can make for less, like bread, cheese, veggies, and household stuff like the bicycle wheel pot rack. Oh yeah, and there's more time for the nonprofit I run on the side. Are my savings growing faster than radishes, like they were when I worked 40 hours a week at a law firm? Hell no. Do I care? Yeah, it bugs me sometimes. But I think that I can find a way to save for my future without sacrificing my well-being in the present. With all this extra time on my hands, I just might be able to find ways to make a little extra cash without having to work for someone else. Now wouldn't that be nice.
Originally posted on Libby's blog Whittled Down which you can read here.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Solidarity in Slowmotion

By Charles Hale

Between sips of Miller High Life I glance down the length of the bar: there is a twenty-six year old PHD candidate in mathematics; the assistant to the dean of the graduate school in her early thirties; a girl with more tattoos than fingers; our 53 year old elder statesmen, and me a window cleaner.

It is Monday evening and after we finish this round of drinks at The Jubilee we will begin our weekly shuffleboard tournament. More than likely these same people will be in the same bar at least three more nights this week. None of us are married, only one of us has ever been, and none of us seem to feel any pressure to do so.

Outside observers may accuse us of living a prolonged college existence or wallowing in some kind of slacker lifestyle. Yet these people have serious work ethics, spending our energy on personal progress instead of professional goals. This is a choice we have made and continue to make despite sacrificing things like financial security and health insurance. Throughout this night and other nights the people that come by and say hello, are people who have, like I have, chosen this life of quiet autonomy and solidarity over doing what we have been told for a lifetime we ought to do.

To really understand how this life that I and so many around me here live is so different than what the American public thinks life ought to be, I only have to look at my brother. He graduated college a year after I did; during his sophomore year an older friend from church suggested he get a summer job with his company. My brother took him up on the offer and by the time he graduated they had offered him a professional position. He’s been promoted and transferred several times. He’s married to the girl he dated in college, they own a house, and in August they had their first child. Most of their college friends are married and have ‘real’ jobs. The ones that don’t are whispered about when they all get together. My brother has a good life and is happy.

His social network is small and doesn’t really grow. He probably has a couple of Bud Light’s in the fridge but he couldn’t tell you when he last had more than three in one night. His life is as normal to him as mine is to me. These are the choices he has made and most days he is pleased with them.

This essay is not about how much someone in this town can drink and on how many consecutive nights without being ostracized. This is not an essay about the ability to work below your qualification level without whispers of a life wasted. And this essay isn’t about me saying that my life is superior to someone else’s. There aren’t any bras being burned in front of the courthouse here, and no one is sticking flowers in the barrel of a gun, but this doesn’t mean the way people are living isn’t revolutionary. Slowly, significantly transformative.

Like the clothes I tend to wear and my general approach to life, this is a casual revolution. One without organization or manifesto and certainly without membership dues, or listservs. One’s position isn’t changed by the quality of their employment or any external factors. Actually there are no positions whatsoever. No one at the weekly shuffleboard tournament wants to live differently, and these lifestyle choices that have been made are made based on the only criteria that matter: their own pleasure, their own affiliation and affinity.

Some Mondays there are as few as six players in the tournament and some nights there are as many as 16, but the number of participants doesn’t much matter. Neither does winning, as I am often a loser, but hate to miss a week. This doesn’t mean that I’m a terrible shuffleboard player; if there is a beer or tequila shots on the line I can take out most anyone in the room. But the point of the shuffleboard tournament is a good time, is friendship, which always extends longer than the actual matches.

Winning doesn’t necessarily mean I advance to the next round of the tournament, winning is a condition of fulfilling the standards and expectations I place on myself. This is how the shuffleboard tournament and life in this town intersect. The people around here that I associate with are winning because they are fulfilling the standards and expectations they place on themselves. We have chosen to place personal progress above societal standards. We are living here; in the manner that we are because we have found what we are looking for. Of course there are some living here that are living lives nearly identical to mine because they haven’t found what they are looking for yet, and the difference in the two is merely in attitude.

There are people around here that leave, marry and have children, or get ‘real’ jobs and don’t get out as much. In the same breath we envy and pity them. The only standard on which we base our judgment of their decision is their contentment.

