I enjoy reading post-apocalyptic stories. Some of my favorites over the years have been Folk of The Fringe by Orson Scott Card, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, The Postman by David Brin (and not the Kevin Costner movie by the same name), Nightfall by Isaac Asimov, as well as young adult novels I read in grammar school like Children of the Dust and The Tripods.
After the recent dispensational premillenialist rapture predictions, the economic collapse that has wiped the American middle class of their wealth, and a number of natural disasters that demonstrate how precarious our society has become, it's high time to consider what happens when our society can no longer sustain itself.
This is one such thought experiment. This is a list of career opportunities you can pursue when the shopping mall is closed for good, the supermarket stocks no longer stocks food, and you no longer have to worry about casual Friday.
With the absence of commerce and technology, we'll no longer be an “information-based” society. If things get really bad, we'll probably lose manufacturing, too. The displacement of manufacturing and information-based jobs will leave a lot of people unemployed and listless. There will be no food at the grocery store and no one would have money to purchase it anyway. Even in our “civilized” nation, many people know only one rule: satisfy their desires at all costs. Without the threat of police, justice, and other trappings of civilization that keeps us honest, many will turn to marauding, looting, stealing, and banditry, either solo or in groups. This will be a strong-against-weak world, so anyone who can provide protection to their local communities of survivors will be in high-demand. This will be a status opportunity for men (and women too), and these high-status warriors will enjoy extra food, companionship and other benefits that a community can offer. The strongest warriors will probably become local warlords.
Local neighborhoods with land and homes they can protect (see warriors above) will revert to small agrarian communities. This allows each person with land to begin growing food – at first to feed themselves and later to barter with neighbors. Many small urban communities are already doing this (think urban hipsters with their “square foot gardens”, chicken coops, and other return-to-the-land initiatives). This will be a no-brainer opportunity for anyone with a house and a plot of land.
Initially, most of us won't immediately revert to the ultimate retro lifestyle. How many people know how to sew? How many know how to make more needles to sew with? Remember, manufacturing has probably stopped. Who among my readers know how to make a pair of shoes or a coat from animal skin or wool? We've grown indolent and forgetful in our lazy society with the automation that brought with mass-produced goods. We no longer have skilled craftsmen who can make things such as boots, utensils or even gardening tools. So those that can scavenge existing items will be able to immediately barter for food, protection, and other basic needs. However, these items will eventually run out. As they become scarce, there exists a risk of fighting over a small box of screws found in an abandoned hardware store with other scavengers or even the local thugs/warlords.
It won't take long for stable communities to being looking for improvements. Engineers were the ones who built aqueduct systems to carry water over long distances to irrigate crops or keep domestic animals hydrated. Engineers are the ones who designed buildings as large as the pyramids and as small as a Engineers will be the ones to help design and build new things out of raw materials, whether it be from scavenged bricks and lumber or small trees cut from cleared field. And I'm not talking about software engineers either. We're talking about engineers who can design and build things, as well as direct groups of people when building larger projects (corn mills, dams, community fortifications, etc).
Many churches, mosques, and synagogues already have built-in communities near their places of worship, as religion has always played a large part of many people's lives. These communities will prosper by providing a system of community government, headed by the high priest (pastor, bishop, rabbi, etc). The Priest provides psychological validation and reassurance, functions as a leader of a community, and can quickly organize a community around a shared belief. The high priest will always need assistance, so the hierarchy of supporting priests will prove increasingly important. This will be an opportunity for those who have a natural talent for people skills over the physical labor involved farming or warriorship.
6. Medicine Man / Healer
It goes without saying, people (and animals) get sick. In many communities, this profession will be absorbed into the priesthood (“God heals those who pray”). However, some secular communities might retain a vestige of science or knowledge to provide relief to those in pain or in need of bodily repair. There will no longer be any pharmaceutical companies manufacturing pain relievers, cold medicine, itch creme, lib balm and the like, so the ability to locate herbs used in healing and ointments will be necessary. Additionally, someone who is willing to splint broken bones, sew up gaping wounds from war with neighboring communities or marauders, and assist women in childbirth while maintaining an iron stomach in such circumstances will be highly regarded.
Teaching as a profession will be nearly lost, or at least so transformed as to be unrecognizable. Most trades, like farming or any craft will be taught in an apprenticeship. Parents will return to being the primary instructors of their children, passing on their family and community values along with the specific life skills their progeny might need. In many communities, the priesthood will absorb the responsibility of teaching the community at large, but there will be an opportunity for itinerant teachers to move among communities and peddle knowledge in exchange for food. A skilled teacher might convince a community to allow him entrance and give him food and shelter in exchange for the knowledge he brings from other communities. Many of those communities might be less eager to share their own proprietary knowledge, fearing it could be used against them. The skilled teacher will need to be adept at building trust and providing a balance of usable knowledge (specific skills, craft knowledge) and abstract knowledge (history, philosophy).
As communities organize themselves, gain internal stability, and successfully defend their territories, they will eventually rediscover trade and commerce. A community with a surplus of corn may learn that the community nearby has a local healer who can teach their healer new techniques, or provide additional scavenged materials for engineers to complete local projects. This will lead to a merchant profession, as those who have mobility and can gain trust with strangers will be able to move goods and services between communities and gain status and eventually leadership.
So as we move toward economic chaos and the breakdown of society, think through what you know now. Think what function you might serve when your civilized society is limited to the small community in your geographic area. Think how you might survive, and even prosper in our new world. And good luck.