A Society of Fear

There are people out there whose livelihoods depend on the fact that most people go every day to some job or another. Business owners, investors, retired folks — capitalists in general — pay their expenses with profits that would be threatened if there weren't plenty of workers trading their life for a paycheck.

I don't mean to speak ill of capitalists — I'm one of them (in my own "eking out a meager existence" way). But as a group, they have a vested interest in most people choosing to get up and go to work every day. And, as a group, they're terrified that most people wouldn't do that unless they had to.

I think that's why society has been organized to make the wage slave/debt slave trap the default path for almost everyone.

It's a gentle trap: borrow a bit to go to college, a bit more to buy a car, a bit more to buy a house... You earn plenty of money and enjoy a comfortable life — and all you lose is your freedom to do anything else besides get up everyday and go to work.

When I wrote about it before, a lot of commenters chimed in to defend the wage slave/debt slave trap — on the grounds that it motivates people to "work;" that it teaches them how to "manage money;" that it keeps them "honest."

And I find that fascinating. Because, see, I can understand business owners feeling that way — their profits would drop if people managed to escape their debt traps, gaining options besides showing up at their job day after day. I can also understand managers feeling that way — their bonuses would be a lot smaller (and their jobs a lot harder) if their employees were in a position to choose the work that was the most fun or interesting or useful or important. I can understand the government feeling this way — income taxes could drop a lot if debt-free citizens could choose to earn less.

But I'm mystified by ordinary people feeling this way. It's bad enough that people put themselves into the position of having to go to work every day — and worse, having to go with whatever job pays the most because it's the only way to get all the bills paid — rather than being able to choose work because it's interesting or because it helps people. But that's only the beginning of the madness. Everyone in the debt slave/wage slave trap has to worry that any little mistake could cost them all their worldly goods and their entire future.

In a world where these sorts of debts are normal, an ordinary person with ordinary expenses has to be afraid all the time. An unexpected expense can put the whole household at risk — it means more debt, probably at a higher rate. Any little glitch in earnings can be ruinous — it means missed payments, late fees and penalty rates of interest.

Imagine if things were different — if most people had a comfortable emergency fund and little or no debt. A lost job would mean belt tightening, but not foreclosure. A sudden spike in fuel costs would mean turning down the thermostat and wearing a sweater, but not pawning the wedding rings for enough gas to get to work one more week. It would mean not living in fear.

As I said, there are a lot of people who think their livelihood depends on that fear. Those whose profits are higher and jobs are easier when there are plenty of frightened workers have a vested interest in things as they are. But I think we'd be better off if people were less afraid.

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Guest's picture

I'm reminded of a great quote I heard the other day:

"Communism is man exploiting man. Capitalism is the other way around."

Guest's picture

This is really interesting. I've heard something similar regarding the military, which is make sure kids in lower economic groups aren't able to get a decent education so they don't have many choices when it comes time to look for work, therefore they join the military out of desperation.

I've never thought about applying this to our economy. But it does make sense in a way. Society does seem to push the idea of getting a college education, own a home, having a family as the ideal.

Funny though in Japan and some other countries having debt isn't as common, yet they also get stuck in the same rut. There it's everyone needs to live in Tokyo to have a good job, property is extremely expensive yet it's considered a good thing to own, and sending your kids to the best schools is extremely desirable.

It's hard to break out of those social "norms". Maybe showing more people who are successful without following them is one way.

And yes, "ordinary" people do seem to push them, often without knowing it. Kind of creepy.

Guest's picture
C. Holland

I don't think it's that the military prevents kids in lower economic groups from getting a decent education -- the difference I notice between the time that I was going to college and the era following the return of mandatory draft registration up to the present is that other governmental financial aid has pretty much dried up. 

If you want to change the culture so that the lower middle class is less dependent upon the military as a source of college education and a modest living for kids getting out of high school, work on getting various groups and businesses in your community to offer 4-year financial assistance (scholarships and community-backed loans) to your graduating seniors -- there used to be lots of programs competing with the military in helping kids get to college.  I don't see it today.

Guest's picture

I completely agree with the article, however I've never heard a good alternative to becoming a "debt slave". The fact of the matter is that stuff costs money and we have to work to get money. I can see a single person living in a crappy apartment working for a while to save up enough to not work for a few months and travel or do whatever, but eventually, the money is going to run out. A person could buy some land, grow their own food and be farily self-sufficient, but you need money to buy the land in the first place. The only real alternative I can think of is working part time or for a non-profit or something and eek out a meager existance. If you're happy with that lifestyle, good for you. To me it always seems like a choice between work a crappy job and have money to have fun outside of it or have a great job (or no job) but have no money to have fun outside of it.

Philip Brewer's picture


The many alternatives--the many ways to live large on a small budget--are exactly what Wise Bread is all about. 

My own take on it is that if I live cheaply enough, I can do choose whatever work I want (rather than having to choose whatever earns the most).  You can take that to an extreme (the eking of which we both speak), but you don't have to--there's an awful lot of middle ground.  I go on at some length on the strategies and tactics here:  What I've Been Trying to Say

And, since you mention self-suffiency, you might be interested in this post as well:  Self-sufficiency, Self-reliance, and freedom.

Guest's picture

is it even possible to be truly self-sufficient anymore?
is there a place without property taxes?

Guest's picture

But the choice to live as you want, poor, somewhere in the middle, or rich is exactly what Capitalism offers over all other forms of economic systems.  All systems will give you the option of poor or somewhere in the middle but Capitalism allows for you to make as much as you see fit.  Even if that means you want to be a wage slave.  The choice is yours to make, nobody makes it for you.   

