When my wife and I learned seven years ago that we were moving to Ohio for my job, we looked at each other and just knew. We’d never talked about it, we’d never done it before, we didn’t know what we were doing, but we were sure: we were moving to the country.
It was an ambitious decision, one that increasing numbers of young Catholic families are making. When we moved into our 19th-century farmhouse, I barely knew how to change a lock, and I certainly knew nothing about raising plants and animals or fixing up old houses.
In his 2020 book Durable Trades, Rory Groves captures many of the economic trends that led us to make this decision. He challenges us to rethink the way we approach careers and the economy. Reviewing American history, Groves identifies twenty trades, like farming, midwifery, carpentry, brewing, and butchering, that have offered steady and family-friendly employment to family breadwinners for centuries despite wars, natural disasters, social upheaval, and even the Industrial Revolution. Rating each trade in five categories—historical stability, resilience, family-centeredness, income, and ease of entry—he recommends that we eschew both the wearisome and tenuous jobs of the service economy, as well as the lucrative but effervescent STEM jobs of the upcoming knowledge economy.
These service and STEM careers promise opportunities for personal fulfillment and economic prosperity, but tend to subject us to an array of Catch-22s that ultimately take us away from our families and communities, and prevent us from accruing any real wealth. Instead, we should recover the idea that careers in the primary and secondary sectors (which produce raw materials and durable goods, respectively) can be just as fulfilling as any other. We should also secure careers that will see us through from entry to retirement while supporting, rather than opposing, the relational and economic development of our families and communities.
“Follow Your Dreams”
In a service economy, production focuses on services rather than raw materials or durable goods. And, as Groves observes, service economy jobs are tiered by specialization. The most widely available jobs are those requiring little or no specialized skills: cashiers, waiters, call center operators, and the like. These jobs tend to be the most monotonous and the lowest paying: they “manufacture” the same services day in and day out almost like an assembly line manufactures cars.
The most competitive jobs are those requiring an ever-increasing degree of specialized skills: health care, higher education, finance, and the law. These jobs still produce services rather than raw materials or durable goods—you can’t point to health, knowledge, securities, and legal advice the way you can point to a ton of steel or a television—but unlike the lower-tier jobs, they provide regular opportunities for creativity and tend to be higher paying.
For more than a generation now, young people have been encouraged by parents, teachers, authors, and mentors, to “follow their dreams,” to avoid the monotony of manufacturing—whether of durable goods or of services—and to aim for those upper-tier service careers that draw on their creativity and thereby offer opportunities for self-fulfillment. But Groves points out that those careers come with a catch, or four, to be precise.
The first Catch-22 is the limits placed on skill set. When I was living in the New York area and commuting to Manhattan, many of my friends and I were stuck in the same predicament. We had been thrust headlong into a service economy with such a limited set of skills that, in most cases, we could only qualify for a small handful of highly specialized jobs—jobs that, as Groves observes, had been created ex nihilo in the last few decades, and were just as likely to return whence they came: jobs like middle management, where positions evaporate with every pivot and restructuring; software engineering, where each new platform or coding language makes those who specialize in the last one obsolete; or telecommunication and media, where paradigm shifts like the move from broadcast to streaming make yesterday’s thriving corporations into tomorrow’s economic ghost towns.
How did we arrive here? As mentioned above, “follow your dreams” was the refrain of our upbringing. On the assumption that dreams could only be fulfilled by the exercise of our personal creativity, and that therefore only upper-tier service careers were the worthy object of dreams, this injunction carefully prepared us for hyper-specialized careers, which promised a comfortable income with which to raise a family. But it turned out that the net effect of our specialized educations was not earning higher wages than our forebears who farmed the land, mined the hills, and manufactured goods more durable than anything you can buy on Amazon today. Quite the opposite. It was to enable a few companies to hoard our labor by reducing its portability. Retraining with a second set of highly specialized skills isn’t exactly an option when you’re still paying off the $50,000 it cost you to get the first set. And it’s hard to negotiate learning new skills with your boss when your employer sees your narrow skill set as leverage for keeping you around.
The second Catch-22 is income level. It turns out that—a lifetime of promises notwithstanding—our tenuous and specialized jobs were actually not any better than the jobs of the previous generation in terms of real purchasing power. Purchasing power peaked in the early 1970s. Since then, the wages for a single breadwinner in America have remained basically stagnant relative to inflation. Any actual gains in overall family income since that time are primarily due to the simple fact that two-thirds of families have sent mothers into the workplace alongside fathers.
There are individual exceptions to the rule, of course: the lucrative trio of lawyers, doctors, and bankers. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. All of these professions routinely demand 80 to 120 hours per week out of their new recruits. So the choice was between a tenuous job with an income that couldn’t support a family and a secure job that would ensure you’d never see your family. It’s no wonder my wife and I were all alone among our friends in tying the knot right after college. “Marriage and children are an activity for your 30s,” one friend quipped. Evidently the market had decided that our 20s were for production and consumption, not for building family and community.
One Income or Two?
My wife and I didn’t get the memo. We were married in the fall after I finished college. Economically, this meant that we reached Catch-22 number three faster than our friends. Because whether you marry and start a family at 22 or 32, there comes a point at which you are holding a baby in your arms and the question, “one income or two?” is about relationships and not just about numbers. Truthfully, there’s no “right” answer, because in a two-income economy, you run into the “time squeeze” either way: you can have mom’s presence and dad’s absence (dad making up for that second income with overtime), or both parents’ presence, but only on an alternating schedule or after work. Those aren’t the only possible ways of setting things up, but they are the two options that the vast majority of Americans are choosing between (even today, stay-at-home dads are still a fairly rare phenomenon).
