by Manish Jain and Kalashree Sengupta
We have interacted with thousands of youth and have found the most common and important question asked by young people in their education today has nothing to do with the syllabus or with what is happening in the world. It is related to, “What is your package?” This seems to be the measure of not only one’s educational purpose but also of one’s self-worth and social value. Sadly, most young people go through 12–16 years of formal education and still have no clear idea of what work is needed in the world, what their talents are and what they want to do with their lives.
The choices of work are still seen as very narrow, with the average government school student only knowing about 6–7 careers, such as teacher, army, doctor, lawyer, coder/IT professional and IAS officer. Even teachers have very little idea of new careers that are emerging. But the world is changing; many leaders describe it as a VUCA world (short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, and a catchall for “Hey, it’s crazy out there!”). Many new innovative careers are needed to deal with the complex challenges facing humanity.
The journey to finding one’s Alivelihood can be seen as essentially a spiritual-material one, where the work that we do can be seen as nothing less than a form of worship (in the best of the Gandhian tradition). It is not simply a means to making money or a skill-training program. ‘Alivelihoods’ represents a conscious movement towards caring for the greater good and a regenerative culture, far beyond the narrow consumerist mindset of building one’s own bank balance, and satisfying individualist egos’ needs.
‘Alivelihoods’ are careers where our soul comes alive and our sense of Self is expanded as we unlearn and up-learn, to work with our heads, hearts, hands and homes. These are careers that benefit not only us but also the local communities and the natural ecosystems that we live in. Careers that replenish and restore our sacred covenant with the rest of nature rather than exploit and pollute.
What is the difference between ‘Deadlihoods’ and ‘Alivelihoods’?
A ‘Deadlihood’ is any work that is soul-sucking, violent, exploitative and separate from our spiritual life. It prioritizes hyper-individualism and greed. It promotes, finances, subsidizes, incentivizes and protects extraction of natural resources, war and waste. It centralizes power in the hands of a few.
The global economic system has been working on the limitless growth model for decades now. It has no regard for our community life, commons and natural ecosystems. Wealth has been defined in modernist terms (such as GNP) as the hoarding and accumulation of money, leading to excessive competition, loneliness, waste, violence and disparity. The accounting and legal systems are designed to hide this. Most of the jobs that the mainstream schools and universities prepare and train us for are Deadlihoods, as they seek to convert us into homo economicus (economic slaves who are dependent on the money system and global economy for all our needs).
On the other hand, ‘Alivelihoods’ build on and re-contextualize the Gandhian concept of Constructive Work. They involve work that brings us joy and involves the regeneration of natural ecosystems, where the focus is on spiritual inner growth, social trust bonds, good health and local natural resources. Real wealth gives us a sense of abundance rather than a feeling of scarcity.
Alivelihoods are built on the paradox of having less gives one more happiness. It has been expressed by social movements such as Gross National Happiness, Buen Vivir, Decluttering, Degrowth, Localization and Voluntary Simplicity.
How Do Alivelihoods Look on the Ground?
In Swaraj University and the Ecoversities Alliance, we have been exposing khoji-learners to people working in Alivelihood careers over the past decade. We have identified more than 50 Alivelihoods. Examples of careers in Alivelihoods are multifold. These range from creative therapists and natural healers, organic farmers, nature conservationists, natural fashion designers, slow impact investing, healthy chefs, community-building facilitators and eco-architects, to name a few.
The focus is on healing, reimagination, localization, conservation, traditional knowledge, seva, regeneration, transformation of existing systems. There are many growing examples of people who have walked out of mainstream careers (in IT, for example) to pursue Alivelihoods. Alivelihoods is not their side charity work. They are able to merge their Dharma and Dhandhaa to earn their living and take care of their families with what they earn through their Alivelihoods career.
Pursuing one’s Alivelihood is not some romantic notion or non-achievable fantasy. It is very much a reality, as seen by many pioneers who have taken up numerous and beneficial Alivelihoods as their careers. One such prominent example is Rohit Jain, the owner of Banyan Roots, involved with working in producing organic products. Rohit visited a village where he came across its kids who knew a lot about organic farming. From there on, he was inspired to start his social entrepreneurial venture and hasn’t looked back since. He is now trying to work with tribal farmers to convert an entire district in Rajasthan to organic and natural farming.