Philip Brewer's picture


In a sense, it's true that you get to choose—but so many of the key choices are made so early in life. I worry that a seventeen-year-old who has never worked a full-time is simply not well positioned to make an informed decision about whether or not to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt to go to an expensive college. What sort of choice is it when parents, teachers, and guidance counselors simply present it as a natural thing that everyone should do—taking out huge loans and going to college?

I think a real free choice would include an option for an eighteen-year-old (or even a nineteen-through-twenty-one year old) to say, "Wait a minute! This was dumb! I want to spend the next ten years doing interesting, exciting, useful, and important stuff, not working at a some drudge job to make enough money to pay off all this debt!" But that's not the way society is structured right now. Your seventeen-year-old self can make borrowing decisions that lock you into the wage-slave/debt-slave track.

Granted, the decision to borrow isn't the only decision that's similarly hard to change course from. (The decision to have children or the decision to commit a serious crime can lock your future into a course that has even less flexibility.) But there aren't many other things I can think of where people's earliest choices are so fraught with the opportunity to be a huge mistake that colors the whole rest of their life.

I'd like young people to be able to ease into choices like that a bit more gradually. I think we'd all be better off if more people had the flexibility to start down one path and then change their mind and choose a different one, if a little experience and maturity showed them that they'd made a mistake.

Guest's picture
C. Holland

What Phil says in his response to Guest about wishing that teens and 20-somethings didn't get locked in by debt at such an early age rings true to me -- as I pursue my professional interest in Montessori education, I repeatedly come across references to the brain research that indicates that development of the pre-frontal cortex, which is where judgement, or executive-decision making ability resides, occurs during adolescence and early adulthood. 

Guest's picture



The 18-year-old in your example has a free choice, but not a very well informed one. A 13-year-old has the mental capability to be informed and make logical well-reasoned choices. I think the gap is evident in the training that most kids receive growing up. I was raised with some poor habits and I suffered for them. That is the human condition. However, breaking this cycle is possible. My children will have much better training (in this area), and if I have done my job correctly as a parent, they will build upon that and provide their children even better foundations.


To the point of status symbols: College and home-ownership used to be for the wealthy or those who worked hard ans carefully. They were the things to shoot for. They are the signs that you have "arrived". The only change that has occurred is the ability to take on debt to do those things. Or rather, the ease with which we can dig such deep holes.

Is college necessary? As a college-educated IT professional, I can say that 90% of the jobs around me could be performed without higher education. It may just be my opinion, but it seems that most of the best training happens on the job. Remember, college is a product that is sold and marketed like anything else.


I am typically very pleased by the information presented on your blog, but the wage slave idea disturbs me a little. Work is necessary for life. Someone must grow the food, program the computer, make the clothing, etc. Work will always be somewhat undesirable, difficult, or just plain crappy at times. I agree that debt traps people into a more desperate mind-set and may cause us/them to take a job they wouldn't otherwise.

But. It's not capitalists that force this upon us; we do this to ourselves. Yes, it is through choices that we are pushed towards -- bad choices, short-sighted choices. Ultimately, we make those choices. The sales machine doesn't care if we are stuck in debt; it (the aggregate of many people and processes, not some sentient process) doesn't try to enslave us to keep a captive workforce. It wants to sell more and reduce costs. If society collectively decides that homeownership is worth ridiculous amounts of debt, then it will continue. We can't legislate it away. We have to stop buying into that idea.

I think that is one of the valuable things about your site. You are informing people on how to make better decisions. These decisions do keep people out of debt and out of the self-induced downward spiral into hand-to-mouth living. I also think that the blame lies, not only on society for perpetuating these ideals, but also on the individual for blindly following along. If enough individuals change, the society follows and reinforces those changes.



Guest's picture

Easily said and while I agree with it 100%, I'm afraid my life has proven otherwise! I quit a job to do what I loved - and love, love, love it, I did! Self employment is another type of struggle and when I finally pulled the plug 15 years later, I had accumulated about $12k in debt from the months when I survived with no income. I self financed the biz but single, no husband to bail me out and pay the mortgage, exorbitant health insurance... what else was supposed to happen when clients were no where to be found or they had money snafus and couldn't pay? I got a job with the sole intent of deleting my debt, the plan was to be out of debt in 2-3 years. Then I could be free to do something new and adventurous. Great idea, at first, til that job laid me off. I lived on fumes for months, collecting unemployment but am proud that I didn't use my credit cards. Then I got another job. Worked for 11 months and continued paying on the debts at the rate of $800 per month. Made such good $$ and lived so frugally that I also put $5k in the bank for emergencies. And got laid off from that one this past winter. Thing is, now, despite my 15 years of biz ownership and vast experience, i don't have a degree so I'm getting nowhere in this job search. Its an easy and obvious filter and employers are using it. So, after 9 months of unemployment (and still not touching the cc, though half my emergency fund is gone), I realized I had no choice but to go to school and get the $%$#^%! piece of paper that is required for nearly every job I apply for.

So, here I am TRYING LIKE HELL to get out of debt but life, and this economy, see it another way. I'm about to accumulate more debt. Granted, I'm doing a state uni route, getting as much credit as I can for work experience, and going after every cent of grant and scholarship money I can - but since unemployment is about to run out, what AM I going to live on in the meantime? Enter more debt. It sucks. It blows. I'm the case study for living frugally, living simply, following your dreams and getting out of debt and so it goes.

You tell me... what is the answer?

Guest's picture

You touch on an important point, health insurance and it's huge cost to those of us who want to be self-employed. I was a "wage slave" for many years because my family needed the health benefits! We would have happily paid for insurance, but were too afraid that the insurance would skyrocket all of a sudden or not be there when we needed it because self-employed insurance plans tend to be garbage.

