The Patchwork Economy, or Are You Canning Vegetables Yet?

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One million plus layoffs happened in the US in 2008. There were 181,671 corporate layoffs announced in November, and there will be at least 20,000+ in media and technology in December. In other words, if you're not the person contemplating filing for unemployment benefits, how it sucks to look for a job right now, and will I end up on the bread line?, you're living with, related to, or close to someone in this situation.

There is nothing like a holiday where covering costs in the year ahead is an open question to kill off holiday cheer. Being one of the rats on the sinking ship may be an evil joke when you work at Yahoo, but it's terrifying when it's your own little ship that may be sinking.

According to Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, November 2008 was the worst month for layoffs since January 2002, when large employers cut nearly 250,000 jobs as the nation tried to shake off the recession and Sept. 11th. For all we know, December may surpass November in job loss, and for those without steady gigs, the sheer magnitude of the numbers seems daunting.

Welcome to the patchwork economy of 2009. Given the severe nature of this recession and the sheer redundancy of so many laid-off product managers, writers, editors, marketing folks, sales people, administrative coordinators and so on, it looks like we're headed into a time when far too many of us are going to be doing a little of this and a little of that to get by.

Blogger, writer, editor, barista, cleaning lady?

So many of my friends are reeling, well aware that the bottom in their industries--and in the economy as a whole--just hasn't been hit. I'm not going to be surprised, after the holidays, when I hear about friends doing small projects together, or taking service-y part-time jobs (if there are any to be had) or, like many did in the last recession, packing up and heading for towns thst are cheaper, or where they have more family to lean on.

On one hand, I find this situation incredibly depressing--we're plummeting from over-expanded go-go years into enforced austerity with almost no transitions. On the other hand, I wonder what new things will come out of it---will Americans reinvent their priorities now that we are out of cash (and credit)?

Will neighbors use social media tools like twitter to create planned--or on the fly--dinner clubs? Or swap and share tools, maybe creating a community list, rather than buying unto themselves? Will we dial Christmas down to a low murmur where we can actually consider what we are truly thankful for--rather than focus on what someone else could purchase, but we couldn't?

The good news about a patchwork economy is that is has the potential to bring people closer together, out of their President-Bush-sized palatial homes in the burbs and their apartments in the cities, to consider how they can help each other get through the downturn. The good news is that the patchwork economy can take some of the air out of America's adrenalin-driven, reality-TV show hyper-consumerism, where twhat you drive, how you look and what you buy are the values imparted.

The bad news though, is that the patch-work economy is hard. Hard-headed, hard-nosed, fragmentary, scarce. Patchwork means patching or piercing together, often the scraps and the bits left over. And as anyone who's ever sewn any stray bit of doll clothes for a child quickly learns, it's tedious work.

In the patchwork economy, we'll be trading off time-that precious commodity we used to have too little of--for dollars, or for services that will keep us from having to spend the now scarcer dollars we do have. Perhaps the patchwork economy will be the impetus for more of us to grow food--crops and urban chickens and herbs--in our backyards--I know I am thinking about it (though I will probably skip the chickens).

Perhaps more people will be moved to reduce their impact on the environment as much as they can by buying recycled items, bicycling and walking, taking public transport and moving away from those insidiously evil (and enduring) plastic bags.

It would be optimistic to imagine that adversity is going to bring everyone together; my fear is that the marginal will become even more marginalized, and as the numbers of homeless and dispossessed persons rise, so do the numbers of those we see as "other."

For myself, in the midst of launching an exciting new startup and at the relative beginning of a new relationship, there is the challenge of understanding how, over the next 12 months, I am going to cover my expenses. A year ago, I might have said "Find a new job." Six months ago I would have said "Raise some angel money." But today, I'm telling myself to tighten my belt, conserve costs, and look for consulting gigs and project work, joining the patchwork economy where it lives.