Another example is eco-fashion designer Namrata Manot, who works with natural dyes and sustainable clothing as her Alivelihood. Namrata shares that there are on average 7000+ poisonous chemicals involved in producing a simple t-shirt. In her company Biome, she aims to produce clothing that is friendly to the skin and health as well as to the environment. She is thus creating a sustainable clothing brand, whilst following her passion.
It is important to note that Alivelihoods are not the same as green jobs, social entrepreneurship or the Sustainable Development Goals. These are essentially add-ons to the status quo system. Alivelihoods seek to examine the roots of the crises, rather than just the symptoms. It encourages us to ask deeper questions about the global system and institutions. The four primary circles of Alivehoods are as follows.
– Sense of Purpose: Alivelihoods invoke work that brings us joy and meaning. It is work that ignites passion in our souls and gives us a sense of connection and belonging. It restores our self-esteem and self-confidence and gives us deeper meaning. It re-connects us to local place and context, while giving back to the communities we come from.
Several studies from around the world have noted that around 70% of the people who work a 9 to 5 job hate their jobs. We keep taking on more debt and EMIs to find more happiness. However, this is a trap. It is time to change that to truly seek what makes our hearts sing. The debt per Indian has increased from Rs 43,124 to Rs 1,09,373 in the last nine years. The debt per Indian has become 2.53 times higher than what it was in 2014, in the last nine years of the current government. We are living in an environment where accumulating more debt has become the norm. Debt is one way the system uses to trap us into remaining in Deadlihoods.
– Regenerating Real Wealth: Alivelihoods involve work that replenishes various forms of real wealth, such as health, social capital, nature and local knowledge. It is work that goes beyond measuring success and impact based on the typical financial pay packages and GNP. It is work that takes us beyond our fears and scarcity, by revaluing and re-building a collective field of trust, dignity and a sense of real inner fulfillment. As American biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Wealth among traditional people is measured by having enough to give away.” It is from this place of creative abundance that we can start to imagine and make different systemic choices for ourselves and our planet.
– Shift in Power: Alivelihoods constitute work that focuses on benefiting communities rather than mega-corporations. For decades, our systems have focused on work that makes the rich richer, hence increasing the disparity we see around us. The disparity in our country is astounding. Since 1980, in India, the income of the bottom 50% has decreased by 40% while the top 10% has increased by 80%. This has resulted in an ever-increasing and astonishing rise in the disparity between the rich and the poor.
The growth and greed of corporate power over the last five years are also staggering. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations. Only 49 are countries. This growing economic wealth and power of mega-corporations, from airlines to pharmaceuticals to high-tech companies, have raised concerns about too much concentration of power in the hands of decision-makers who are not accountable to the public. Alivelihoods support more grassroots multi-partisan forms of political organizing and local investment. These also restore decision-making power to the local communities and even shift the way we make decisions (using collective decision-making structures such as sociocracy and cooperatives).
– Changing the Game: Alivelihoods involve work that shifts our worldview towards regeneration, restoration, collaboration and inter-connectedness. They invite us to relook at the fundamental question of “who am I?” They open up a space question, unlearn and shift extrativist narratives such as survival of the fittest, white superiority, patriarchy, nationalism, militarism, hyper-individualism. In Swaraj University, we constantly remind ourselves that “we haven’t come to this earth to compete against each other; rather, we are here to complete each other.” This also invites us to look deeper than many of the institutional labels, definitions and ideologies that we have been branded with around notions of progress, success, happiness, justice, etc.
We must move away from the dominant development meme of the “suburban American Dream” that was foisted on the planet and move towards the well-being of all life. Gandhi offered the notion of swaraj to invite us to both reclaim our notions of the convivial expanded Self and to look more deeply at the systemic design assumptions of modern institutions. Swaraj also calls for us to relook at vernacular and indigenous knowledge systems and associated design values of biomimicry. Changing the game also involves re-connecting to ancient wisdom traditions which promote deep connection with the web of life and invoke the understanding that, “What we do to nature, we do to ourselves.”
The Alivelihoods Journey of Kalashree Sengupta in Her Own Words:
“My ‘alivelihoods’ journey began when I was seventeen years old. However, it was met with a lot of friction from my family who had very different plans for me. I was an only child and was raised with tremendous career pressure. One could say I was raised more like the only son of the family. My parents wanted me to have a spectacular career with an MBA from Harvard followed by taking over the family’s recruiting business.