Right now we are just doing COBRA from my old job, but I am scared of what we will do when that runs out, if we will even qualify for anything since my husband has high blood pressure. Getting decent health insurance is the one thing that can really throw a monkey wrench in the "escape the wage slave" plan.

And, BTW, I am not just some deadbeat trying to get a free ride off government. We pay about $1500 a month for insurance now, which is crazy but that's a story for another day. I just want to know that when I need to make a claim, I am not going to be denied for some scam reason.

Philip Brewer's picture


Believe me, I understand perfectly.  I pay very nearly as much for health insurance as I do for rent, and yet still have to worry that getting sick could make it completely unaffordable--or that it could be retroactively taken away if it turns out I made a mistake on my insurance application.

In the United States, health insurance is right up there with debt as a factor that forces people to to take jobs rather than do whatever work calls to them.  I wrote a post about it called Not Free to Be Poor.


Guest's picture

Your account sounds a little like mine. I quit my job (my current replacement describes the problem boss as a "sociopath", couldn't find a decent job and decided to finish my degree. Now, after having been out of debt--what a glorious thing to be free of--I'm now back in the hole 10k in student loans.

Frustrating, certainly. Making it worse was a professor from Turkey who said that she didn't have to pay any tuition for her higher education.

For many reasons it's now obvious to me that the financial situation of the average person could be substantially easier if we had different national priorities. As an exercise, I urge anyone here to look into how much and where our military/intelligence/security money is going.

Guest's picture

It is so true. We figured out a while ago that it was still worth it to be frugal even though we make good money. My husband makes about $150k a year (and I am not bragging about it, since we are anonymous!) but we live like we make about half that. It is hard for people to understand sometimes, I am sure that others think his business doesn't do well since we don't dress fancy or have cool cars, but we have a lot of peace. And, I was able to recently quit my well paying (but very unfulfilling) office job to stay home with my kids, which in this economy is almost a revolutionary act!

It is the most freeing feeling in the world not to panic when he doesn't get work for a while, or if something breaks down in the house to just be able to pay for it and fix it!

I understand not everyone makes a ton of money, but many of us can live below our means. I grew up on my widowed parent's social security checks, so I know what it's like to live with little. If you make $50k, you can live like you make $40k. You just have to be brave enough to not worry about what others think about how successful you look.

Guest's picture

Your comment rang true for our family. We are living on about 60% of our income and getting out of the debt trap. The hardest part is feeling like the odd family out, because our life-style is not typical of people with our income. We are trading the feeling of fitting in, for peace of mind.

Guest's picture

who would brag about her husband making 150k a year? Unless you live in Nebraska..thats pretty much middle class, doll.

Guest's picture

After having lost my job, I am struggling with getting another job like the one I had (at a lower salary) which I hated and finding something I like which would require me to sell my house and live somewhere a lot cheaper. When I was working I had no time to do the things I wanted and thought I might do them once I retire. Now that I am not working I am enjoying doing those things I have been putting off, and even regretting not doing some of them when I was a bit younger. I am not looking forward to working again, but realize that it is a necessity in order to afford to keep living. I actually hate that everyone assumes I want a job that will make me once again a slave to the corporate machine.

Guest's picture
Stacey Marcos

Though the ideal of everyone doing what they enjoy is wonderful in concept, it would be the downfall of organized society. There will always be ditches to dig or garbage to pick up. These jobs need to get done. But people being people, there will always be someone forced to do it.

I agree debt slavery is wrong. It is an artifact of an optimistic society that perpetually sees tomorrow as a better day. That mindless march toward consumerism carries a snappy beat that few can resist.

As you all know from the great articles on Wise Bread...
Living within your means is the key to unlocking one's shackles. Whether you are doing the job you love or the job you hate, how you spend that money is the deciding factor.

Unfortunately, there will always be those who decide to screw themselves time and time again. Those that choose the shackles. Then there are those who are forced into them. There is no getting around it. They will be digging the ditches.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Stacey Marcos:

There's nothing wrong with digging ditches or picking up garbage.  It's work that's worth doing.  Like any work that's worth doing, there will be some people who want to do some amount of it.  If some people think we need more such work done than there are people really want to do, they always have the option to raise the wages high enough to draw in more people.

And, yes, to a great extent the debt slave/wage slave trap is one that people choose for themselves.  I don't want to say that people shouldn't have that choice.  I merely object to the way it's taken as a given in today's society. 

I want to educate people about the alternatives, so they can at least consider other choices.  I'd also like to encourage anyone responable for advising young folks to make sure that the alternatives are presented as valid choices.  I don't think your average 17-year-old is making a fully informed decision when he or she signs up to pay back tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.

That's the reason I think writing for Wise Bread is work worth doing.

Guest's picture
That Guy

The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman has an interesting interpretation of the Ten Commandments as a serious and viable alternative to this sort of wage and debt slavery; it's worth seeking out the DVD of his lecture on this - it applies in very human ways beyond any sort of religious fundamentalism (and in fact calls the notion of fundamentalism into question quite cleverly).

The gist of his reading is as follows:

1. God is not useful - that is, God will not co-sign human endeavors, including oppression and manipulation in God's name.
2. Taking one day out of the production/consumption routine is a powerful and subversive thing; it's also a healthy thing.
3. The guidelines following these (honoring parents, not coveting, etc.) are a framework for setting up a society that lives closely together and is interwoven but is not competitive or driven by easily-manipulated appetites.

Guest's picture

@ lvlln: The author never used the word "Communism" and I doubt he would advocate that. But never miss the opportunity to throw in a clever quote. Whatever.

@ Stacey Marcos: Very good points. It is not a simple thing we are discussing here and you grasp the complexity.

