What work means to members of intentional community Twin Oaks
by Jane Harkness
Younger generations are shifting the idea of what it means to work and make a living outside the limits of a typical 9-5. Whether it’s telecommuting, entrepreneurship, or even saving aggressively to retire early, it’s clear that many people are feeling unfulfilled in the traditional labour market. Yet for all of our efforts to strike a better balance between work and life, our labour often still amounts to an individual pursuit for the sake of personal profits. What if an approach to both work and life based on cooperation and collectivism could afford us more time to do what we love—and still provide the resources everyone needs to be comfortable? It may sound like an idea that lost steam after the 1970s, but today, there are still small, functioning communities centered around collective ownership and labour, proving that the concept may not be so unrealistic after all.
In 1967, the counterculture movement was in full swing, and thousands of “flower children” made their way to San Francisco for the “Summer of Love.” The phenomenon was marked by anti-war protests, an opposition to consumerism, New Age spirituality, and a growing interest in communal living. But San Francisco wasn’t the only place where this movement was taking off—communal living situations began springing up across America, and many of the residents were dissatisfied by society, hoping instead to live simply off the land and pool the fruits of their labour. Most of these communes died out, often due to a lack of organization. In some of these communities, leaders took advantage of devout followers, and they turned into cults that eventually devolved.
But a select few of these small communities survived the Summer of Love and beyond. One of them was Twin Oaks, an intentional community founded in rural Louisa County, Virginia.
Why did Twin Oaks persist while so many others failed? Perhaps because it wasn’t started by idealistic young hippies—it was actually founded by behaviorists studying the work of B.F. Skinner. They were inspired by the fictional community described in his book Walden Two, which presented a vision of Skinner’s theories on behaviorism. The community depicted in the book had a strict social and political structure, but there was no real governing body, and the self-motivated residents had the freedom to choose how they wanted to work and received resources and extra leisure time in exchange for their hours rather than money. The trust-based labour system at Twin Oaks was originally based on this idea.
Although they eventually shifted away from some of Skinner’s principles, today, Twin Oaks is one of the largest and oldest intentional communities in the United States. Currently, about 90 adults and 15 children call the community home. Across Twin Oaks’ 350 acres, there are several dorm-style group houses where residents live, a community center with the main shared kitchen, vegetable gardens, a greenhouse, a dairy barn, a pasture, several work areas, a swimming pond, and more. Twin Oaks could be considered an “ecovillage,” and residents aim to live sustainably.
In many ways, life at Twin Oaks is vastly different from life in mainstream society. Residents are not entirely cut off from the outside world—they take trips into the closest town and bigger cities, they listen to the radio and watch movies, and some get involved in political activist efforts nearby—but they don’t watch live TV, preferring to avoid exposure to corporate advertising, they don’t own homes in the community or their own vehicles, and they grow and harvest most of the food they eat. But the labour system, collective ownership agreements, and income-sharing economy truly set Twin Oaks apart, and although living this way may seem unfathomable to some, these aspects of life at Twin Oaks are major reasons why residents were interested in the first place.
“They want more from life than just working to pay the bills, or even working to support the rest of their more-enjoyable life activities,” says Valerie, a long-term resident of Twin Oaks. “We don't want a bigger piece of the pie, we want a different pie.”
“Marx talked about the workers owning the means of production; at Twin Oaks we go beyond that and own our entire lives—we own not just our own collective businesses, but also we communally own the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the land we live on,” Valerie explains. “As such, we're able to root our work and domestic lives in our own values of egalitarianism, feminism, ecological sustainability...‘owning these means’ allows us to do that more effectively.”
Every member of Twin Oaks must fulfill their required work quota within the community each week. Right now, it’s set at 44 work hours, but this can vary slightly over time based on the community’s needs. And that 44 hours includes domestic labour like cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and childcare. Therefore, while it seems like members spend more time working, responsibilities that generally go unpaid in the mainstream (and are often regarded as “women’s work”) are included in that work quota, leaving most people with extra time for leisure and pursuing their hobbies.
Residents get to choose their labour assignments and schedule, and most people don’t stick with the same assignments day in and day out. Instead, they can switch it up if they want more variety in their daily routines. Everyone is required to take one two-hour kitchen clean-up shift each week, but other than that, they have the freedom to work in the areas they want.
Each week, members fill out their labour sheets with the jobs they plan to work the following week. Next, the Labour Assigner collects everyone’s sheets, lists all of the tasks and shifts that need to be taken care of, and matches people up with their preferences. People can consent in advance to covering certain shifts if open spots need filling—for example, if there aren’t enough people signed up to bake bread on a given week, Valerie has agreed to cover that extra shift. Finally, everyone checks over their assignments, and schedules are finalized.
Currently, Twin Oaks brings in profits from three main community-run businesses: soyfoods production, making hammocks, and book indexing. A resident might choose to spend one day weaving hammocks, another working in “The Tofu Hut,” and the next harvesting vegetables in the gardens or milking cows. People are encouraged to learn new skills, and labour is not divided by traditional gender roles—a woman is just as welcome to sign up for a shift in the woodworking shop as a man would be for childcare.
