Out of work? Join the “System D” economy

Foreign Policy has a must read article for anyone out of work and frustrated about their job prospects.  It’s about débrouillards or System D’ers.  Who are they?  Let me explain…

The French call particularly ingenious, motivated or effective people débrouillards. To be a débrouillard is to be economically resourceful and self-reliant to the extreme. In the global economy, the word has been applied to those inventive, self-starting entrepreneurs who do business on their own — typically as street merchants in the many unlicensed street markets and bazaars in third world and developing economies.

Many work completely outside the arm of crushing state bureaucracies in businesses that aren’t registered or regulated. They are part of the global “l’economie de la débrouillardise“, also known as “Systeme D” and most fly completely under the radar.  According to Foreign Policy, this basically translates to the “ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy.”

How big is the System D economy?  It’s well over $10 trillion!  And it’s growing.

Where are the System D’ers?  Turns out they’re everywhere.  Next time you’re in a cab, watch your driver.  Is he on his cell phone talking in his native tongue? If so, he’s probably part of the System D economy.  As I wrote about here, most cabbies (especially immigrants) aren’t simply driving passengers to and fro.  They are also on the phone to their contacts in Nigeria negotiating palm oil imports.  They are finalizing logistics to ship containers of used clothing from the U.S. to Ethiopia.  Some are running nightclubs or restaurants on the side or even negotiating lease arrangements with prospective tenants for the apartment buildings they own (No, I’m not kidding… On my last trip to the states, I talked to a cabbie from Ethiopia who owned 32 apartment units).

As it turns out, those of us in the first-world who have relied on a cushy job in a corporate cubicle with perks, paid health care and a nice pension have a hell of a lot to learn from System D’ers who have made their way — and in fact thrived — in much more hardscrabble environments.

Here’s the point:  If you’re sitting around waiting for the economy to improve or for your old job to come back, you’re going to be waiting for a mighty long time.  The global economy is undergoing a massive transition and the odds are that your next job doesn’t even exist yet.  In other words, the next big wave of successful workers won’t so much as go out to find their next job — they’ll invent it.

Here’s three examples that demonstrate what I mean…

State cutbacks around the country are dumping qualified teachers on the streets. In New York alone, layoffs hit 3% of the teachers this year.  That’s 7000 teachers who are out of work.  Now, those teachers can wave protest signs, they can stomp their feet, and they can complain about the injustice of it all, but what good will that do?  Those jobs are not coming back anytime soon.

Instead, why not do what three teachers I know personally did?  They left the U.S. altogether and now teach children of expats here in Panama. They get free housing in an apartment right on the beach, the cost of living is next to nothing, and they are having the time of their lives.  I know of several families here who would gladly hire qualified teachers from the U.S. to come down and teach their children. (Incidentally, there’s no reason out of work teachers couldn’t do this in the U.S as well… Just think of how many home schooling parents could use a hand)

Or you can do what my friend TC did.  TC grew up on the south-side of Chicago. Rough place.  His pops was from Panama so he spoke some Spanish.  He’s been in Central America for the past 5 years running a concierge service for expats who don’t speak the language.  He does everything from hiring locals to stand in line at the motor vehicle department for his clients, to taking expats’ cars in for repairs, to serving as a translator for foreigners trying to get residency.  He has more business than he knows what to do with.

Or, if you’re single, do what Jeremiah Thompson did.  He moved from Montana to Brazil and started photographing beautiful Brazilian women on the beach.  No, he wasn’t a professional photographer and the women he photographed weren’t professional models.  They were simply beautiful women on the beach whom he would approach and ask if he could take their photograph.  Brilliant idea! Thompson now has a hugely successful business marketing The Girls of Brazil swimsuit calendar.

Here’s the thing: You can sit around wishing reality were different and hope the economy returns to normal.  But that’s not going to be a recipe for success. Instead, get out there and create your own reality.  Find a need that your expertise or your passion allows you to fill and go fill it.  For better or worse, the System D economy is probably here to stay.  What that means is that folks are going to have to become entrepreneurial whether they like it or not.  For those who recognize this and are ready to be economically resourceful, self-reliant and creative it will present huge opportunities.

I’m really, really interested in this subject by the way… So, if you’re already part of the System D economy, or have great ideas on becoming a “System D’er“, I’d love to hear from you.





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9 Responses to "Out of work? Join the “System D” economy"

  1. English Teacher says:

    “Here’s three examples that demonstrate what I mean…”
    “Here ARE three examples that demonstrate what I mean…

    • Craig says:

      English Teacher,
      For your sake, you need to stay with your gov’t paid job – you’ll never make it in the real world.

      • Sasha says:

        Heh, why because he explained you something? Man you should work on your ego. It’s better to learn something, even if it is a tiny bit, than to live in ignorance.