As a window cleaner my status falls somewhere between glorified housecleaner and unskilled construction worker. But it is the job I have chosen and the job I continue to show up for. I could wax nostalgic about the Zen qualities of the window cleaning profession, because they are there, but there are more significant reasons why I like my job. Almost everyday is different and I am able to see inside of people’s homes and lives without feeling like a stalker or voyeur. It is a job that allows me to be outside and away from a cubicle, and it is a job that I can leave at the job site. I could tell you that I take pride in clearing the view to the outside for my wealthy customers; that I hope giving them clean windows will change the way they view the world.

These things are more or less true, but they are not the reason I go to work everyday. I go because I see a pane of glass differently than anyone else in this town. I go because I’m good at it, because it is something I do as opposed to who I am. I go because I know what a worse job feels like; one that strangles the life out of you and replenishes you with nothing more than a meager paycheck. I go because it allows me to enjoy the more important things in life; like Monday evening shuffleboard tournaments.
This essay is anti-copyright but republished here by permission from the latest issue of Fifth Estate. More info at

Monday, April 27, 2009

Honest Living

This is from Isabell Moore about her project Honest Living which is asking some of the same questions as Passions and Survival. Please post and forward...

Hey Friends,

I've been working on a project called "Honest Living" throughout this semester, as my final project for school. Its about how people who care about social justice and radical social change figure out how to make a living. A lot of folks I know (myself included) struggle with what direction we want to go in our lives, and how to make a living within a system we don't agree with, in a way that is personally sustainable.

Please check out this new blog that I started and get involved in the conversation!

I'm hoping that through the blog, we'll be able to have some conversations about processes that help people figure out issues of vocation, and that I'll be able to share some of what I've been learning as I've done research for school.

Also, I want to learn more about your experiences with work, money and social change. Please visit my survey at:


Your pal,

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chasing Windmills (Revisited)

Recently, I have thought about an article I wrote 7 years ago. Not so much the article itself but larger issues it addressed. Inspired by a 1960's antiwar activist's charge of living one's life in a way that "does not make a mockery of one's values," I reflected on the prospects of continuing to lead a principled existence after college--in the compromising, shark-infested waters of the so-called "real world."

The article, first published in the student newspaper and then in Clamor, told the story of my interaction with an alumna of the college and her thesis which I discovered on the life of the legendary anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. I contacted her through the alumni association and soon learned that she had become a high powered, corporate lawyer working in the Manhattan office of one the nation's largest firms. This experience forced me to address the privileges of my idealism and negotiate a sense of self-righteousness with the complex implications of my own post-collegiate future.

After turning 28 last week, I now find myself in that future moment that I pontificated about as a student. About as far away from being a corporate lawyer as one could possibly imagine, I think that 21 year-old me would be proud of my resiliency in avoiding compromise or "selling out" over the past 7 years. But there's nothing glorifying about being in denial of student loan debt that still looms over me or being uninsured and unemployed. Or is there?

The title of my article was appropriated from the project about Emma Goldman: Chasing Windmills. Just as Goldman quixotically pursued her anarchist ideal after being deported from the US because of her incendiary beliefs, I pledged to continue to live in accordance with my politics.

What actually evoked the 2002 article was learning that someone I grew up with also moved to Philadelphia recently and reflecting on the vastly different paths that led us both to this city. He moved here to begin a career upon completion of a PhD. I moved here for love and to simply start over. In true 21st Century fashion, I only know this through the Internet, where we are "friends" on a popular social networking website. My old little league teammate has proudly documented his new life here through photographs of his upscale apartment and backyard patio along with brief life updates such as the recent gourmet meal he consumed at a ristorante in his neighborhood.

There might be a river that seperates where we live here but perhaps the social and economic barriers that divide us are more artificial than my initial reaction would indicate. Maybe not. We have both been invited to attend our 10 year high school reunion next month, to reunite with people that neither of us have seen since then; who, unlike us, have not left since graduation. I think about getting in touch with him and catching up. It would be interesting to see where our experiences and aspirations overlap and where they diverge. If nothing else, I could ask him for a ride back home for the reunion.

-Matt Dineen

Friday, March 27, 2009

Philadelphia Chronicles: Part One

I moved to Philadelphia on New Year's Eve with no safety net. Well, at least not economically. During the 3 months that I've lived here I have faced a number of challenges as far as following my passions while also managing to get by goes. Much of this has been related to the process of transitioning from one place to settling in somewhere new. From the bureaucratic nightmares of forwarding mail and opening a bank account to just figuring out how to frugally access resources in an unfamiliar city.