So, one income or two? Valuing family cohesion above all, we chose the first. Alongside graduate school, off to work I went: to as many as five different jobs, going nonstop for fourteen to sixteen hours a day. Many friends took the other road. Theirs wasn’t necessarily any easier. There are hidden costs: day care, after care, and the stress of juggling work and kids when you have no care; not to mention takeout, cleaning help, and all the extra comforts it takes to ease the strain of endlessly working to pay the bills for family subsistence. It’s why so many families are taking the first opportunity they can find in the post-pandemic era to exit the “rat race” and ditch that second income.
Debt Comes for Everyone
Because of all those hidden costs, it doesn’t really matter which way you go on the second income question. It’s usually only a matter of time before we all reach Catch-22 number four: the financial chasm that middle-class earners eventually must cross but that can only be traversed by borrowing. It could be for a house, a car (or two), a degree needed to advance in your field, appliances, or medical bills. Hopefully it’s not for groceries (but sometimes it is). Household debt relative to GDP is now twice what it was a generation ago. With inflation picking up, it’s not going back down any time soon. Because you need a roof over your head and food on your table whether you can afford it or not.
As Groves points out, borrowing always puts pressure on the family. The first consequence is that the family stops accumulating any real wealth. You may be surrounded by the trappings of wealth, you may look like you’re living the American Dream, you may look like the Queen of England, but if it’s all borrowed none of it’s actually yours. To borrow an ancient distinction, you have the use of those goods (usus), but not the right to dispose of them at the end of the day (dominium). If the payments stop; if you lose your job; if you get sick, have an accident, or lose a family member and just need some time to grieve, it all vanishes into thin air. Like the emperor in the fable, you find out just how naked you really are.
The second consequence of borrowing, which is far less obvious, is that you become increasingly lonely. To make those payments, you need to work more: more hours, shifts, jobs, years. These demands cut into the establishment, growth, and development of your family. Debt’s strains manifest in many ways: college graduates putting off marriage until student debt is paid off; newlyweds putting off children until credit card debt is paid down; spouses coming home later or trading shifts until they barely see one another; parents putting the kids in daycare as soon as maternity (and for those who are lucky enough, paternity) leave runs out; the elderly putting off retirement—and the time it offers them with their children and grandchildren—until that last home equity loan is paid off.
Turning to the Land
Catch-22s notwithstanding, when we came to Ohio, we decided to buck the trend. We weren’t going to change my day job—with a PhD in Theology and a tenure-track job, I was one of the “lucky few” who reached the career for which my specialized training prepared me. But we could change how we bridged the gap between the “holy poverty” that my starting salary put us in and what it took to support our family. To make ends meet, we turned not to the market but to the land. Our “second job” was farming. It’s about as durable a trade as it gets.
Farming has built up both our family and our community and helped us turn back some of those Catch-22s a bit. Sure, when we started, I was still working plenty of overtime. But now a portion of that overtime was with my family, not without them. Sure, it still took a lot of food to feed our growing family, but now we were producing it, not just buying it. Sure, we were still purchasing all our outside goods with money from my single income, but now we had a whole new set of goods, those we brought forth together. And sure, we still had to borrow for a house to fit our family of eight and van to shuffle us all around, but every vegetable harvested, every pig slaughtered and butchered, every outbuilding built with our own hands: no credit card could ever purchase those.
This lifestyle has brought us innumerable material and spiritual goods: the opportunity to encounter God right on the front page of the “book of nature,” as St. Bonaventure put it; to build physical and moral virtue; to learn countless skills by apprenticing ourselves to anyone and everyone in the community who will teach us; to support, and far more often to be supported by, our friends and neighbors in the community who share our family’s vision and lifestyle.
And, so we’ve discovered, the assumption of our upbringing was wrong. There’s opportunity for endless creativity, true fulfillment, and real wealth in the durable trades. Need proof? I found it in farm-raised, peach-wood-smoked bacon. It’s the most glorious food I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve never seen it in a supermarket. How do you get some? Well, here’s how we did it: We raised a pig in a sty we retrofitted onto the back of a goat shed we built with a friend’s help; processed the pig with three tools and another friend’s help in the garage; and smoked the bacon in a smoker we built from a (clean) trashcan with prunings from the peach trees we planted the year before. It was a tremendous success: not just because it’s the best bacon I’ve ever had—though it certainly was—but because that one, real food represented hours of time spent working and exercising creativity together as a family and a community, finding fulfillment together in bringing forth God’s real and abundant gifts from the land.
As much as most families face the same Catch-22s in our economy, no two families—and no two situations—are exactly alike. In our case, farming was a way to enjoy the benefits of a durable trade while making up the gap between a single income and a double income. Farming isn’t like debt, which demands your service day in and day out. It’s not like a corporation, which requires an ever-accelerating growth in profits. It’s not like money, with ever-decreasing value in the face of inflation. The land will always be there. The fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock you raise can be the same each year or different, you decide. Farming is just one durable trade. There are plenty others to learn, and through which to grow closer to God, your family, and your community.
So prayerfully discern with your family what is best for you. Your only constraint is the limits of nature. Perhaps it’s a supplemental trade, like farming, perhaps a craft like pottery or woodworking, perhaps even building, brewing, or helping others bring forth the next generation through midwifery. All of that is possible and more, because God is a God of abundance: not the false abundance of the market, but the real abundance of creation and of grace. However it makes sense for your family to participate with God in bringing forth that abundance, it’s never too late to start.