@ That Guy: Very intersting!

@ Philip: I had suspected that you are wise and this post (and your blog's name) proves it. I think it's deceptively brilliant and it follows my own philosophy, so that makes me brilliant too. ;-)

The reason some people can't understand what you just wrote is because they think it's conspiratorial. You don't need a conspiracy to create a crushing system. All it takes is "interest alignment" by the rich and powerful. It's the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules."

Guest's picture

Like others who have posted here, I tried many times over many years to live a minimalist lifestyle that allowed me not to be tied to a job. Not many people can make it work. I have a friend who has always lived this way, and recently had to tell her as gently as I could that constantly begging money from her (ever-dwindling list of) friends is not okay. It's a beautiful dream -- live simple and free. I wish it were obtainable for more people.

Guest's picture


Thanks for the additional info and links. I guess I misunderstood, thinking that you were saying all debt makes us a slave to debt. Debt well within our financial means does not makes us slaves to it. I'm new to the site and look forward to learning as much as I can!

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Guest:

It's hard to get by without a job--society just about assumes that everyone has one.  A willingness to work helps (lots of people find work that isn't tied to a job).  A willingness to live at a very low standard of living helps.  Having some capital helps a lot.

Still, I think you've got it exactly right--I'm talking about people not being tied to a job, not suggesting that they shouldn't have one.  There are plenty of good jobs out there.  There are jobs where the work is interesting, jobs where the work is important, jobs where the work helps people.  A job where the work is challenging enough to be interesting but not so hard as to be frustrating (or at least, not frustrating all the time) can be great.  I just want people to be able to choose one like that, rather than having to choose the one that pays the most.  And I want people to be free to quit a job, rather than feeling like they're forced to tough it out because they fear poverty (or losing their insurance) more than they hate their job.

Still, some people can't tolerate regular jobs--and some people who'd very much like one can't find one.  I wrote a 4-part series on getting by without a job.  It starts here:  Getting By Without a Job, part 1--losing a job.

Guest's picture
Traveling Hippo

There are alternatives, and I'd love to see more discussion on this.

Colleges: instead of pushing our kids to get into debt up to their eyeballs, how about some honest talk on how to get an education without debt: community college and transfer credits, choosing affordable colleges, AP/IB credits, studying on their own and testing out of courses, letting them work summers in high school to help pay for college. I'm pushing my kids to get through college debt-free.

Choosing to live without debt doesn't mean you've got a crappy job and a crappy apartment. It means that you *wait* before you buy that fancy car. You get a high paying job, you save that money, and then buy the car with cash. You don't buy the car as soon as you're given a job offer.

Living debt free gives you freedom, especially if you're married and have kids. I didn't panic when my job disappeared, I decided to tighten my belt and enjoy being with my kids. My spouse loves his job teaching high school. Sure, I'll take a great, high-paying job when it comes around, but until then, we're doing fine.

I'd love to see some discussion on mortgage v rent - we've only been able to buy one house with cash. You've gotta live somewhere - so other than living with the parents, what are some good options for living in safe neighborhoods?

Philip Brewer's picture

@Traveling Hippo:

I've written a number of posts on home ownership and the alternatives:

And, on the topic of safe neighborhoods, I can point you to my most reviled post ever:

Guest's picture

Thank you!

Guest's picture

Maybe I'm misinterpreting it but, the article makes it sound as if business people are laying awake at night worried that everyone will suddenly stop working or become debt free. Or that business owners somehow consciously choose to keep the workers 'enslaved' in debt & work just to keep them subservient or something. I don't think anyone is worried that people will stop work nor lose incentive to work. I don't think most businesses or businesspeople feel any dependency on their workers or customers being in debts. (with the obvious exception of lenders)

Guest's picture

I don't know. It's a good theory, but I'm not sure everyone can do this.

Yes, picking up garbage or digging ditches are jobs worth doing.

But really, how many people would be willing to do these jobs, especially for the salaries they would earn doing them?

Seriously - think about it.

If I could earn as much as I do now (I'm a nuclear engineer) digging ditches, I just might consider it.

Who's willing to pay me almost 6 figures a year to dig ditches?

Or pick up garbage?

Or work at McDonalds, serving burgers? That sounds like fun for a cool $100k a year.

Will anyone pay me this much, so that I can do what I like to do?

Any takers?

(And before anyone says, "but why do you need this much money", I have four children, and I enjoy a comfortable standard of living. I'm not quite ready to start shopping at the second hand store for everything.)

If you work for yourself, surely you still must be doing *something* for *someone* who pays you, right?

You're a freelance writer? Well then, you're still sort of a slave to your clients.

Yes, you can choose to stop working.

Well, so can I.

At any time.

I could quit my job tomorrow, if I so desired.

In this regard, I am no different from the self-employed.

I also enjoy flex hours, I have 20 days paid leave a year (and can take more, unpaid - just like a freelancer), and I have paid sick leave.

Sort of sounds the same, in many ways, doesn't it.

Or I could be wrong :)

Guest's picture

Even if you were to break free of the "wave slave system" you would by default be enrolled into the "survive or die system" like the rest of the natural world. Most animals have no shelter, no bills, no shopping, nothing but free time for hunting and procreation. Humans don't need really need 97% of the stuff we get, but we "want" stuff so we make the trade off and end up disgruntled once the shininess wears off our brand new toyota corolla.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Jimbo:

Yes, exactly.  One of the things I hope to do through my writing is to get people to see past the shiny.  To understand the difference between real, serious wants and mere passing fancies before they spend the money, rather than after.  I talk about this in Needs, Wants, and Not Even Wants.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Brett Legree:

I didn't say you couldn't have a higher standard of living if you worked at a job.  Obviously you can, especially if it's a good job.

