Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Advantage of Mobility and Flexibility

“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.    ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

If there’s been one constant in how I’ve lived my life, it has been a focus on mobility and being flexible in life.  Through the majority of my adult life I’ve been able to fit the possessions I care most about in a small car, and I’ve made many moves and relocations doing just that.  In fact twice in my life I’ve lived between 3-8 months on simply what I was able to bring in two suitcases and a carry-on bag, and one of those being at an overseas location.  Now that I’m married and have a family the number of possessions has certainly grown, but even so the possessions that our family considers most precious would still fit in two suitcases a piece.  Even if extending that list of stuff to the ‘really-nice-to-haves’, it all would still fit in a mid-sized SUV (which coincidentally is our family vehicle).  Part of the reason I do this is because of my interest in travel and experiencing new places, but the other part is because early on I noticed how I was able to take advantage of various opportunities that more ‘rooted’ people have a difficult time of doing.  And while it has never come down to this for myself (at least yet), mobility and flexibility is a handy tactic for survival.

How Does One Define a Life that is Flexible and Mobile?

1) Keeping one’s material possessions to a modest level.  As with the Fight Club quote that started this post, the obsession with ‘stuff’ can get to the point where the stuff you own becomes more of a burden than a benefit.  Whenever making a significant purchase, try to avoid purchases that you will either be unwilling to lug it wherever you go or unwilling to sell and leave it behind.  

2) Limiting one’s attachment to material possessions.  This is just as, if not more important, than limiting the amount of one’s possessions.  Seeing your stuff as ‘just stuff’ is critical in staying mobile and flexible in life.  And when you truly grasp the truth that the majority of your stuff is easily replaceable with a little cash and/or time, you free your mind of being ‘owned’ by your stuff.

3) Having little or no debt.  Debt is the anchor that chains the majority of us to jobs we don’t like or situations we can’t stand.  The less debt you have the more flexible you are, so think very hard before taking any debt on.   

4) Having a healthy savings with a slight emphasis on liquidity.  Money is extremely useful when it comes to relocating or simply dealing with a changing situation.  Money helps you buy new furniture at a new residence after you move, or able to stay in the black when between jobs, or able to pay the bills when something unexpected comes up.  

5) Keeping expenses reasonably low and being frugal (but not cheap).  This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point (saving money), as keeping expenses to reasonable levels helps accomplish the other goal of maintaining a healthy savings.  As for frugal vs. cheap, I think it is best defined as follows: frugal is about knowing one’s priorities and appreciating value, whereas being cheap is only about finding the cheapest price period.  A frugal person is able to splurge when it comes to something important, but a cheap person is not.  I may be willing to accept mediocre quality for something I don’t care much about, but you won’t find me pinching pennies when it comes to buying a computer, a car, or a firearm.  

6) Embracing the information age.  It is wonderful being alive at a time when your movie and book collections can fit on one external hard drive, and that you can do most, if not all, of your banking, bill-paying, business, and communications from anyplace with an internet connection.  The ability to keep in touch with family and friends with Skype, Google Hangouts, and other such things is an immense help in staving off homesickness and preventing the drifting apart that so often happens when situated far from the people you care about.  

7) Keeping one’s eyes, and mind, open to new opportunities.  Simply put, being flexible and mobile isn’t of much use if you never see a reason to change your circumstances.  You have to spend a little of your time looking to see what’s out there.

The Disadvantages

Now all that being said, there are disadvantages with this lifestyle.  In exchange for mobility and the ability to quickly chase opportunities, one has to give up or severely limit some things that are dependent on staying in one place.  If you like gardening or other hobbies of a long-term and land-dependent nature, this won’t work well for you.  Likewise if your hobbies, work, or interests that take up a lot of space, like working on cars, carpentry & woodworking, fine arts, etc.  Also, this lifestyle pretty much requires one to rent vs. own when it comes to your residence.  As much as I find home ownership to be over-hyped, I do understand its benefits and the appeal.  So this lifestyle isn’t for anyone whose top priorities include owning their own home.  Lastly, it doesn’t really allow for putting down roots and being part of a community, which honestly does have advantages of its own that CAN outweigh the advantages of mobility.  This is best articulated by a recent podcast I happened to catch from; if you are interested you can find the podcast link here at The Case for Putting Down Roots.

The Growing Trend

So why am I trying to sell this idea when I acknowledge its disadvantages and the benefits of settling down?  The reason is that I see a growing trend towards contract jobs vs permanent employment, and for many of us mobility and flexibility will be our primary competitive advantage.  I keep my job profile up at various sites just to see what’s out there, and in the past couple years I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of temporary contract positions vs. full time positions advertised for IT and other technical positions.  Most of the various emails and calls I get are from recruiters looking to fill temporary contract positions or contract-to-hire positions, with only a minority looking for permanent hires.  The majority of these contract positions seem to offer a higher (sometimes substantially higher) pay rates, but no health coverage or any other benefits.  We can point fingers all we want as to the causes of the growing temporary/contract work force (the Affordable Care Act, the changing economy, shifts in supply and demand for certain skills, etc.), but at the end of the day we have to deal with the situation as it is and adapt accordingly.  I see a future where many of us will be changing jobs and residences at an even faster pace than now just in order to make a living, and we are going to find mobility may be an advantage, or possibly even a requirement, when it comes to staying employed.  This especially applies to those of us in the younger half of the worker spectrum, where we are often at a disadvantage with our relatively lower levels of experience.  The upshot of it is that it’s younger workers that usually are less tied down to a place and more willing and able to relocate, and that will help offset some of the experience disadvantages.  And while I feel this is a lifestyle better suited for the young, I think many older workers may find this to be advantageous as well.  With industries being created and dying out, many older workers are finding themselves starting in new career fields and having to compete with workers 20 or 30 years younger than they are.  And that can present its own set of challenges for those older workers.  I’m not saying I think this is a good thing, I’m just saying we have to face the situation AS IT IS instead of what we think it SHOULD BE.

When To Say When

There is no easy answer on when the time is right to put down roots, as everyone’s personality and opportunities are different.  I would say that as long as one remains an employee and working for someone else, it will be more of a challenge to stay in place.  So if one really knows it’s time to put down roots or is already ‘rooted’, I would encourage them to go into business for themselves if they have any inclination towards it at all.  At least on a part-time basis, a little something to grow one’s skills and earn a bit of money in addition to one’s regular job.  My family does actually intend to transition to a more permanent living situation over the next 10 years.  My wife would like to be able to have a garden and plant roses, and I would certainly like to eventually be able to have things like a large workshop, a firing range, and a place to plant fruit trees among other things.  And I think it’s no coincidence that the timing of this coincides with our plans to go into business for ourselves.  Yet there is still no doubt that this lifestyle has helped me a great deal up to this point in my life, and I think it can do the same for others as the job climate continues to shift and get more challenging. 

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