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Working on the Good Life at Twin Oaks Community
by a Twin Oaks member

“The one fact that I would cry from every housetop is this: the Good Life is waiting for us—here and now!” —B. F. Skinner, Walden Two

In his controversial Utopian novel Walden Two,  published in 1948, the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner laid out his idea of the good life: A four-hour work day. Free choice of jobs, with some manual work for everybody. No leisure class. No unemployment. A high standard of living at low expense, achieved by sharing resources and rejecting consumerism. And all based on a “labor credit” economy, in which everyone would do a fair share of work, everyone’s needs would be met, and everyone would find a satisfying part to play in the life of the community.

In 1967, a small group of Skinner enthusiasts pooled their savings, bought a hundred-acre farm in rural Virginia, and set out to make Walden Two a reality. They called their experiment Twin Oaks.

Today Twin Oaks is a community of nearly a hundred people living on 465 acres of rolling farmland and woods. We own the land in common, live together in eight residences which we built ourselves, and share our meals in a large central dining hall. We work together in the community’s businesses and decide as a group how to use the profits. People come from all over the world to see how we practice cooperation and equality.

Are we living the good life as Skinner imagined it? In large part, yes. There’s no unemployment at Twin Oaks-we just divide up whatever work needs to be done. People can choose whatever jobs they enjoy (except dishwashing, which everyone is expected to take a turn at). There are hundreds of jobs to choose from; most people choose a variety, mixing work that’s challenging and relaxing, physical and intellectual, social and solitary. It all comes together in the end: the bills get paid, the cars get repaired, dinner appears on the table every evening at six. Each individual’s contribution keeps the community going.

The Labor Credit

At Twin Oaks, a labor credit is simply an hour of work. That’s not the way Skinner thought it would be. In Walden Two, different jobs got different amounts of credit; for example, a worker got a credit and a half for an hour spent cleaning sewers, but only a tenth of a credit for an hour working in the flower garden. Skinner’s idea was that some jobs were more pleasant than others, and the only way to distribute work fairly would be to have people with less pleasant jobs work shorter hours.

The early Twin Oakers used this variable credit system, with some interesting results. First they tried deciding as a group which jobs deserved more credit, which led to arguments and competition about whose job was hardest and least desirable. Then they tried letting each person rate jobs according to personal preference. This meant that two people could be canning tomatoes together, but one would be earning more credit than the other. No matter how the difference had been arrived at, it didn’t feel fair.

As one of our first members, Kat Kinkade, points out in her book, Is It Utopia Yet?, Skinner didn’t realize that every job will appeal to somebody, and no job will appeal to everybody. Some people would rather rake sludge in our sewage treatment plant than sit through a three-hour meeting—and they do. Some people would rather manage the complexities of a phone switchboard or a computer accounting system than the complexities of a shopful of rope-making machinery or a 22-bit gang drill, and they do. If there’s a job that nobody wants to do, the community figures out a different way to do it or it doesn’t get done.

So for the last twenty-five years at Twin Oaks, one hour of anyone’s work at any job has been equal to one hour of anyone else’s work at any job. The one exception is childcare, which gets partial credit depending on the child’s age. This is more a practical than a philosophical issue—since each child requires twenty-four hours of care a day, if we gave childcare full credit we wouldn’t be able to afford more than one or two children in the whole community.

The Manager Problem

There is no labor/management split at Twin Oaks. We own our businesses collectively, and management is broken down into dozens of positions covering every area of life in the community. Anyone who wants to can be a manager.

The trouble sometimes is finding people who do want to. In the outside world, managers get more money, more prestige, a corner office, a better parking space. At Twin Oaks, all work is valued equally. If it’s work the community wants done, it’s important, whether it’s working with people or machines or vegetables. Being a manager here means all of the responsibility, with the enjoyment of the challenge and a feeling of accomplishment as the only rewards.

Recently a few members suggested a modified return to the variable credit system, with extra credit going to people willing to take responsibility in their work areas. The suggestion got mixed reviews. So far, most Twin Oakers seem to value our tradition of equality over individual incentives.

