Why Being Employed Is Risky

Have you noticed the culture shift in the last five hundred years? It’s not that long ago that we had tribes, groups and villages that looked after each other and worked as a whole for survival as well as to become richer themselves. Today, after the industrial revolution, we have an employee culture that encourages people to find employment – because self-employment or starting a business is too risky!

A short history of employment

Employment was not the norm over the last 2 000 years. Historically, we’ve seen different ways that people made money to survive: self-employment (farmers, market stall owners and prostitutes), daily wage earners (e.g. assisting with harvesting) and in some regards employees (e.g. tax collectors). The industrial revolution saw a great need for employees – people willing to work for large corporations. Although the benefits of employment changed, the perception of a job being a sign of a stable income has persisted.

Paul Baibak, in his seminal book Snakes in Suits explains that in the 20th-century employers and employees had a sense of loyalty towards each other, whereas a few years ago, our parents and grandparents would get a gold watch when they retire from a company after 40 years. They would also get a retirement benefit from the company with a defined benefit model (e.g. 70% of your salary until the day you die).

During this time, job titles and roles were stable. Since the 1990s, technology has started changing quickly and given rise to new job roles and titles. Due to the job specifications and company requirement changes, we see large scale retrenchment and restructuring being an everyday occurrence – people are losing their jobs!

The current cultural norm

With the loyalty between employers and employees being at a low, it’s become evident that retrenching staff and getting rid of people that don’t make the company enough money is an everyday occurrence. We’ve seen this during the COVID-19 lockdowns and with family, friends and colleagues – employment isn’t as stable as it once was.

Culturally, we still hold onto the idea that our employers have our best interests at heart. Those that know me, know how my ex-employer destroyed my mental health. Today, we need to start looking out for ourselves. Whether employed, self-employed or as a business owners, we all need to look at our needs, our growth and our salaries.

Specialisation vs multidisciplinary experts

In my dissertation, I referenced Jorge Frascara who explained that the modern world requires us to be skilled in more than one discipline. As an employee, this wouldn’t make sense, as you are only paid for a single discipline. The issue is that foresight to industry changes is opaque and unclear. For example:

  • Senior software developers often earn five times what junior software developers earn. I know of many companies retrenching senior developers and hiring multiple juniors to do their work
  • We see disruption in industries such as travel (Airbnb). This is causing many companies in the travel industry to close their doors and retrench staff.
  • Technology enables businesses to do more with less staff. With role consolidations we, therefore, have many staff members having to apply for a single role.
  • Today we have specialists such as an animator that works for Pixar animating feet only. The issue is what happens if that person gets retrenched?

With pending retrenchment, restructuring and the breaking down of relationships in the workplace, we need to start looking at options for personal and career growth.

The decline of personal relationships

At my previous employer, the software developers had to sit and code with little interaction with other humans. They hardly had any contact with anyone outside of management or the product owner. The aim was to be as productive as possible and was achieved by isolating the developers from other staff members and customers.

In a corporate environment, this makes sense. But as the employee’s career takes shape, the lack of certain skills such as conflict management, people skills and client-facing skills can stifle career growth. I was fortunate in this regard, as I was (probably) the only developer that had to deal with customer queries, complaints, verbal abuse and matters from all spheres of the business.

Why I am self-employed

As a self-employed/business owner, you need to be able to do multiple things – marketing, finance, implementation, customer relationships and even making coffee. As a result of being multi-skilled, employers weren’t able to fit my skills into the shapes that they knew. this caused friction as I didn’t fit into their mould.

I have a degree in graphic design and 10+ years of experience as a software engineer. Furthermore, I have done short courses in social media management strategy, do copywriting and content creation for FrugalLocal/Localmoney.co.za. My multidisciplinary background has helped me to slot right into running my own business. I find it exciting to do something new every day – invoicing, marketing, creating new content or even managing client expectations.

Is self-employment for me?

I am also aware that not everyone has the dream to be self-employed. Business owners need employees – both are important. Employers need to create an atmosphere of growth and opportunities for employees to become more than what they are today. Everyone needs the tools to be able to further their career and move forward.

In many cases, learning to be self-sufficient can go a long way, especially when employers take advantage of employees.

My journey of exiting a toxic work environment is not the norm in South Africa. In recent years, it has become the norm to be retrenched, made redundant or let go. Many people try and start a business when they are unable to find a new job. Guy Raz explains in his book “How I build this” that in many cases people choose this option out of necessity. The concern here is that many people have not been able to upskill themselves in multiple areas and have started taking their paycheck for granted.

Life throws curve balls at our career and we need to prepare as much as we can. I know that many people have retrenchment cover and other insurance products that will cover them financially in case of job security issues. We should never think that we are secure and we would be able to find another job quick-quick.

How can self-employment help you?

Self-employment teaches you so much about who you are, your dedication, work ethic and your people skills. If you want to be a well-rounded individual (or a jack of all trades), then self-employment or running a business will help you in becoming more than what you are today.

You will notice that I didn’t say anything about money. There is a perception that running your own business will make you filthy rich – and in some cases, it can. It’s however not the norm and shouldn’t be the reason why you become self-employed. For me, it was about control. I have control over my time and often have free time that I wouldn’t have if I had been employed. I do work hard at times, but I also choose my clients and decide who I want to work with.

Conclusion

I know there are good employers out there. Sadly, I haven’t had the good fortune of having many employers that had my best interest at heart. The sooner we realise that we are disposable and replaceable – the sooner we will educate ourselves to mitigate the risk of retrenchment, redundancy and ‘being let go’.

I know self-employment isn’t for everyone, but we need to start thinking out of the box about the risks of employment. We’re not going to be able to get a paycheck forever and employers aren’t loyal to their staff anymore.

Whether you choose self-employment or upskilling yourself to find a different job – you need to mitigate your employment risks.

Happy investing!

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