What I'm saying is that choosing that higher standard of living is choosing to put yourself into a trap.  Once you've embedded the related costs into your household's financial structure--the mortgage payments, the car payments, the property taxes--you quickly find that you have very little flexibility.  There are only so many jobs that will pay you almost six figures.

Someone who lives comfortably within his or her means quickly accumulates some capital--money that can be invested for a return or drawn on in an emergency.  Someone who chooses a low standard of living will find that there are many more ways to cover household expenses than the one job that pays the most money.

Obviously the path that gives you the most freedom the quickest is to take the high-paying job while living at the low standard of living.  Then you're always free to dump the job if you don't like it, but in the meantime you're accumulating capital that can make the job unnecessary.  That's kind of what I did.  But I've come to believe that it would have been even better to make a go of doing what I loved sooner, by choosing a standard of living that was low enough that I could have supported it with my writing.

Still, I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do.  I'm trying to educate people about the options, and get them to at least give the matter some real thought, rather than just go with the default option of debt supported by the highest-paid job they can find.

Guest's picture

"What I'm saying is that choosing that higher standard of living is choosing to put yourself into a trap."

It can be - but not always - only if you assume I also run up a large debt. If my standard of living is higher than yours but I save a greater percentage of my income than you do, I am still free later on to choose to do what you have done.

I do agree with you on that point.

To the fear part - sure, I could lose my job and then not find that 6 figure income again.

So what?

I can sell my house, take the money I make from that - live off of it for a couple of years while I set myself up just as you have.

Fear is just a mindset.

(So I suppose I agree with you there as well.)

Guest's picture

I believe that putting an end to feudalistic wage slavery was the original American dream. It wasn't getting the house, the way it is now, but about owning LAND, owning the means of production. Owning land meant both housing and food security (though it didn't necessarily mean health security).

Good article, thanks.

Guest's picture

This "no one should ever have to do anything unpleasant" attitude that everyone everyone seems to have is ridiculously infeasible.

People do unpleasant things because they've decided the compensation is worth it. It's how capitalism works, and our society's most basic functions are based upon it.

Sure, no one needs to be in debt, and people's lives would be a bit more flexible if they weren't, but they'd be working all the *exact same jobs*.

You know how I know that? Because they'd need the exact same products built. The demand for laptop computers and accountants and soybean oil and every other product in the world don't change at all because people want better jobs, so *someone* still has to go make all those things.

A mass exodus from the silicon refining industry would just drive up salaries there, and the cost of electronics, until enough people came back to the same jobs. And sure, the salaries are higher now, but electronics are correspondingly higher, subtracting that much money from everyone else in the world's salary, if they want a phone or computer.

The economics of Star Trek don't even work *in* Star Trek, I don't know why people keep proposing them for the real world: "We're no longer motivated by economic gain -- we work to better ourselves and our understanding of the universe."

It's very much a science fiction idea.

Guest's picture

This man is a dangerous radical and a terrorist. Children, don't listen to him. Obey your principal.

Guest's picture
Beth Adele Long

An elegant post and so very true. The "gentle trap" is devilishly hard to escape, and I think you are exactly right to identify the reason as fear, whether financial, social, or personal ("I'm a lazy worthless nothing if I don't have a steady job.")

Guest's picture

This is a thought-provoking post. I think part of the problem is the image the media portrays of the "American Dream", it's a kind of Have it all if you work like a dog. Which isn't necessarily true. Many people sink into debt to attain what they think they deserve. And, by that, I mean what the media has portrayed what they should have. For instance, if you watch movies or TV, the characters are living a kind of fantasy-life. They own huge houses, terrific cars, wear hip clothing, but their job (if they even mention one) really wouldn't support that lifestyle in real-life.

So, the conundrum is, where do we go from here? Do we pressure the media and entertainment industries into showing us a more realistic view of life? Do we avoid the media all together? Do we get rid of all of our materialistic needs and wants and go with a simplistic, bucolic life-style? Does that even exist?

P.S. I check out one of your other articles about dangerous neighborhoods and commuting. I'm currently reading a Jane Jacobs book about urban planning, it's really fascinating. The suburbs aren't really that safe, based on what makes a city safe!

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

It looks to me as though really frugal living is a doable approach to life today, with one serious exception. This is health care. Even for the people who own a small house on a small plot of land where they can raise most of their own food and who have a way to make enough cash to buy seeds and even to purchase whatever else they can't get by barter, health care is still a serious problem. It's an insurmountable problem if one agrees that everybody should have access to the procedures, medicines, and devices that are available in standard medical practice. But even for someone who would be willing to accept medical care at the level of, say, 1950 or 1960, it's impossible because that health care is gone, unobtainable, owing to the incredible increases in such things as drug and hospital costs. In 1950, I'll bet that a day in the hospital was less expensive than a day in a fancy urban hotel.

So, really well-designed health care reform, the kind being fought so frantically by well-known elements, is more than anything else the key to freedom in America.

Guest's picture

This is so true! As a former small business owner, insurance was by far our biggest expense and one of the main reasons we decided to become wage slaves again. We had medical insurance, liability, and a small disability policy - just enough to keep the business out of bankruptcy long enough to shut down, if necessary. Everyone complains about taxes, but insurance costs were much higher. Medical alone was nearly as much as our mortgage. When adding in personal policies (life, home, auto) our insurance costs were a huge percentage of our income. Universal health care might have made enough of a difference to stay self-employed. Insurance is supposed to be a safety net, but it has become a huge burden. It has also had a huge role in driving medical costs up, not down.

