Little House in the Gig Economy

small-house-353929_1280You can find many discarded treasures on the streets in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. A few months ago, I found a complete, unread boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nine ‘Little House’ books. I scooped the books up, took them home, and devoured them.

The ‘Little House’ series of beloved children’s books describes the experiences of the pioneering Ingalls family – from a child’s perspective – as the family moves from the woods of Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas to a sod house in Minnesota and on to a homestead near a new town in the Dakota Territory in the 1860’s and 70’s.

In reading them, it seems to me that the Ingalls family could be living and working in today’s gig and freelance economy.  Many of the parallels are striking. Let’s look at a few of them:

  1. Pa and Ma Ingalls have a portfolio of marketable skills. They may not all be money makers for the family, but Pa can build houses, play the fiddle, hunt game, trap fish, raise crops, and make tools. Pa sometimes got work helping to build houses, or keeping accounts for the railroad in the new railroad town of De Smet. Ma can sew dresses, make delicious butter and cheese, cook, bake, knit, do laundry, keep house, make meals for borders and visitors, and teach reading, writing and arithmetic. She doesn’t often want paid work, but she has the skills to get a paying gig, and she raises her daughters to do the same.
  2. They worry about where their living will come from. No one who knows Pa and Ma Ingalls would call them lazy! They are smart, sensible, and hard-working, yet it’s still tough for them to make ends meet and put food consistently on the table. Locusts can eat carefully raised crops in less than a day, and one very long winter can wipe out all of their own food reserves and their neighbors’ reserves. Paying jobs aren’t always available, and there’s often no guarantee that a job well done will be fairly and promptly paid.
  3. They worry about how to pay the doctors’ bills. When the family comes down with malaria, and when eldest daughter Mary goes Jahr blind from disease, the Ingalls worry about paying for their medical care. No wonder Ma didn’t want Laura to ride a lively horse! There wasn’t a doctor nearby if Laura broke and arm or her neck, and even if medical help were available nearby, it could be a hardship to pay for.
  4.  They are frequently just a little way off from financial disaster. The reality today is that nearly half of all Americans say they couldn’t come up with the money for a $400 emergency, so you can imagine how $35 here, $25 there can do quick damage to one’s finances. For the Ingalls family, as for today’s freelance and gig workers, there are few safety nets. Despite their hard work, the Ingalls family is often short of funds and Pa and Ma find that they have very little money to spend on such necessities as fabric for their growing daughters’ dresses or such small indulgences as white sugar, coffee, and tobacco for Pa’s pipe.
  5. They worry how they’ll pay for education. Ma Ingalls teaches her children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, but the Ingalls still need to pay for slates and pens and other supplies when their daughters attend town schools. While loans weren’t readily available at the time, the Ingalls family struggled and saved for years in order to send the stricken Mary to a special college for the blind.

I hadn’t read the ‘Little House’ series as a child. Of course I empathized with Laura and her sisters, and I learned a great deal about the customs and traditions they observed. Men wore beards and mustaches, and almost all of them owned and used guns to hunt game and defend themselves and their families. Women wore corsets and put up their hair even in the wilderness. Children were ‘seen and not heard’ at the table. Guests were given the best of everything – even if that was a child’s only toy – and the whole family rested on Sundays whether or not they went to church.

But in reading the books as an adult, I especially empathized with the parents. I realized also how tough life was for the Ingalls family wherever they lived.  How tired Pa must have been at the end of the day of chopping wood, building houses and other structures, farming land, and caring for their animals.

How terrified Ma must have been when Pa was away for days or months. Sitting at night in the rocking chair Pa made for her with the baby on her lap as she rocked. Was she comforting herself as she was comforting the child? How hard it was for Pa and Ma Ingalls to ensure that all of their daughters had food and clothes, love and a daily routine. As they enjoyed their family life, they knew all the while how dire the family’s situation would be if Pa had were injured or lost. Despite the hardships and dangers of wolves and bears, exposure and crop failure, Charles (Pa) and Caroline (Ma) Ingalls kept brave faces – as ‘well bred’ people did – and managed to laugh and enjoy life almost no matter what. Just as most gig and freelance workers do today.

While the Ingalls family would be amazed (and probably delighted) with smart phones, music and video streaming services, microwave ovens and other conveniences, I think they would recognize and feel right at home with many of the conditions of today’s gig and freelance economy.

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