Musing about Designing Family Gap Years

In a prior post, I have envisioned a supported living community to help low-income households build skills, raise children, and grow wealth. The goal is to combine light consumption with a healthy environment in which to live.

A supported living community requires supportive people. To some extent, the striving young households I am targeting can support each other when given a strong framework. However, achieving a healthy community could be greatly helped if it were mixed with households who have already “made it” and are there with a mission to help others. Better resourced households could share their wisdom, connections, and mentorship. The topic of this post is a plan to attract high-resource households to a low-consumption community.

I am inspired by examples that demonstrate the power of mixing accomplished or privileged people into communities that are struggling. L’Arche communities are group homes that integrate mentally disabled adults and neurotypical volunteers. Importantly, the mentally disabled residents are given the primacy of being the permanent house members, while volunteers may come and go. JPUSA, in Chicago, follows a similar model of leaning in to the lives of elderly and low income neighbors. In his 2018 commencement speech at Purdue University, Mitch Daniels fretted about growing alienation between the fancy-educated elite and everybody else in American. Programs like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and Peace Corps help idealistic young people resist this tendency while benefitting disadvantaged communities. The communist governments of China and Cuba, at different times, coerced university students to move to the countryside and serve local residents. Without justifying the violence of governments, these episodes also demonstrated the powerful effects of mixing elites into popular society.

Programs to facilitate cross-class mixing typically target young people or sometimes old people: Those with fewer entanglements. Is it possible to also invite families into the mix? I want to design a gap year experience for middle and upper-middle class families to try living simpler lives of service. My own family—with a kids who are two, four, and seven years old today—is an example. Can I design a feasible year-long break from my family’s life of work and school, during which we would live in humbler circumstances and help our neighbors?

The requirements can be broken into two big parts: (a) How to pause life for a year and (b) how to live during the pause.

The first part, figuring out how to hit “pause”, would be quite different for each family, but an organization could offer consulting and tools to help a family figure it out. Personally, I would need to secure a leave of absence from work and come to terms with how that might affect my career progression. Alternatively, I could wait for a natural break between jobs, when stepping off the hamster wheel for a time would be less damaging. I would need to rent out our house and mitigate any other fixed costs of our lifestyle like car payments. I might need to pause participation in any side hustles or non-profit activities I am working on. And I would need confidence that my kids could re-enroll in their school when we return.

Admittedly, this is more than a hassle and would only be feasible for some families. One should expect that families who are willing to try a 1-year pause have good reason to need a break from their lives. Perhaps families would use the time to work on marital problems or relationship problems with their kids. Or maybe families would have an economic motivation. Temporarily scaling down their consumption might help a midde class family get through a job loss without eating up their savings.

A dose of asceticism can also be a goal in itself, whether for religious, environmental, or personal reasons. Families might like the idea of living simpler, but they struggle with how doing so would make them less financially secure and threaten their children’s future societal position. Designing paths for families to experiment with downshifting while mitigating common risks of doing so—with an included “undo” button—could allow more families to try it out.

Designing an attractive low-consumption experience during a family’s pause is more inside of the organization’s control and is a more homogeneous task. Essentially, the higher income folks would buy the same package of services that other residents buy. Safety and good quality education is already a priority, but we might need strategies to mitigate fears of negative peer effects in school. Most government benefits would be harder for these richer families to claim, though that point is worth exploring. It might be helpful to ensure the community has some diversity in the quality of available housing, since richer families might have trouble accepting certain types of housing. Transparency in how the organization operates would probably be paramount.

Written on October 26, 2022