Guest's picture

if "People do unpleasant things because they've decided the compensation is worth it. " then unpleasant jobs should pay *more* than fun, easy ones. Or at least have other perks - if you dig ditches you get to work fewer hours! If you work in the ER you make more money than someone who just does nose jobs all day. Instead it's the other way around.

Partly that's because we have all sorts of "incentives" to keep people working - we're not even free to be homeless and hungry, there are vagrancy laws against that.

But also, don't forget the influence of prison labor and slave labor.

About 10 years ago in my hometown, the egg factory couldn't find anyone to work - the general economy was good, wages were high, and the factory was really, really unpleasant. Even migrant workers and people without immigration papers could find better jobs.

So what did the owners do: raise wages until someone would work there? No. Build a bigger, better-ventilated building so it was a nicer place to work? No. Offer better working hours, benefits, or other perks? No.

They went to the state and got permission to use prison labor.

Guest's picture

I think the most unpleasant jobs are the ones that are meaningless; where you feel like you're not actually creating anything of value.

I used to work as an analyst running models to calculate the financial risk figures for a big company. It was horrible because the models were stupid. There was a lot of emphasis on precision and not so much on accuracy... and I had no real say about how I did my job. I felt like all the time I spent working there was time lost.

So I think people are oversimplifying when they think the worst jobs are the ones that involve physical exertion and touching smelly objects. So long as a job gives you an opportunity to feel connected to the world, and to feel like you're contributing something, I think it has a chance of making someone happy. I'd much rather pick up garbage than do that job again.

I don't think the world will fall apart if everyone seeks meaningful work. I think it would be better, like the author of this article suggests.

On the other hand, as other people have said, I don't think you need to be in debt to fear for the future. I'm not in debt, and I'm scared when I think too far into the future. I still have to make sure I have a job atleast most of the time to pay for food and shelter.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Anna:

Yep--there's not much worse than pointless work.  In fact, I wrote a whole post suggesting that people find work worth doing.

That post drew some interesting counterpoints, some from commenters who thought that there was no such thing as pointless work, and others who thought that pointless work was a good teaching device.  I disagreed with both those ideas.

There are several partial solutions to the fear that you speak of:

  1. Accumulate some capital.  An emergency fund to begin with, but then some income-earning investments that can help fill the gap when your income doesn't cover your expenses.
  2. Develop additional skills.  The more things you're qualified to do, the easier it is to find work.  Also, network--the more people who are familiar with your skills, again, the easier it is to find work.
  3. Do, build, make, grow, and fix things yourself.  The more of your needs you can satisfy outside the money economy, the less vulnerable you are to purely economic problems.

None of those--not even all of them put together--add up to a complete solution, but they all help and they can all help you feel less afraid.

Guest's picture

The mere idea that our current situation is an illusion concocted to drive sales and profits sure upset a few people. But it is a very accurate idea, sometimes the truth hurts.

Some people work or at least work in part to feel like they are contributing to a community. I hear farmers mention they feed the country and how key their rather hard job is to the bigger picture. If given an option many people would still work, just different jobs or fewer hours. The pundits kept saying computers were going to usher in the 32 hour work week. We would all have more free time to spend with our families or pursue other things. Of course that never happened. Working 50+ hours or not having a job at all seems to be the norm. I have noticed that part time jobs rarely exist anymore unless it is fast food or retail.

Keeping people on the treadmill of debt and wage slavery allows companies to abuse workers. Without that dependence on that job companies could not over work people, stress them out and otherwise make them miserable. Desperate people are much easier to manipulate. This is why health care is such an issue. Employers know that health insurance is a big shackle on employees they can use to their advantage. If people could move jobs or go out on their own without fear of the health insurance mess it would be harder to keep people under your thumb.

Health insurance that costs more like your cable bill rather than more than your mortgage would free people up to use that money for other things.

Guest's picture

Most wage-earners work too much and exercise too little. As a result, drugs and medical care are required for conditions resulting from sedentary exhaustion: insominia, obesity, inflammation (heart disease, cancer), diabetes, etc. Both overwork and medical consumption contribute to raising the GNP (often viewed as a positive), whereas those who are healthy because they work less, earn less, and consume less, are a "drag" on the economy. The cost of the health insurance rises in part due to the unhealthy state of the overworked and underexercised population it covers, and in part by the research demand for new drugs and procedures for conditions caused by too little exercise. The resulting insurance cost is so high, it is unaffordable outside of the wage economy. The simple solution out of this mess: a 30-hour workweek with at least one hour a day to be spent on fitness activities, and the other perhaps on the education, nurturing, or community. This would reduce health-care costs, unemployment (4 shifts instead of 3), consumption, and delinquency. It is very difficult to do this as an individual because most jobs require full-time dedication "to compete" effectively (or obtain the affordable coverage), and the health statistics already prove that given the opportunity (the 40-hour work-week-plus-commute norm), people behave against their own personal health interest.

Guest's picture

Love this--my dream life! Work 6 hours and actually be productive, get my workout in without having to wake up at 5am, and spend some time learning or contributing to society in another way. Perfect.

Financial Samurai's picture

It's easier for you to write about this because you don't work for a corporation. I'm pretty sure most people would love to have the freedom to work for nobody and have a stable income with proper insurance to boot. My editor has that, and he's in his mid 40's.

I have to say that getting a mortgage has motivated me incredibly in my career! I used to get very bored saving money, wondering what was the point of it all since I didn't have anything to spend it on. With a mortgage, I get an awesome sense of urgency to find new ways to achieve financial security sooner, rather than later.


