Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Agony of the Self-Employed

Years ago, I remember seeing a New Yorker cartoon captioned, if my memory is accurate, "The Agony of the Self-Employed."

The cartoon pictured a man sitting at a desk, talking to himself, saying things like:

"I can't stand working for you."

"When are you going to get it done?"

"How about a raise?"


Then there is the old joke about the person who'd says he'd like to work for himself, but can't afford to pay himself anything!

(Which leads me to a digression: I once had an accounting professor who claimed that a client of his used inherited wealth to open a business. When the client brought his books in, my accounting professor saw - to his horror - that the man had been using money on which he had already paid taxes to give himself a salary. This is probably one of those "apocryphal but true" stories. Nonetheless....)

I have been free-lancing (product marketing, mostly in the tech world) for almost 5 years now -and it's really more like 7, with a brief interlude of full-time employment when I went to work with an old boss of my mine.

So far, so good.

As I tell people, I make about half the money, but have about 10 times the life satisfaction. No commuting/no car, no politics, no non-essential meetings, no people to manage, nobody else to worry about, and no doing the types of marketing work I hate. 99% of what I do is messaging, research, writing, and customer outreach - all things that I very much enjoy.

It works for me at this stage in my life, the only drawbacks being the unpredictability and the lack of health insurance, drawbacks that are to me by far outweighed by day-long visits with friends, staying up half the night reading and sleeping in a bit, volunteer time, and off-hours treks to the gym. I also like the project variability - learning about new companies and their tech products and markets is something that I find very interesting ans satisfying.

I hope I can keep this up for a good long while.

The only regular job I would considered at this point would be one that was part time and didn't involve a regular commute.

In a few years, when I'm old and gray (which I may actually be under the dye job), I think it would be fun to take a quasi-retiree-job in  a college/university or non-profit, as writer, editor, or even as an administrative assistant,  as long as it was a place I could walk to and the people were decent.

But for now, freelancing 'r us. And it works because I'm someone with a background (and degree) in business, a strong network, and the ability to "quick study" companies and their products, and figure out what to say about them. Sure, they keep saying that 'if you can do it over the 'net, so can someone in India', but that just hasn't been the case yet for the type of work that I do. (See: so far, so good.)

Anyway, there was an article in The New York Times on Sunday on how the recession is hitting free-lancers, particularly those who provide personal services like yoga instructor, personal chef, tutor...things that can become discretionary pretty darned fast in a down-market. The bottom line: times are tough, a lot of people who are freelancing really do want to work full-time, there's a glut on the market....

The article made me think about a fellow that I met last week who could easily have been profiled in the article.

My brother needed some work done on his home computer and, since I have free time - and could (and did) just as easily work from his condo as from anyplace else, thanks to wi-fi - I told him I could be there when the IT guy came.

In chatting with the technician, I learned that we had both worked for the same company at one point and had, in fact, both left its employ (via the pink slip) at about the same time.

Since then, I've been mostly freelancing - which I enjoy.

He has also been mostly freelancing - which he doesn't like so much - especially not these days, when there are too many geeks -for-hire chasing too little business.

Oh, he likes the nature of his work, and when there's a lot of work available, things are okay. But....

He's signed up with a bunch of IT services companies, and - for the most part - when they get calls, they put them out there to all the technicians who are registered with them, and whoever jumps on it first gets the job. So far, he's not working any place where they put the jobs out to bid - so there's been no race to the bottom pricing. Yet. He gets paid a decent hourly rate, but doesn't have enough work.

He'd love to go back to full time, but - at 50 - he's hitting a bit of age - or maybe it's wage - discrimination. He interviewed for an ideal job recently, only to find out that it paid about $15/hour. This was for someone with networking skills. $15/hour? Say what?

For this guy, the time he worked at Genuity was the high point of his career. He made good money and loved the work. His wife worked there as well. While at Genu, they were able to buy a house. The future looked all sorts of rosy and bright.

Then Genuity tripped, stumbled, and fell into bankruptcy.

I was delighted to leave, and voluntarily.

The geek-for-hire not so delighted, and not so voluntarily. (The same went for his wife.)

Fast forward: his wife has full-time work, less pay but great benefits and reasonably secure (they hope) in a local college.  The geek-for-hire has been mostly doing geek-for-hire (sometimes on long term contracts, but never as a full-time employee). They had to sell their house, but fortunately did so before the bubble burst.

We keep hearing, don't we, that this is the wave of the future: most workers (other than go-getter entrepreneurs) part of a self-employed company of one, "brand me", living from one contract to the next (if they're lucky), or scrounging for whatever hourly jobs they can piece together for themselves.  Oh, and be prepared to be a renter who can flee at a moment's (or one month's) notice to where the jobs are.

I look at this guy and I think, is this the way to build a stable society?

Or is this going to be okay, since the rising generations will know that this is the way the world works, so they'll build their lives around it?

But for the guy who came to de-tox my brother's desktop - monkey in the middle: middle age, middle class (barely), and middle-level skills  - just an average guy - this is not the way that he intended things to play out.

Gotta imagine that there are a lot of folks out there just like him, and The New York Times yoga instructor who just went on food stamps. Hanging in, hanging on - but not by much.

You can argue that the yoga instructor deliberately chose a career that was chancy. It's harder to make that argument about the IT guy.

For some of us, there's humor in the agony of the self-employed. For others, it's safe to say, it's more about the agony these days.


NancyB said...

Interesting blog...as a pink slip survivor (so far), I have been contemplating free lancing. The job market is pretty slim. You make it seem enticing. I care about having control over my destiny but I also care about health insurance and money. Ah the dilemna. I never asked for this and am of an age where discrimination in the workplace in prevalent.

So.....maybe I will begin the networking process to see if I can capture some work in writing, marketing, branding, cleaning, cooking...you name it...

businessfrog said...

huh, read my post on Surviving recession.

Maureen Rogers said...

NancyB - One networking tip, which may be obvious but is still very useful: when you approach the folks in your network, never ask directly whether they have work. Just tell them you're looking, and ask if they know o anyone who might need what you've got to offer. Good luck!

BusinessFrog - Huh?

Eveland said...

I have created a career as a freelancer... for the last 17 years and I normally ask my clients to please not offer me a job.. My freedom doesn't have a price. I pay my own health insurance, taxes and contribute to my own retirement account.. I know it isn't for everybody. But I don't see anything else.

Charlie Green said...

Very poignant, very real, very revealing. What good writing.