Self-employment drops

SELF-employment in America is dropping rapidly. This “free-agent nation” of management guru Tom Peters is reversing the expectations that the e-lance economy would produce an increase in the number of freelancers and entrepreneurs.

Self-employment has declined in both numbers and as a share of the work force, according to David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times on December 1.

Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mr Leonhardt writes that the period between 1994 and 1999, although hailed as a golden age for entrepreneurs, is in fact the first five-year span since the 1960s in which the number of self-employed fell, going from 10.9 per cent to 9.9 per cent.

The American economy is booming with the lowest unemployment, 3.9 percent, since 1970s. Large companies, desperately needing more employees, are beckoning workers away from self-employment by offering sweet conditions to match or better those of self-employment.

Flexibility, the big winner in being your own boss, is now becoming part of company life, with WAH - working at home - appearing regularly in worker emails to the boss.

Flexibility of work hours and place, plus medical insurance, housing loans, training programs and other benefits, are enticing freelancers into joining company ranks.

Successful freelancing in America, it seems, is not as easy as the hype about the Internet and e-commerce would have us believe, with increasing time and financial demands making running a business very difficult.

Formerly self-employed workers say the reasons for returning to big companies are not only economic.

Their comments highlight the changing nature of our society within a changing global economy.

Isolation, both social and professional, is the most-cited reason for leaving self-employment.

In an increasingly depersonalised society, with less and less time to spend with social, sporting, family or neighbourhood like-minded groups, the freelancers often feel they do not belong to any community. The company fills the gap.

Freelancers also miss the synergy of teams, of working with colleagues to create something together.

Quality of life issues feature strongly.

One entrepreneur, after eight years successfully spent setting up new companies, said he just wanted to see his family more, saying that to achieve any balance in life is very difficult in the start-up environment.

This wish for balance, for time and energy to spend on non-income generating activities, is an emergent trend in WA.

Senior and middle managers are negotiating packages based on non-financial criteria, including choice of colleagues, resource support, workplace conditions, and self-selection of training opportunities.

Unlike America, trends in WA suggest that self employed and small business people can enjoy both the flexibility and freedoms of self employment, plus an income sufficient, note: sufficient, to allow a quality of life which encourages a healthy sense of belonging, encourages team play, and encourages the pursuit of inner values over materialism: the new paradigm of work.

* Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac Consultants

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