However, I had very different plans. From a young age, I wanted to help my community and work towards a cause. When I was seventeen, I was attuned to an ancient form of energy healing called Reiki. This shifted everything for me. I realized then that there was something called universal energy and that we were a microcosm of that energy.
Being a clairsentient, someone who feels energy on a tactile and physical level, I decided to become an energy healer. However, I had to graduate from Boston University first in Economics and Finance. My father threatened that if I didn’t, he would have me brought back from the U.S. immediately.
Upon graduating college, I started training in shamanism, energy, and bodywork. Afterwards, I worked alongside a chiropractor, primarily doing energy work and womb healing to combat women’s trauma. The work was deeply fulfilling. I continued the practice in India, where I saw many cases on mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
My parents still wish I was running the family business. However, I know that my free and altruistic spirit has chosen the right path. Choosing my family’s business would have been a ‘deadlihood,’ a dead-end career of little to no fulfillment. I saw the family recruiting business as an opportunistic poaching game, one without any altruistic motivation.
I have taken up the alivelihood of a writer for change-making platforms, after my alivelihood as a healer, to continue to make an impact in my immediate community. I believes I can utilize my creative and cognitive skills, while making a difference through the power of the word.” — Kalashree
What Does Learning and Preparing for Alivelihoods Look Like?
Most available career guidance and counselling processes are all geared towards Deadlihoods careers. There are some good online resources for youth to explore basic career questions and to know that they don’t have to get stuck in a cookie-cutter Deadlihood. In India, for example, organisations like Alohomora and GnaanU provide career exploration videos for youth so that they start reflecting more on career choices vis-a-vis their gifts and talents. These initiatives are especially geared toward the youth from marginalized populations. They are key in gaining traction from a consumerist job to a more meaningful vocation that serves personal and societal well-being.
There still needs to be more opportunities for both learning journeys and apprenticeship learning, where learners can actually go and find out what the work is actually like, and why individual Alivelihoods leaders are driven and deeply committed to the work that they do. Jagruti Yatra and Vimukt Shiksha Yatra provide some good examples of this.
To go deeper into Alivelihoods, educators can start by asking more fundamental questions around many of the basic things we use and the systems that are around us. Questions like where does my food and water come from, or where does my clothing come from, or where do the materials to build my house come from, or where does my waste or my shit actually go?
Most ‘educated’ young people (and their parents and teachers) do not have any idea where these things actually come from, how are they made, and what’s behind them. As my friend Jinan often says, “Children nowadays grow up seeing final products; they no longer see the processes behind these.” We have totally been disconnected by the modern education system from these basic questions of life. Ironically, a so-called illiterate person would have much more answers to these questions than a so-called educated urban person.
In Swaraj University, we often start this conversation by sharing a powerful YouTube video called the Story of Stuff. We also pick up random every day products such as a pen or a plastic bag and ask learners to imagine and describe the entire life-cycle of these products i.e., how were they ‘born’ and where do they go when they ‘die’?
Another area for educators to explore for Alivelihoods is how do we learn to re-connect to and fall and love with our local place? We are taught about the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, New York City, and so many places far far away. But we aren’t encouraged to learn much about our local neighbourhoods, local stories or local sacred sites. (If we do not know them, how and why will we ever bother to conserve or take care of them?) Much of this can only be accessed through knowing local languages.
When learners come to the Swaraj University campus, each of them, as part of their learning program, is invited to adopt a tree, water body or a mountain spot. Over the course of the program, they keep revisiting and speaking and listening to this being. This helps learners connect to the place in a very different, slower, more sacred, way. It also reminds us that we are not the only intelligent beings on the planet. Such pedagogies stimulate a curiosity to know more about a local place. Genuine forms of seva also build a sense of belongingness to place. We are deeply inspired by models such as the Langhar.
The modern education system has locked us into only wanting to interact with people of our own age. Peer group culture, which is very powerful, can have lots of supports for our learning in very deep ways. But intergenerational learning is being ignored quite a bit. Schooling doesn’t encourage us to talk to elderly people, grandparents, neighbours, local artisans and farmers or listen to their wisdom and their perspectives as it oftentimes labels them as ‘uneducated’. But these people have a lot of stories and experiences to share about local places, how they are changing and the challenges facing them.
And then obviously, we need more focus on design thinking and social entrepreneurship from early on. The whole focus of education a generation earlier was that you study well, you get a degree, then a job and then retire. But that’s not the case anymore. And so, we need more spaces for people to design their own products or solutions, to creatively learn how to make things with their hands, and build their own local markets around it. Design for Change, Project DEFY and Creativity Adda are a good example of this at school level.