Before I moved to Philly I planned on structuring an independent work week in which I would get up every morning (at least Monday through Friday) and spend the days working on my own projects: Booking tours and doing publicity work with Aid & Abet, the activist booking agency I started with former Clamor editor Jen Angel, along with publishing my own writing. The idea was that if I worked on this stuff as if it were a full-time job then I could get paid enough to sustain myself, to at least be able to scrape by without an hourly wage job working for someone else.

The first challenge that arose involved my previous hourly wage job working for someone else, in Massachusetts. I was depending on my final paycheck being mailed to me in a timely fashion, as my former boss had promised, in order to get by during my first month in Philly. What actually transpired is a long frustrating story that, most significantly, involved that promise being broken/forgotten and me not having access to the money that I worked hard for until early February; over one month after the fact.

In addition to the immediate material problems that this situation posed, it affected me psychologically in terms of my ability to work on my own projects full-time. With no money in sight I was distracted from fulfilling this goal. The economic imperatives of survival trumped my motivation and desires. With basic needs like access to food becoming uncertain, I began to delve into the dark, disempowering world of job hunting. But because my heart was never in it, because I never intended to begin my experience here working for someone else, this process simultaneously impeded my own projects and only served to perpetuate my lack of income.

This brings up larger systemic challenges that I have been confronted with in this new city: The cultural and economic pressure to conform to the capitalist work ethic along with the dominant definitions of work and employment. Because our identities in the US are so shaped by our occupations, it's hard not to internalize a certain amount of shame around "unemployment." This is the case even as we struggle to redefine what work means by devoting endless hours to the things we are passionate about--often for little or no money. It can involve more risk than most folks are able to take though, as debts multiple or we become ostracized by family members and peers, among countless additional challenges. The system is designed to prevent many of us from even attempting to engage in new ways of living and working.

I continue to struggle with this especially amidst the economic crisis that seems to be profoundly affecting this city and the entire world. My work booking tours and writing still has not been able to provide me with enough money to live, but that continues to be the goal.

-Matt Dineen

Friday, March 20, 2009

Update and 'Downward Mobility' Story

Hello everybody. First of all, I just want to announce that I will be updating this "blog" more often now. In fact, my goal is to post something new every Friday...starting today! So make sure to check back again next week for the next installment. It will be a mix of: my personal reflections on a variety of issues related to this topic of surviving under capitalism while simultaneously struggling to actualize my passions, what I truly want to be doing with my life; transcribed interviews with other folks discussing their experiences with this dilemma; and other essays and conversations that I find relevant to this project.

I have been living in Philadelphia since the final day of 2008 and have a lot to share about my experience here. That will likely be the theme of next week's post. For now, I just want to share one short story about something that happened recently...

In early February, I went back to Massachusetts with a friend who also recently moved to Philly from there. On the ride back we were talking about a cafe in my neighborhood here where a lot of punks and activists hang out and she mentioned the one time that she had been. She overheard a frustrating conversation some folks were having that inspired her to write some grafitti in the bathroom (where chalk to write on the walls is provided) about "downward mobility."

When I got back I discovered, and appreciated, what she wrote. Then a couple weeks later, I came across an essay on the excellent website Enough, written by its co-founder Tyrone Boucher, that was inspired by my friend's grafitti! I got in touch with Tyrone, who apparently lives in the same neighborhood as me, and shared this connection. We are meeting up for coffee next week to discuss issues around wealth, privilege, and "the personal politics of resisting capitalism." I'm obsessed with the potential of ideas spreading, and how they are like seeds being planted. We hope that they grow into something bigger eventually, beyond just words on a screen or a bathroom wall...

-Matt Dineen

Monday, January 05, 2009

Final Episode of "Passions and Survival" on VFR

After nearly 3 years, Matt Dineen produced the final episode of Passions and Survival on Valley Free Radio WXOJ-LP in Northampton, MA on Monday December 29th. Since January 2006, the program explored the collective dilemma of following our passions while surviving and transforming capitalist society, mostly in conversation with amazing activists and artists in Western Mass. Listen to the recording here!