This effective system has allowed Twin Oaks to thrive over the past few decades. “Our Labour System is really the backbone of the community. If any system has too much structure, it's rigid, and if it has too much flexibility, it's unstable,” says Valerie. “Our Labour System finds the sweet spot in the middle.”
But it’s not all work and no play. Despite the consistent, dedicated efforts that must go into running a community like Twin Oaks, residents can typically take more vacation time than the average American worker. “If everyone works exactly quota each week, we give them three weeks of free vacation, but you can also work extra each week and save up even more time to take off in the future,” says Valerie. “Members have a huge amount of control over when we work.”
So, how are residents compensated for their labour? Twin Oaks is an income sharing community, so members aren’t taking home biweekly paychecks—but in exchange for their work, all of their needs are provided for. This includes housing, food, clothing, and healthcare. When a new member joins, they freeze their assets, and they can access those accounts again if they leave. All members also receive a monthly personal allowance to purchase extras that aren’t provided by the community—right now, it’s set at about $75. The majority of the profits generated by Twin Oaks’ three businesses are reinvested back into the community, and residents get to make collective decisions on how that money should be allocated.
“In the mainstream, it’s just one person, and perhaps their partner, who are determining those choices. Here, it is you plus 100 other people making those decisions together. That makes things a lot more complicated, and there's a learning curve associated with that,” Valerie explains. Making decisions with such a large group can be time consuming, and it requires everyone to be open to compromise. Naturally, squabbles can occasionally ensue. Sometimes, even highly personal decisions for residents need approval from the group: for example, if a couple at Twin Oaks decides to have a child, the other residents will have to agree that they have enough resources.
Being part of a community like Twin Oaks sometimes means putting your own goals on the backburner, especially if it’s a decision that would have a big impact on the other residents. There’s no denying that coming to a compromise with one or two others in a household is easier than finding a middle ground with an entire community, even a small one like Twin Oaks.
But despite the challenges associated with collective ownership and income sharing, residents also reap plenty of rewards. “The flip side is that we are able to offer a lot that the average person does not have access to,” says Valerie. “Because we collectivize our resources, members here have access to, for example, free yoga classes, a wood-fired sauna beside our pond, a professional-quality wood-working shop, not to mention childcare, healthcare, and many other social supports.”
There’s no such thing as a flawless labour system, and it’s true that the system at Twin Oaks has its drawbacks. However, when so many fall through the cracks in the modern labour market, it’s easy to see why some people are seeking a different model. In a capitalist nation without a strong social safety net like the United States, the economic freedom of individuals—the freedom to make your own money and spend it as you see fit, without intervention from a governing body—is often regarded as a form of freedom worth protecting at all costs. On the other hand, an income-sharing system like the one implemented at Twin Oaks might be seen as an affront to personal expression and individual liberty. Yet for the many people struggling to afford housing, healthcare, food, and childcare on their own, rugged individualism doesn’t necessarily afford them more choices or opportunities.
Twin Oaks is not a utopia, and the small allowance of personal income and isolation would probably seem unappealing to many people. Setting aside your own desires for the good of the group, even when it comes to pivotal and emotional decisions like family planning, wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone. Furthermore, raising a family here comes with its own set of unique challenges. Some children might love the atmosphere, while others might end up wishing they had more chances to interact with kids their own age, depending on whether their parents decide to homeschool them or not.
Living in a small, rural community means interacting with the same people on a daily basis, including former romantic partners, and learning to tolerate residents who you might clash with rather than trying to avoid them. On the other hand, saying goodbye to residents who have decided to move on is inevitable. While some have lived there for over twenty years and have no intention of leaving, others eventually head back to the outside world. And not everyone is cut out for this lifestyle—Twin Oaks currently has a waiting list for new residents, and anyone interested in joining has to spend a few weeks in the visitor program to see if they’re a good fit.
But there are undeniably positive trade offs: the supportive community, the extra leisure time, the opportunity to engage in fulfilling work on a schedule that suits you, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of security that you’ll never go hungry or lack a roof over your head. It isn’t a perfect oasis nestled away in the wilderness, but the approach to labour at Twin Oaks proves that there are viable alternatives to the system that we’re used to.
Is this structure going to become the norm any time soon? No, but Twin Oaks isn’t the only intentional community out there. In fact, there are six others in the Louisa County area, and the Foundation for Intentional Community lists 1,067 similar communities around the world. While not all of them rely on a similar labour system or income sharing, they’re all centered around the idea of fostering a cooperative rather than competitive culture. But could a system like the one at Twin Oaks work on a larger scale? It’s difficult to say.
“Many of our systems could be scaled up, for groups of at least a few hundred. Maybe with some creative re-adjustment, for groups larger than that. But they'd need to be tweaked in some ways, because so much of what we do is based on trust,” Valerie says. “We would love it if many more small groups of ten to one hundred people arose who were using this or a similar model. We know that diversity is strength, and so the more communities that share this model but have their own flavor and unique aspects, the stronger the movement will be.”