Wary Workers Now Prefer Self-Employment, Stats Say

Interior of an Office
Image by Galt Museum & Archives on The Commons via Flickr

Interesting story in The New York Times about people who have been so burned by the recession, the vicious not-so-merry-go-round of hiring and firing they prefer not to have a full-time job:

What is known as “contingent work,” or “flexible” and “alternative” staffing arrangements, has proliferated, although exact figures are hard to come by because of difficulties in tracking such workers. Many people are apparently looking at multiple temporary jobs as the equivalent of a diversified investment portfolio.

The notion that the nature of work is changing — becoming more temporary and project-based, with workers increasingly functioning as free agents and no longer being governed by traditional long-term employer-employee relationships — first gained momentum in the 1990s. But it has acquired new currency in this recession, especially among white-collar job seekers, as they cast about for work of any kind and companies remain cautious about permanent hiring.

In just one snapshot of what is going on, the number of people who describe themselves as self-employed but working less than 35 hours a week because they cannot find full-time work has more than doubled since the recession began, reaching 1.2 million in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists who study flexible work arrangements believe that the increase has been driven in large part by independent contractors like Mr. Sinclair and other contingent workers, struggling to cobble together whatever work they can find.

As the economy continues its halting recovery and employers’ confidence remains shaky, economists believe that it is likely that the ranks of these kinds of workers will continue to grow.

I recently spoke to a class of journalism students at Emerson College in Boston. The night’s final question, technically off the topic of my visit (ethics) was striking: “Aren’t you freaked out by not having a job? Being freelance all the time?”


Like these people in the Times piece, I’ve been laid off from a few jobs, instantly and, a few times without clear warning, severed from well-paid work I enjoyed in my field. For me to sign up again, willingly and with a real sense of excitement, I’m not sure which employer would be The One. Loyalty doesn’t matter. Seniority, nope. Multiple graduate degrees? Not those either. The only protection against being canned, and falling deep into poverty, is saving the biggest amount of cash you possibly can and keeping your overhead as low as you and your loved ones can tolerate.

I was lucky in growing up in a household where no one ever had a “real” job — i.e. a steady, solid paycheck, a pension, paid sick days or vacation. Everyone worked as a creative freelancer: film, journalism, television. You live check to check. You get to know a really good accountant and try very hard not to get behind on your tax payments since it’s pay as you go. We drove (good) used cars, bought art and cashmere and plane tickets overseas in better years and enjoyed them in lean ones.

I learned young that even the best ideas you try to sell freelance can be ignored or stolen or shot down by people collecting paychecks because…they feel like it. They owed us no allegiance and we all knew the deal. It’s a painful and expensive lesson to learn instead mid-life and mid-career, as millions now have in the recession. Like a wave of bitter divorce(e)s, some of us aren’t eager to trot back up to the altar of full-time work. It’s too dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.

Are you still in a full-time job? How secure — if at all — do you feel?

If you work for yourself, how’s that going? Do you feel more secure knowing it’s all up to you?

5 thoughts on “Wary Workers Now Prefer Self-Employment, Stats Say

  1. john

    I’ve been pretty much self-employed now for more than 10 years and I’ve always struggle with the question of security. It is not secure in the traditional sense of the word, but when I look back on the last 10 years, I can say that it worked out well. There have been succesess and abject failures, but I’ve always enjoyed a bit of luck in either case, and so I have a good attitude about it. You might say I appear to be less risk averse than a traditional 9 to 5’er, but I wouldn’t say that. When I look at the company I left 10 years ago to do what I do today, I would note that it’s been bought and sold 3 times in that time span with all sorts of layoff and growing pains in each case. So when I look back on that, I actually think I’ve been living a less risky life than some of my peers.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I think about this, too. I was laid off from my last job in June 2006 — and by 2008, newspaper and magazine journalism everywhere had become a bloodbath. My silly little retail job has become a book (talk about luck) and my blogging has led me to some other great new opportunities, so I know some of my staffer/salaried friends are envious of my freedom from the perpetual fear of a pink slip. I do not make anywhere near my old salary and wish I did and cannot see how that is possible without jeopardizing my health with overwork. But — other than $$$ (if one can say that) — I enjoy my life and my creative freedom. I see what so many employers now demand of their FT workers (and see its toll on my friends) and think, hmmmm.

    I’m glad it’s worked out for you. The greatest benefit of working on your own, even for a few years, is knowing it’s actually possible (very confidence and wider network building) and what it really takes, not just fantasizing about it as an escape from a job you dislike.

  3. scottchaffee

    My wife and I have been self employed for more than twenty years. Being your own boss has its rewrds. You know what has to be done. There is no regular schedule which is fine by us. If we want to sleep in or work weekends to make up for a Tuesday off, it’s great to have the flexibility. However, you end up paying for your own health insurance, you must still pay in to Social Security if you expect to receive same, and it’s still a very competitive work environment, maybe more so. Those prone to depression or emotional instability better think twice about being self-employed. You need to show up and kiss butt at a moment’s notice!

  4. jake brodsky

    I am not self-employed, but I’m laying the ground work for doing that at some time in the future –if for no other reason than diminishing workplace loyalty. I remain here mostly because of those infamous “golden handcuffs”: a pension plan that isn’t worth nearly as much unless I take it all the way to retirement.

    I watched in horror several years ago while the executives in our company dismissed an entire department of staff (some 80 people) and told them they could apply for new jobs in the new organizational structure, as contract employees. If it happened to them, it could happen to me.

    Side note: as one might imagine, the results of this effort were no better than neutral. We lost some good people. We gained some good people. We got rid of some slugs, but unfortunately, we hired some too. And despite their contract status, it appears that nobody has been fired for performance problems. I consider the exercise a failure, especially because of the lingering bad will it engendered.

    Anyone who has an employer, no matter how well rated an employer they may be, should always keep a resume and a backup business idea ready to launch at any time. (The employer I work for, despite all flaws, is still reasonably well run) With businesses bought and sold so frequently these days, the way governments outsource to business, there simply isn’t any guarantee of employment. The work will usually be there, though.

    I see free-lance professional services as the future of many fields, not just Journalism.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Scott, you describe it well, succinctly! I have worked on my own for many years, with staff jobs in between these freelance periods. I have, in some ways, very much enjoyed some of my staff jobs and miss having colleagues and people to brainstorm with who know me well. But, (and I’m writing this at our annual ASJA writers’conference) I *do* have hundreds of friendly colleagues — as this day reminds me — just not face to face 99% of the time.

    Working for yourself is not for many people. You have to be insanely disciplined and work can leak into every room and every minute if you do not contain it.

    jake, what a story. Thanks for sharing it. I agree that these “purges” are tough; I see it in my partner, whose employer cut 100 jobs just before Christmas 2009 and, of course, has not filled those spots. He is now much more tired and overworked so his stress (and mine) is higher. I do not earn half what he does, and we wish I did, but my staying in my own field at my own pace means at least one of us remains fairly calm and sane. Two people racing all the time to flee the axe that can fall at any minute — “normal” now for many skilled mid-career couples? Not so much fun.

    The idea of knowing you must be ready at all times with your parachute packed is so counter to what people have thought for years. The biggest problem? Finding and affording health insurance, still. If that were not such an obstacle, many more could afford to cut that corporate cord.

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