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.