Working Quota

Labor Credits vs. Money

The labor credit system operates as an internal economy at Twin Oaks. People often “pay” each other, in credits taken from their vacation balances, to help them with a personal project such as building a bookcase for their room. We think about labor credits a fair amount, and feel good when we’ve socked some away in our vacation balances. Most people here don’t enjoy finding themselves in the labor hole any more than people on the outside enjoy coming up short when the rent is due—though the latter will face eviction much sooner than the former. And nothing offends Twin Oakers faster than a suggestion that some work they do shouldn’t be creditable.

Are labor credits just another way of “doing” money, then?

Not really. For one thing, we all do our share. If some people accumulate lots of vacation, it just means that they put in extra hours of work earlier. They didn’t inherit labor credits from their grandparents or triple their vacation balance through investment and speculation.

But more than that, I think there is a real difference between greed for money and the desire for labor credits. Money represents consumption. Labor credits represent time. If Twin Oakers long for labor credits, at least we’re putting value where it belongs—not on the pointless and harmful accumulation of excess wealth, but on the irreplaceable hours of our lives.

Does it Work?

It does work—with a bit of room for slack. Some people keep track of the time they work to the last tenth of an hour. Others round up or down to the nearest hour—in some cases, perhaps, more often up than down. It’s all on the honor system anyway. We fill out our own labor sheets and total our credits ourselves. It’s hard to cheat much when you know your “employer” isn’t a bloated multinational corporation but the friends you sat with at dinner with last night.

Visitors sometimes see our labor system as too uptight, too regimented. Why can’t we all just chip in and do what needs to be done without messing around with quotas and credits? But as Robert Frost might have put it, good structures make good neighbors. It’s the structure of our labor system that allows us to relax, trusting that the work of the community is being taken care of and we are all doing our share.

Perhaps that is what would please B. F. Skinner the most. As a behaviorist and a utopian thinker, he believed that improved social structures would lead to personal happiness and the communal good. We may not be Utopia yet, but our labor system works well enough to have kept the community together and growing for over thirty years. It makes the good life work.

We haven’t quite achieved Skinner’s four-hour work day yet. This year our work quota is 45.5 hours a week. That might sound like a lot if you work a forty-hour-a-week job. But our 45.5 hour week includes tasks like child care, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, mowing the lawn—all work we’d be expected to do during our “free” time on the outside. We take work credit when we’re sick, too, and quota is gradually reduced for older members as they age.

Every member is given close to three weeks of vacation time each year. If we want more—and most of us do—we work over quota to earn it, like comp time. Every hour a member works over quota goes into a personal vacation balance, which is cumulative for the entire period of membership. We take our vacations whenever we like.

Lower vs. Higher Quota

Still, lowering quota is always a popular political issue at Twin Oaks, much like lowering taxes is on the outside. But while most of us would like to work less, few of us would like to take away hours or money from areas we care about. (Cheap store-bought dairy products instead of natural cheese, yogurt, and milk from our own cows? No way! What about cutting hours for members who volunteer at the local soup kitchen or animal shelter? Oh, not that .... )

Two-thirds of our labor goes to domestic areas—all the work which doesn’t make money but which makes up the life of the community. Working in the four-acre organic garden where we grow most of our food is domestic labor. So is planning holiday celebrations, homeschooling children, stocking the firewood sheds behind the buildings, or taking visitors on a tour of our home.

The higher quota is, the more work is creditable; the less work is creditable, the lower quota could be. If only money-making work were creditable, we’d have the twenty-hour work week Skinner envisioned. We could all work together in our businesses, split the proceeds, and spend our money and time as we each chose individually. But then we wouldn’t be a community. At worst, we might be like mainstream America as John Kenneth Galbraith described it in The Affluent Society, choosing personal luxury at the price of public squalor.

What if we went the other way, raising quota and making more activities creditable? Every now and then someone makes a proposal in that direction. Wouldn’t it be nice to get hours for exercising? After all, we take labor credits for going to the doctor, so why not encourage healthy habits too? How about hours for the hobby groups—the juggling class, the Sculpture Vultures, the Sunday morning knitters? Don’t we value these community-building activities? But then a cry goes up from those who like to spend their free time reading or meditating or chatting with a friend, They don’t want to work extra hours or lose control over their leisure time.

In other words, quota is a way of balancing the needs of the individual and the group. If quota gets too low, we’re no longer deciding as a community where to direct our energy. If quota gets too high, we give up that crucial margin of personal freedom. So our weekly labor quota will probably continue to hover in the forty-hour range.

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