Financial Samurai
"Slicing Through Money's Mysteries"

Guest's picture

As we all look for new investment opportunities I have found a new resource for Distressed debit investing through buying pre-foreclosure notes through auction. Has anyone been engaged in this activity. Check out www.RealtyNoteBid.com and let me know your thoughts…has anyone used them. Do you have any other resources.....

Guest's picture

As we evaluate those things that create fear and affect the markets we need to also be looking for new investment opportunities to take advantage of those markets, and that is what I am trying to find. What are the alternatives in today's markets. I have found a new resource for Distressed debit investing through buying pre-foreclosure notes through auction and I want to learn more. Has anyone been engaged in this activity. Check out www.RealtyNoteBid.com and let me know your thoughts…has anyone used them. Do you have any other resources / info that might help in my understanding this investment channel.

Guest's picture

Wow the comments here leave a lot of bad taste in my mouth. I can say most people who seem to think that this post doesn't ring true are the ones that are causing others to be stuck in a wage trap. You're a nuclear engineer? Well bust my buttons, that must mean you're so much smarter than the rest of us idiots. Maybe it was the fact you started with a better lot than I did? I happen to fall into that area of Americana that makes too much money to be poor but doesn't have enough to make college on their own, oh and I'm a white male, so the scholarship opportunities weren't just busting the door open for me when I applied, as this was when affirmative action was at it's height.

So where does one turn, the military and what I got there was debt, because of the predators who are after your money, take money directly out of your account because the military lets them without checking if the claim is valid and you are again penniless, without any chance for education and to the outside world that is not directly military, without skill.

So please don't try to tell me life is good for everyone in the wage slave system. I am here because I have no choice. I was born into it and wasn't poor enough to get a hand up or rich enough to start from a better place. Everything I have I've worked for and I can promise you that I am every bit as smart as your smug engineer self.

For the commenter who thinks 150k/yr is middle class...what planet do you live on? 150k/yr is lower upper class, not middle class. Average middle class in the US is 70k-80k/yr between two people, you must have one of those cushy state jobs that steals money from the public because you're connected, like the toll collectors who make $80k/yr in MA.

Phil, this was a great post, from one of those unfortunate enough to be in a position of having to claw his way from the bottom to the middle, this story rings very true. Right now I have to work for an organization that evades taxes, ships jobs to the lowest paying places and has leadership the went to prison. The people who seem to profit from our system are those at the top and I don't know why so many of them seem to read your blog.

Guest's picture
Rachel Crockett


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You make your own opportunities. Raised a military brat and knew growing up nothing is handed to you. With four kids and a Captain’s salary… my mom was very aware of lay-away. So any education beyond high school was our responsibility.

I don't know how long ago you were looking into school, but after 24 years-old, they have adult education grants to help pay for school. It won't pay for it all. So you have to be smart and see what you can transfer from a community college and start there. Also stay in-state. Have those tax dollars you've been paying work a little for you.

If you choose a science degree and have a strong GPA, you can transfer to a school that will not only pay tuition but also pay you to go to grad school. In exchange you conduct research and publish it. If that was not in place, I would have obtained by MS by Pay Check University (my science degree is very applied so did not have to get a MS to get a good job.) There is a better career outlook with a MS, however it’s not necessary.

You could have gone to college with some sacrifice. You will have debt. But it’s still possible to go if you are willing to accept it as the “cost of doing business.”

With this is mind, do I feel everyone should go to college? No. Especially right out of high school! It’s not for everyone and can cause a LOT of debt if the student does not keep it in check. (Out of state school with little less reason than to get away from the parents, keep changing majors, flunking classes to just have to re-take them.) It is my firm belief that more kids should have to pay for the class they like to sleep through.

Guest's picture

Ordinary people buy into the trap because ordinary people see themselves as victims. The trap depends upon the attitudes of the exploited as much as the exploiter. See Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

The trap will continue until we choose an attitude of abundance.

Guest's picture

Quote: "I don't mean to speak ill of capitalists"... "they have a vested interest in most people choosing to get up and go to work every day"
And I have a vested interest in the garbage man showing up every Wednesday. But what if all the garbage men decided "I don't need this crap job any longer." Crap jobs are what hold society together. Its why you have running water, flush toilets, paper towels, or any other item that makes life a whole lot easier than it was 100 yrs ago in 1910 or 1810 or before that in 1710. I will concede that people buy too much "stuff" with money they have yet to earn. And I will also concede that "the man" makes it easier to do that in order to keep the money rolling in. But to say "It's bad enough that people put themselves into the position of having to go to work every day" is pretty simple minded and disrespectful of the people who do. I mean if garbage men and writers went on strike tomorrow who would we miss the most?

Philip Brewer's picture

I don't think I said anything to suggest that I think some jobs are crap jobs (versus other jobs that are better).

Personally, I think it would be great if the garbage men decided to hold out for a living wage and decent living conditions. It wouldn't be much of a hardship for me—I lived for years in a household that didn't have any garbage service. (We composted and we recycled and we made a point of not buying stuff that we were going to have to throw away, and then a couple times a year we loaded up the car with stuff to take to the dump.) But I'd be a lot happier if I felt like the people who were performing services for me were doing them because they thought it was work worth doing—not because they felt like they had to do them or else end up living in their car.

So, I disagree. I think crap jobs are a strain on society. I think they divide people into those who are privileged to do work that's worth doing and those who are forced to do whatever will keep the wolf from the door.

What surprises me—and what prompted this article—was that so many people who ought to be in the class that can choose to do work that's worth doing seem to feel like they're members of the class who have little choice to be take whatever their boss dishes out. I figure it's mostly because of debt or because of "keeping up with the Joneses." Those two things reinforce one another—and they're the reason that I write stuff like this. I want to live in a world where people choose not to put themselves in the wage-slave/debt-slave trap in the first place. And, if they already have, I want to show them how to escape.

