Un-employed vs. Self-employed

Not very long ago, one of my clients published a great article in which she touches upon a distinction that I’ve thought about multiple times before, but never quite articulated in language. This distinction is the following: un-employed vs. self-employed.

I have never been ‘un-employed’, although I have not been ’employed’ for the last 18 months. I am not setting up a company nor do I have the desire to lead a team, so I’m also not your typical entrepreneur / startup founder. I could have applied for unemployment benefits, at least for a little while, but I did not. I could have called myself un-employed, but I did not. What I have been is selfemployed, ever since I quit my corporate job in investment banking 18 months ago.

But here’s the thing. On my first “self-employed” day, which was literally the day after my last day in the bank, I had very little to do. I had no client. I did not have a clear product. I did not have a niche. I did not have a business plan. I did not have any income. All I had was an idea of what I was going to start doing. I was, de facto, un-employed.

I am not sharing the above to illustrate what anyone should do when they quit their job. By many standards, this was not very smart and definitely not the ideal way to go about making a living on my own term. But even in the midst of this reckless exploration – some might say ‘stupid’… – I never considered to call myself “un-employed”. Why? Because unemployment is a state of affairs, while self-employment is a mindset.

I was unemployed as a matter of fact, but I was self-employed as a way of being. Even though I was terribly unhappy in my job, it was still my choice to leave. I was proactively directing my own career even if that meant being de facto un-employed. A career is not a linear path anymore. I knew I would rather burn through all my savings before asking for financial support to anyone. Because this decision to quit came from a place of choice. I also made a commitment to myself that by the point I needed help, I’d either be financially profitable with my own activity or employed again to avoid having to do it.

I am not from a fundamentalist free-market and ultra-capitalist background. I come from a country where asking for public support is like meditating for a Tibetan monk or working 2 jobs for a working-class American. It’s the national sport. Yet even there, it never once crossed my mind that “unemployed” is what I would call myself if I: a) did not find a job after business school, b) ended up out of a job, especially if I chose to leave.

I am not saying that the financial support mechanisms in place are not helpful for some people: they are! Many people don’t choose to be put out of a job, and don’t want to be out of a job. Many people don’t desire to do their own thing and that’s perfect! We need people who want to work in organisations, companies and NGOs. Many people have terrible life situations to deal with, like a terminally ill parent that they are looking after or some personal mental or physical health issues to confront. For these people, having some temporary support – whatever the form – is a fantastic contribution from society to offer them time, and allow them to get back on their feet so they can find something to do that would give them meaning and allow them to contribute back.

But for anyone, especially for those choosing to quit their job or explore the world or whatever else, calling oneself “un-employed” is not a useful mindset. It confuses circumstance with identity. It relinquishes agency and encourages passivity. It embodies a subtle but pernicious form of entitlement. It is harming the grand concept of the welfare state. By destroying any possible sustainability for it, it is fuelling extreme individualism.

The alternative is a different mindset. One that those who are self-directed actually know and own. One of self-reliance. One of hard work, contribution and service. One that anyone can adopt. After all, we are all entrepreneurs.

2 responses to “Un-employed vs. Self-employed”

  1. Absolutely! We should either reply what we are actually DOING rather than who we are BEING (at the risk of being constrained and labelled by our DOING), or we should practice answering to a better question… Something like: “I won’t tell you what I do, but I’ll tell you WHO I AM.” 🙂

  2. I like the concept of confusing circumstance with identity… good to remember when you’re constantly getting asked ‘what do you do?’.

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