There’s been a lot of talk about The Great Resignation of 2021 in which employees are quitting their jobs left and right, sometimes to go on to other jobs, sometimes not. The common wisdom I’ve heard too often is that the government needs to stop “all these unemployment benefits” and get people back to work. That’s never been a convincing reason for me, though.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal offered more context. It seems, in addition to the job-changers and all the early retirees, hundreds of thousands of people are actually deciding to work for themselves rather than find new jobs. This is shown by Labor Department data based on the applications for tax identification numbers (up 56% from 2019) and workers listing themselves as self-employed.
There are a lot of reasons, some specific to the pandemic and our “New Normal”. People don’t want to go back to the crowded workspaces and employers who won’t prioritize their health any more than they did before there was a virus on the loose. Some of the reasons are more traditional.
When people talk about working for themselves, the first thing you often hear is that they want flexible hours and control over their schedule. This doesn’t really happen. The reality is that a successful entrepreneur is always thinking about work in one way or another and the hours aren’t really flexible. Without a committed schedule, non-work items intrude more and more at the expense of the business, the work doesn’t get done and the business fails.
The successful entrepreneur either has a set work schedule, often containing many more hours than an outside job, or has such a passion for the work that it is the is a continual priority and focus every day. The stories you sometimes hear about the people who made it big and found a way to only work a few hours a week are the same as the people who’ve made riches off of pyramid schemes. You’ll always hear about them but never get the chance to look very close to see if they’re living off their savings or working a lot more hours than they admit to.
The real benefit to being an entrepreneur is having the decision-making power, the control, or at least the feeling of it. That’s what people really want – control over their situation and environment to meet their individual needs. For the people who can do it, working 16 hours a day for themselves is preferable to the 8 or 9 hours at a company.
It’s about having the freedom to respond to family needs or simply take some personal time on their own schedule. This freedom comes with a responsibility to make up that time somewhere but for many, the dignity of being able to make that decision on their own beats having to beg for the time at the boss’s desk or HR office. It’s about being able to to take a lunch hour or a break when they choose and not compete with co-workers for that timeslot or have it arbitarily set by a supervisor. That lunch might be 20 minutes standing in the kitchen rather than an hour talking with co-workers in the breakroom but it beats answering to a supervisor for being a few minutes late or forgetting to clock out one day.
It’s about not being continuously subjected to annoying co-workers and bad work environments, especially now that those co-workers and environments might be more hazardous. Those might be replaced by annoying clients or friends and family members who want to lay claim to all the entrepreneur’s new-found “free time” but it beats being moved from one bad environment to another at the whim of someone far up in the hierarchy.
It’s about not dreading an annual review where a manager makes subjective and sometimes prejudicial decisions about your performance and progress. It’s about not having to nag your boss just to do that review when it’s three months late and you’re hoping whatever raise you get will be retroactive.
It’s about not having to chase down your paycheck or benefits because the company can’t distribute them properly or is going bankrupt. These things are generally replaced by a client’s high expectations and late payments but, as an entrepreneur, you are the owner of the work you’ve performed. You are directly responsible for it and in charge of its quality. You own it, your name is on it and, within reason, you make the decisions about which clients are worth doing business with. Companies often have more respect for creditors than employees and some people would rather chase down a client’s payment than a company paycheck.
In the end, being an entrepreneur is not about avoiding the realities of life and business but about cutting out the inherently demeaning systems that companies too often use in order to manage employees on a wholesale level. It’s about being willing to accept the risks, responsibilities and price for that freedom. Not everyone can do it and not everyone wants to but for some, there is no other way.
There’s no way to know how long the Great Reshuffle will last or where it will end up. Many of the new entrepreneurs may find that freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and will go back (hopefully before it’s too late) to one of the many jobs that are now begging to be filled. On the other side, many new businesses might thrive and the next Facebook or Chewey.com or revolutionary solution to a need we never knew we had might be among them.
The one certain thing is that this is a time of changes like few alive today have seen.