At Swaraj University, we do two things. Learners are invited to prototype small products and explore how to make money from these. With each of them, they ask “how does this serve the people, place and profit triple bottom line?” And then we have a lot of projects to explore what we call gift culture, which are really interventions in building a culture of kindness, compassion, collaboration care and trust. Sadly, gift culture is not really explored or experimented with much in schools and colleges. But I have seen that this shift from ME to WE profoundly redefines the meaning of business.
There is a more fundamental design problem with modern education which also needs to be addressed. We have an education system that’s built on extrinsic motivation. You do something because there’s a reward or a punishment for it. We haven’t really created the time and space for young people to slow down and organically figure out and connect with their own intrinsic motivations. This is one of the main factors for why we can see an increase in mental health crises as well as drug-escapism epidemic.
In Swaraj University, learners are invited to explore what inspires them, what makes them sad, what makes them angry and how do these connect with the big challenges of our times. Based on these, they design and build projects in real time, without any externally imposed rewards, punishments or deadlines. Importantly, they have ample time to explore and experiment and find their own ‘gurus’ (defined as sources of inspiration). Experiencing the world is given more value and importance than just reading textbooks about it and getting marks. And we encourage the learners to operate outside of the conventional disciplinary boundaries.
We have set up cohorts of learners with cross-disciplinary backgrounds. This helps in deep peer-to-peer learning. Somebody’s looking deeply into water or native species forestry or eco-architecture or or solar energy or community theatre, and they’re all together. This creates very exciting kinds of cross-pollination learning possibilities when you’re able to bring people of different interest areas together and they start connecting the dots. In contrast, our current education system keeps people of certain disciplinary categories bounded in echo chambers. In addition to building more holistic understanding of life and Alivelihoods, we are also creating an opportunity for them to be expansive parts of each other’s journeys and support each other’s projects as well. Learning to collaborate and work as a team is critical.
The inner resilience of young people is another important area that we schools and learning centres need to explore more. Oftentimes when one is doing something, there are failure and mistakes involved. How do we use these as essential healthy parts of our learning process rather than hiding or feeling guilty or shameful about them? We make it a point to take time to celebrate and reflect on ‘failure stories’ and ‘mistakes’ as part of Swaraj University.
These are some of the fundamental shifts in values that are needed in modern education if we are to nurture more young people towards Alivelihoods.
Towards New Beginnings
It is interesting to note that (despite the education system), we are seeing a conscious shift from Deadlihoods to Alivelihoods, and from a consumerist to an altruistic, sustainability and community-oriented mindset in young people. A recent study indicated that a third of 18 to 24-year-olds have rejected a job offer based on the prospective employer’s Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) performance, in favour of more environmentally friendly roles which fuel and regenerate our eco-systems. ‘Conscious quitting’ is a term used to describe people leaving jobs that do not align with wholesome values.
Sadly, there are almost no formal degree courses for most of the emerging Alivelihoods in the country. Modern universities are virtually ignoring Alivelihoods (and there is of course a deeper question of whether they can actually be taught sitting in classrooms). One of the most important tips to pursue Alivelihoods is to work alongside those who have already created a profession in doing so. IT-turned Delhi-based urban farmer Kapil Mandawewala also talks about shadowing other organic farmers across the country for a few hours each day to learn the tricks of the trade. Taking a gap year from school, college, or job is also a very good option for exploring Alivelihoods more deeply. The Ecoversities Alliance of alternative universities supports learning Alivelihoods across 50 countries around the world.
It is also important to note that one can have numerous skills and have multiple Alivelihoods in one’s lifetime. Mahatma Gandhi had thirty different careers in his lifetime alone. One need not box oneself even in one Alivelihood. Many young people are working on several Alivelihoods which complement each other. A human being is multi-faceted with numerous interests and one size does not fit all. As psychologist Gabor Mate says, “The time has come to let go of the myth of ‘normal’.
We live in overwhelming yet exciting times. We have to admit that the global system of capitalism is broken and structurally unsound to the point where human presence and impact on planet earth has become destructive on a large scale level. Alivelihoods provides us with an opportunity to redesign our human systems and our lives with greater consciousness and wisdom. What could be not only more urgent, but more rewarding, than working together to solve the greatest challenges of the 21st century?