The (Annoying, Pervasive) Self-Employment Myth  

Given how things are going in the American economy for workers over 40, I think that self-employment by age 50 is a sensible wise goal for virtually everyone.   Whether you like it or not, the facts and trends are pushing you in this direction.  Long-term employment prospects for older workers are on the decline.  Employer loyalty is fading away.  Certain industries and skillsets reward younger job applicants.

businessman looking over his glasses with clipboard on hand - frWhere does that leave us?  It leaves us with working for ourselves as the best option.  I made this change myself. I went from being a marketing executive at tech companies to being a freelance writer of technology marketing content.   It took a while, but it was a good move for me. I earn more than I used to and my stress level has come way down.

But, how can we make that happen?  The idea of self-employment can appear very daunting.  This post takes a brief look at why self-employment seems so difficult to achieve and tries to reset the discussion to make this worthwhile objective seem more attainable and reasonable.

Self-employment comes naturally to some people.  These are our friends who don’t fit into readily employable stereotypes. They’re great self-promoters.  They can wheel and deal.  They make things happen for themselves.  They have an instinct for entrepreneurship, an amazing idea, or both.  They have grand visions and move mountains to make them into realities. They have big brass ones.  Sometimes, they are folks who just got lucky.   If you are this type of person, we’re really happy for you.  What about the rest of us?

The rest of us have immense potential for self-employment, but on our terms, not theirs.   Perceptions and self-image are among the biggest challenges to transitioning to self-employment.   A lot of people I talk to say things like, “I’d like to be self-employed but I don’t think I can do the whole ‘go for your dream’ thing – go on Shark Tank and explain my concept to Mark Cuban,” “I don’t have any good ideas,” and so forth.  The difficulty a lot of face is understanding that we can be successfully self-employed without having to confirm to stylized, self-promotional entrepreneurial myth.

Indeed, so much of the self-employment discussion is dominated by a fallacy.  If you look at the bewildering array of entrepreneurship “boot camps” and self-employment forums, you might conclude there are two modes of existence: miserable employment and joyous, liberating entrepreneurship, where you find the guts to go for it, take huge risks, and become a real “winner.”   In other words, you should become self-employed if you want to get rich… super rich (or at least as rich as you can hear about if you pay the $499 for the seminar.)

With all due respect to these joyous, free, self-made millionaires, it’s an exceptionally rare story.  It’s a story designed to intimidate you and get you to pay up for their advice on how to be what you probably will never be.  It’s a power play.  The idea is to put you one down and them one up, so you will feel bad about yourself and buy into their recommendations on how to be like them.   If the role model is the brash, brazen, egomaniac who pushed and conned his way to riches, then we should ask ourselves, is that really us?  If it is, go for it.  If not, think about who you really are.

Or, the power play is less insidious, but still potentially toxic and counterproductive.  It may involve buying a franchise or getting engaged in a multi-level marketing scheme, or a legitimate but extremely competitive field such as financial planning or selling insurance.   If you commit, you can make it!  Or not.  Again, if you’re suited to these forms of self-employment, that’s amazing. Go for it!  But, for many of us (A huge majority, I suspect), franchise, MLM, and financial services are totally wrong.

What should the goal of self-employment be for the rest of us?  How about making a living?  Making a living on your own terms is a great goal for self-employment, and it’s a lot healthier and more realistic.  Think about it like this:  Let’s say you now earn $60,000 a year in a job.  You may be doing okay, but you may feel some insecurity about losing your job or chances for advancement. You consider self-employment, but you worry that you’re not Mark Zuckerberg or the guru-du-jour.

Don’t fret. The kind of self-employment that works is the one that fits your skills and personality.  Force-fitting yourself into a ill-suited self-employment model is not likely to go well. The question is not “Are you Mark Zuckerberg?”  The question is, “Can I earn $60,000 or more by myself, without having to worry about being laid off?”   Can you earn the same or more as you’re making now as a self-employed person?  I imagine that for many, many people, the answer is yes.  If you can parlay your skillset and network into a self-employed setting, you will be on a solid foundation for making the transition.  Not that it’s easy.  Going from a regular job to self-employment can be extremely difficult. However, if you’re making the change based on who you actually are, versus what someone tells you to be, you will be on the right track.

In this model, a staff nurse becomes a visiting nurse or an independent rep for a healthcare products company.  A construction worker becomes a general contractor.  A staff accountant becomes an independent tax preparer, and so forth.   In these types of cases, it is eminently possible for the individual to earn the same or more than he or she did while on a regular job – but now, they have independence and a better ability to navigate the ups and downs of the world.

Even if you don’t have a specific skillset you can parlay into self-employment, the world is now adding more and more self-employment venues. They are not flashy, but they generate money.  These are the Ubers and PeoplePerHours of the Internet: gig services that let you make money for yourself without having to rely on a steady paycheck and all the stress that entails.

You can work for yourself.  Chances are, you’ll make more money than you make now and feel a lot better about yourself.  It won’t happen overnight, but if you apply yourself and stick to what you’re good at, it can work out very well.   You don’t have to go on Shark Tank to make it happen.



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Hugh is the founder of ItsAllAboutMe.Today. He started his career with a bang, earning a high honors BA and MBA from Harvard University. After achieving some success, however, he ran into career trouble, first in the “tech wreck” of 2002 and again in the Great Recession of 2009. He was laid off from IBM at age 44 and thrust into the worst job market in 80 years. He was able to find work, but he knew that he had to make major changes if he wanted to have financial security and life satisfaction. In the last few years, he has been able to increase my income and lower his stress level. To share his experiences and insights, he wrote the book The Life Reset.

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