Among the stray thoughts that roll around in my head, one repeats itself every time I see a news story about unemployment, underemployment and recession-related job advice: how grateful I am that I am no longer in the workforce.
Retiring was not on my agenda when I was forced into it five years ago, but after a year of futile searching for work, there was no longer another choice. It was painful to accept that my working years were finished but as much as I would have preferred to find a job (I really liked the kind of work I did in those days), I was relieved to leave behind the new employment rules.
Among those rules, which pertain even moreso one recession and half a decade later, are these:
To sell yourself to prospective employers, you must create a “personal brand” - make yourself as individually identifiable as Coca-Cola or Apple or Tampax.
You must erase from your resume all but the last ten years of your career. Anything you learned or accomplished before then is not only irrelevant, it might – god forbid – suggest you are older than 35 which, apparently, has become the age at which workers become too old for paid employment.
If someone does offer you a position, you must be prepared to accept a salary of less than half what you were paid on your previous job for the same or similar work. Understand, too, that you are likely to be hired as an independent contractor which means zero benefits.
This stuff is what the job experts tell job seekers these days. They are also cheer leaders for self-employment. Start your own company, they say, become an entrepreneur, hire others to work for you, be the big cheese. Entrepreneurship is all the rage, we are told, taking America by storm. Even the statistics back up the claim.
According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, as reported by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in The New York Times earlier this week:
“'Rather than making history for its deep recession and record unemployment,' the foundation reported, '2009 might instead be remembered as the year business startups reached their highest level in 14 years — even exceeding the number of startups during the peak 1999-2000 technology boom.'
“According to the report,” writes Reich, “most of the growth in startups was propelled by 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by people 55 to 64. Forget Internet whiz kids in their 20’s. It’s the gray-heads who are taking the reins of the new startup economy.”
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it. Exciting, even. And all those older folks leading the way? Wow. Except almost none of those people intend to become entrepreneurs which, contrary to the hype, is almost always about treading water as an independent contractor, not a new business owner.
Because they have been unemployed for months and even years, because they have used up their 401(k)s and IRAs just to stay afloat, they have been forced into trying to work for themselves. It is the only choice left.
As Reich notes in the Times story:
“While some are happy about their new status, most are worse off than they were before. It’s one thing to be a contingent worker in good times and when you’re young; quite another in bad times when you’re middle-aged.”
No kidding. My last job was as an independent contractor. There were no paid holidays, sick leave or vacations. I was required to pay the corporate half of FICA and Medicare taxes as well as my own. I bought my health coverage at an astronomical price on the individual market and couldn't save a dime; I was making less than two-thirds of my previous salary before all the extra expenses.
When another mass layoff came around, my staff colleagues, with whom I had worked side-by-side (and in some cases supervised), collected unemployment insurance benefits until they found new jobs; I was ineligible because I was a contractor.
Even before the recession, the world of work was changing for the worse. With the dramatic unemployment statistics these past two years, people forget that for the previous decade and more, corporate America was already laying off workers in large numbers and sending jobs to low-wage countries. The recession just accelerated the practice, and none of those jobs will ever come back to the United States.
Eventually, some years down the line, we will pull out of this recession (no, I do not believe it is over, whatever government figures say), but the employment world will never again look like it did during our working years.
I don't want to “brand” myself. I know my early- and mid-career experience made my late career both possible and as successful as it was. And whatever those experts try to tell us, working for myself was a bummer. Some of us do not have the skills (or interest) to run a company, even a company of one.
But those are the requirements now and every day I am grateful that I don't need to be searching for work in this new employment world. In certain eras, I think it is a good thing to be among the elders.