Re: Work or Pay Systems
From: Tim Mensch (
Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2008 11:27:02 -0700 (PDT)
PattyMara Gourley wrote:
Jenny's reply to this thread brings up a subject I've been mulling over

Sustainability.  How physically and emotionally sustainable is it when the
work of community consumes time that could be spent with our children, our
spouses, our livelihoods our selves?  Our original vision at Tierra Nueva
saw our shared life as one that would make things easier and more economical
(economy of scale) for families and individuals by sharing resources, living
lightly on the land, working together.

Alas.  The time required for all community work, be it chores or
committee/meeting time, as well as meal prep and cleanup teams, has been
more than many of us had imagined, and it has had  a detrimental affect on
our families/ourselves, our health.  Add to that conflict..... and the time
necessary for conflict resolution/clearings/mediations.  Add to that the
rigors of maintaining a rural orchard and lush parklike landscape.   Whether
I am a single mom, or an empty nest parent, or a senior "aging in place" the
stress builds up, rapidly cancelling out those hoped for perks of community
life.  How sustainable is this?
Yes, yes, yes! This gets to the core of what I've been thinking for a long time. Though I'm risking starting a religious debate here, I feel like I have a few things to say...

I do actually believe you can get a group of folks together who ALL are willing and able to put in lots of work time toward sustaining a community, without conflict, and without burning out--but for the most part, in reality, it's hard to find enough people of that description quickly enough to sell all the units. Hence Rob's rules of participation, where a third do the expected amount work, a third contribute some, and a third not so much. (correct me if I misremember the details, but that's generally the idea)

In my opinion, cohousing would be much more sustainable--and more compatible with mainstream America--if it were to completely drop the philosophy, "We Need To Do All The Work Ourselves!" I mentioned earlier in this thread that in "pay or play," deciding whether the payment is by household or by member is a religious issue; to some degree, I feel it goes deeper than that, and that some folks support the ideal of cohousing religiously and non-critically.

Do you really need to cut the grass and clean the common house toilets to feel a sense of community? Or could time be better spent planning more parties and events?

To those who genuinely enjoy doing, e.g., landscaping, and/or would rather do the landscaping than put up with a job not done to your satisfaction, that's fine. Do the things you enjoy or are motivated to. The big, big difference, in my opinion, is that if you change expectations, you can eliminate the resentment and guilt. If everyone is supposed to do x hours of work per month, then by Rob's rules above 2/3 of the community is either actively feeling guilty, resented for not doing enough work, or both. They may actually have really, really good reasons for not participating--but still feel the guilt or spawn the resentment. And this fosters strong community how, exactly?

The frequent response is, of course, "pay or play." But that isn't a magic bullet, either. The pay-or-play outline that Sharon posted a while back sounds good on paper, but glosses over the most controversial (and painful to decide upon) parts. What jobs count toward the work hours? If there wasn't debate on that topic before, there will be now. How much should the buyout fee be? How many hours should be required per month? These turn out to have non-obvious answers, and frequently have answers that are mutually contradictory from different members.

Even when a system is implemented, while it can eliminate the resentment from the folks who are doing too much work to start with, since now others have to pay in and are "doing their share" monetarily, it can cause resentment of the folks who are doing a lot of work outside of the work that "counts." As Patty Mara pointed out, even throwing parties takes effort. Does party preparation count toward hours in your pay-or-play system? If it does, then folks who feel they're doing "real" work can resent that while they're cleaning toilets, someone else is planning a party, which seems more fun...and you have that resentment back again.

Once you bring money into the equation, you've added an extrinsic motivation--which psychologists know is a bad idea. You can dissuade a toddler from drawing pictures by offering them rewards to draw the pictures, and then reducing or removing the reward. Even if you love your work, being paid to do it can drain a lot of the intrinsic motivation--and turn it into "just a job"--if you do it for long enough. I am attracted to cohousing because of the benefits that it provides to me. I already have a full-time job, and I don't want another job. Some pay-or-play systems have a pretty low (almost token) hourly buyout, which isn't so bad--but at $25-$30/hour, which I've also seen, it feels punitive. Again, do we want to be punishing our community members? Does that encourage a tight-knit community?

For a low buyout value, it's hard to feel good about working for, say, $5/hour. I could imagine someone who previously enjoyed working deciding that a low rate like that wasn't worth their time--like the toddler above, the extrinsic motivation has damaged the intrinsic motivation, and when the reward isn't deemed sufficient, you decide that you'd rather do something else. For me, it hits on both sides: I'm lucky enough to have a pretty high hourly rate at work, so $30/hour feels both like not worth my time, and like too much to spend for the jobs in question. You can criticize me as not egalitarian, but it's a reality for me, and it's also a reality that most people will resent over-paying.

Cohousing is a recent experiment, culturally speaking. It's even more recent in the US. I really believe that it could be better--that a Cohousing 2.0 is waiting in the wings that will address some of the major issues, and lower the barrier-to-entry. The promise is alluring: The ability to live in a close-knit community, to know your neighbors, and to share resources. Does any part of that promise actually require that we cut the grass or clean the toilets? Or would a constant $20/month increase in everyone's HOA dues that pays for the hard-to-fill-voluntarily tasks be worth the resulting harmony and increased energy that would result in the lack of needing to coerce someone to clean the toilets. People do live in condos. Wouldn't a well-designed condo that stressed community living get you most of the way to cohousing--without most of the hassles?

Tim Mensch

Currently at Wild Sage (Boulder, CO):

Moving out! Our unit is for sale!

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