Guest's picture

Why are you assuming that workers go to work for someone else out of FEAR?
There are plenty of workers who work for a corporation because they WANT TO. They want the freedom of having a job under a corporation. What freedom?

• The freedom to not have to worry about where your paycheck comes from. You know you'll get a set amount each week and you can budget around that. You don't have to worry if you'll make enough money for rent this month...you already KNOW you will!

• The freedom to have some help on employment taxes. You don't have to pay the entire 15.2% employment tax yourself...instead, your employer pays half.

• The freedom to have Health Insurance. Some of us are considered "uninsurable" by private Health Insurance Companies. Up until 2014, the only way for us to get Health Insurance is to be employed by another company who offers insurance for their workers.

• The freedom of having other benefits and perks that may come from working for a company. Free coffee and bagels. Friendships in the office. Discounts at various places, depending on your company's bennies. Stock options. There are some wonderful bennies out there that offer a lot of value for a worker, if they're employed with the right company.

After owning my own business for over 6 years, I'm ready to go back to work for someone else. Let them take the risk, and just give me a nice steady paycheck. Some of us aren't meant to be risk-takers, and fear has nothing to do with it.

Philip Brewer's picture

There are plenty of advantages to working a regular job with regular hours, a regular paycheck, benefits, and so on. But I'd call them "advantages," not "freedom." To do otherwise is to devalue the word. You might as well claim that slavery gave you the freedom to not have to decide for yourself what work to do.

I've got no problem with people choosing to work a regular job. I just want them to arrange their lives so that they're not making that choice out of fear that otherwise they'll end up homeless and hungry. I'd be much happier if most people had a comfortable emergency fund, some amount of income from sources other than their job, and a household cost structure that was flexible enough that they could go on paying the absolutely necessary bills for as long a it might take to find another job. Then nobody needs to be motivated by fear.

Guest's picture

Articles by this writer are so sharp and to the point, that I fear it won't be long before the internet will not feature them anymore. It's awesome how Mr. Brewer can criticize the most important flaw in the American society without getting irrationally hostile towards the "oppressive" party (ie. business owners, managers, government). His articles are educational and caring, not to mention optimistic. This is truly refreshing to see.

I've discussed this issue numerous times among my friends and acquaintances alike, and am of the exact same opinion: the problem in reclaiming personal freedom is not the mere existence of student loans, mortgages and credit cards, but the fact that so many young people are trapped before most of them are able to make informed decisions about the feasibility of the loans they take on and that follow them for life. College students are lead to believe that more jobs are available than there really are. People buying new houses commit to a career lifetime loan at a certain location, but soon afterwards get laid off. At best they find a new job in the same metropolis area, but end up commuting up to 4 hours per day. The hassle of relocating all of one's possessions to a new address is peanuts compared to the hassle of actually selling the house in the recent post-bubble economy.

Kids should be given to watch "horror" documentaries of armies of fallen disillusioned people and indefinitely deferred dreams. Then they can decide for themselves if the sob stories of "other losers" are in fact on to something.

Guest's picture

so what do we do? How can we do what we want in life without money?

Philip Brewer's picture

To my mind, the first step is to live at a standard of living such that there are plenty of jobs where you can earn enough to support yourself (unlike most people who find the job that pays the most and then spend all they earn).

Step two is to start saving and investing, with a short-term goal of an emergency fund and a medium-term goal of producing enough investment income to cover your bare minimum expenses.

In the short term you're more free and able to live with less fear, simply because you know there are a lot of ways you can make ends meet. As you begin to accumulate some savings and investments you can live with less and less fear. Those perfectly ordinary problems that everyone faces occasionally—a bad boss, an employer who goes broke, a large expense that's not fully covered by insurance—gradually become less and less catastrophes and more and more just bumps in the road.

Guest's picture
Charles McCaffrey

I agree with Phil, and I have some additional thoughts to add.

Those ordinary folks who think that wage/debt slaves are taught to via their apparently voluntary and useful bondage to work, manage money, and be honest are just buying into the dominant culture with its capitalist mindset, capitalist lies and manipulation.

It's the same old crap. My country, right or wrong, so I'll enlist or accept the draft and go off and kill whomever my country tells me to kill. What's good for GM is what's good for the U.S. so let's keep corporate taxes low even though they are already too low. The business of the U.S. is business, so ditto. Manipulations all.

These folks make it easy for capitalists to manipulate us all, to induce or seduce us into doing what they want us to do rather than what we want to do, to buy politicians and thus buy the laws that enrich them and enslave and impoverish the rest of us. Zombies all. People who have differing perspectives are treated as hippies, pacificists, socialists, communists, trouble-makers, un-American, whatever.

And I think Phil missed something basic about managers. Sure, they'd be upset because their bonuses were threatened by freeing wage/debt slaves, but they'd also be upset about actually having to get a real job and do real work rather than push paper, call pointless meetings, create makework nonsense to make it look as if they are actually doing something. Some do, to be sure, but most do not. Small to medium work teams can "manage" themselves. Managers are largely unnecessary. And as Adm. Grace Murray Hopper said, "You don't manage people. You lead them." Any capitalist, any manager that doesn't get that is pretty stupid and does not deserve any privileges or power.

Finally, there are solutions to the problems. We don't need owners. We don't need managers. The workers of the world are capable of organizing and leading themselves, of using the natural resources, and the agricultural and industrial capacities of the world to produce for the benefit of the people of the world, not for the profit of the few.

And when the needs of all the people of the world are met, then there would be no hunger, no homelessnes, no want, no need, no fear, no need to go to war. Not wasting money on pointless military would lower taxes and increase security.