Booted from the Womb
To be adult is to be alone.
She was speaking, in excellent English with a thick Russian accent, about an interesting contrast. Before, she had worked for a state-owned enterprise in the Soviet Union; now, she worked for a private company in America.
"Working under communism was sort of like being a child," she said. "There wasn't much opportunity to think for myself -- but I felt protected. Things were laid out for me. It was hard to get fired. Moving from there to working under the capitalist system felt kind of like growing up -- becoming an adult. I have more possibilities open to me now, but I don't feel protected anymore."
Most of us don't have such a dramatic dichotomy as communism-vs.-capitalism to contemplate within our own working lives. Still, even within the capitalist system, going back-and-forth between wage slavery and independent work has a bit of that same feeling. As an employee you're a child, living within a family (the company you work for) that's populated by people you didn't quite choose to be with. You're dependent on, and a little scared and resentful of, the big bad daddy (your boss). You don't have much freedom, but on the other hand, in any given week you're unlikely to be worrying about fundamentals like a roof over your head and food on your plate.
Now fast-forward to the howling winds of the grown-up world outside. You move (or get booted) out of your parent's house -- that is, you graduate to independent work. Congratulations -- you now have a lot more freedom, but that also includes the freedom to freeze in the dark and starve alone.
Protect Me, You Bastards
I've flirted with womb fantasies all my life, about crawling into some small, protected space where I'd be immune from the buffets of this cruel world. The details vary: sometimes I'm a small animal in an underground burrow (yes, I know the Kafka story), and sometimes I'm a tough cyborg in a science-fiction ultra-tech space capsule -- but whether furry obscurity or gleaming futurity, I'm sheltered and safe. Most people construct some kind of psychic womb for themselves; the usual components are private neuroses and public structures. A "job" is such a structure. A key part of the womb-ness of any job is how likely you are to get booted out of it.
You could construct a scale -- call it a bootability index-- of how "secure" different kinds of jobs are. (The quotation marks are to remind you that, ultimately, nothing is secure. Sorry.) The most secure, apparently, would be a job in a state-owned enterprise in a communist country. (I guess the security vanishes when the country collapses.) Next in line would come, in capitalist societies, public-service (government) jobs; then private-but-unionized jobs; then jobs in hundred-year-old, heavily bureaucratic corporations; then jobs in smaller, more entrepreneurial companies; then (we're heavy into the insecure end of the scale here) jobs in tiny startup companies; and last and least secure (drum roll here) would come working with no "job" at all -- that is, as an IP.
Employees get fired by their bosses, and IPs get "fired" by their clients, but it's a hell of a lot easier for a client to give an IP the boot than it is for an employer to fire an employee, even in a tiny startup. All the client has to do is not re-hire the IP for another project. There's little of the interpersonal awkwardness, not to mention legal and paperwork entanglements, that are involved in booting an employee. Of course, this doesn't mean that there's no marginal cost in flushing a freelancer. Finding a new, competent, trustworthy IP can be time-consuming, nerve-wracking, and expensive, just as finding a new wage slave is. Nonetheless, the client's total cost when flipping IPs is less than when whacking wage slaves, and that's one of the reasons clients use IPs in the first place.
The Termination Thermometer
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
Imagine this: you go through your working day with a kind of metaphorical thermometer always before your eyes, with one end of the scale labeled "secure" and the other end marked "fired." As you work and interact with others, you watch the mercury slide back and forth on the scale depending on how things are going. You're an employee, and your boss just screamed at you for the second day in a row? You're closer to being fired. The corporate merger with a larger competitor just fell through? You're a little more secure. You're an IP, and your client got chewed out by their boss for spending so much money on contractors? The mercury jumps way towards the red, and you feel your temperature rising. Are you cooked?
Oh, I know, the thermometer is a useless paranoid fantasy. No, wait, I'm conceding too much: I think paranoid fantasies are fun, the way poking at a toothache with your tongue is fun. Of course, it's best not to be obsessed with risk; best not to have a ghostly termination thermometer always floating before your eyes like Macbeth's dagger. But if you're weighing the IP life as an alternative, you should know your tolerance for constant uncertainty. For that, unfortunately, is the flip side of freedom.
Grown up, and that is a terribly hard thing to do. It is much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another.
Being an independent professional is, psychologically at least, the purest form of free enterprise there is. If working within a communist system is like being a child, and working within a free-enterprise system is like being an adult, then, within the free-enterprise system, IPs are the most adult of all. Of course, that means not only being the freest, but also the most womb-less. There's no cozy burrow, no space capsule, no fuzzy blanket to pull over your head when the winds howl. Wage-slaving for a capitalist corporation is socialist and sheltered by comparison.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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