  2. deb says:

    The biggest problem I see with some of this is that it’s NOT just as simple as uprooting to find new work. In my case it would mean either my husband leaves his job or I leave my husband. The kids get uprooted from an outstanding school, and they will need to be housed and fed wherever we end up as well. My teaching job may not be coming back, so I look for private tutoring jobs here but the homeschooling community is already pretty hardscrabble itself and while they’re happy for my services and wouldn’t begrudge me payment if they had it – most of them simply don’t. They can’t pay me, so I can’t make a living at it. (Also in our state and some others, parents/guardians are legally required to do the actual homeschooling except in cases of advanced coursework where tutors might be used, and even then some inspectors have taken families to court. :-()

    Child care might be an option for me with my teaching degrees, but that is not an area where it’s frankly even safe to fly under the radar, not in a society as litigious as this one. Teaching music lessons has helped pay for groceries, but again, that’s a luxury in an economy where paying for food and keeping the car running trump the cost of and instrument and music study, and school demands take away what little time the kids have to be kids (and practice a musical instrument), so my 3 students a week really only helps out so much, especially every time a parent comes to me and tells me that due to job cutbacks, music lessons will be ending “this week.” (That’s partly how I ended up with only 3 from a high of 8.) I’m a big fan of flying under the radar, did it for years teaching lessons and selling crafts, but even those aren’t selling any more and I’m getting out of the biz.

    For unattached singletons, or for families without much stability already, this can be an awesome way to live. But for those of us already tied down, there’s more to it: there are other people’s lives and livelihoods to consider, there are aged parents for whom we are caregivers to consider, and yes, there are legal factors (like in the homeschooling example you gave) to consider. There’s the very real possibility that what starts off lucrative will end up leaving us more broke than where we are now (tech bubble, anyone?). And it’s scary, especially for those of us who would be taking small children on such a journey.

    I would love some more examples, though, of people who’ve done that successfully. I’d love some more particulars. You’ve written an inspiring article, one that makes me wish I could see myself doing something like that and feeling relatively safe for my family. How does one even get into those fields (import/export, for example, or finding English-teaching positions for an endless stream of expatriots)? Where to find information? How to research particulars like housing and food and travel? Because what you’ve got so far isn’t enough for me. Yet. 😉

    • Coley Hudgins says:

      Who said it was simple? If I gave that impression, let me disabuse you of it right now… It’s not. Not only is it not simple, it’s risky as well.

      Yes, that’s right. There are risks involved, and there are no guarantees of success. That’s just the way the world works.

      Each of of these folks got way outside of their comfort zone… They took risks… They probably struggled… They changed their situations… and ultimately they made them better.

      It’s easy to come up with 101 reasons why something CAN’T be done. None of the folks in the examples above did that though.

      Fine, the examples above may not work for you. So what does? You’ll need to figure that out yourself.

      But here’s another great idea I’m going to give you for free just because I’m a nice guy: You know how I learned Spanish? I had a Spanish tutor in Mexico who gave me lessons over Skype Video chat twice a week for two hours. She advertised over the Internet. I paid for each lesson through PayPal.

      She was in her late 20s and had a brand new baby that she would bounce on her knee while we studied. She had students from all over the world and had created a lucrative little small business for herself that she could run from the comfort of her living room in Chihuahua Mexico.

      Sounds like you’re an English teacher. There are people all over the globe who want to learn English. If you have an Internet connection, you’re in business.

  3. Tom says:

    There is a great website called Overcoming Consumerism
    that has a section on the “alternate economy”.

    We saw it years ago and have used many of the techniques they talk about and have as a result lowered our stress level and are doing great things with our neighbors to save money, make a more secure neighborhood and most of all, stick it to the man!


  4. Hi- Until I saw this I didn’t realise that I was part of the “system D” economy! I am currently launching a new social business collage-network.co.uk which is a direct response to helping people to reposition themselves in the rapidly changing world of work. I would like to share with you what I wrote last night in an attempt to explain what I’m trying to do!

    We believe that world of work has changed. Forever.
    Today, it is arguably
    tougher than at any time for many people to find employment. And, even
    when you do, the crippling economic climate means you could soon lose it
    again – a soul-destroying process you might be doomed to repeat over
    and over.
    But what if there was another way?
    true that traditional employment is still seen by most as the only way
    forward. Yet in an age of technology and improved communications, what
    if there was a way to link up with other people whose skills compliment
    your own and team up – or “collaborate” – to everyone’s mutual benefit?
    Collage Network, is a social business which strives to offer exactly that.
    concentrate on bringing together people who desire a new way of working
    – a model outside the customary cycle of approaching an employer,
    sending your CV, and hoping against hope you’ll be hired.
    our expert workshops, practical advice, and a growing online community,
    we will guide you towards the opportunities you may have overlooked, and
    actively put you in touch with others who, through collaboration, can
    help you progress your chosen goals. This could happen even while you’re
    still working, or are continuing to pursue work, in the traditional
    This new approach is the reason we call ourselves Collage –
    as in the Age of Collaboration. The old ways are failing. It’s time a change 🙂

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