Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 21, 2012

Relative Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an Employee Versus Being a Freelancer

 

This May I celebrated 25 years since I’ve been fired for what later my employment coach (this was a big thing in the eighties) Charlie called “incompatibility with corporate culture”. In view of that, I thought that I should try to summarize the wisdom that I may have accidentally soaked up during more than three decades of working as an employee first and as a freelance translator later.

I should add that I do have some basis for comparison of both stations in life as I was an employee for seven years between 1980 and 1987 in several countries on three continents prior to having been fired by a  dumb blonde who thus inadvertently launched my distinguished freelance career (thanks, Gwenn!).

I worked as a translator for the Czechoslovak News Agency (CTK),  then as a “research assistant” at the Oriental Institute in Prague, after that I worked (as a “lineman”) for US army in West Germany, then in various customer-oriented positions for several American and Japanese companies in California (including San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, Nippon Travel Agency and Ramada Renaissance Hotel in San Francisco), and my crowning achievement as an employee was when I was working as the only gaijin (foreigner) translator for Japan Import Center in Tokyo.

If you are wondering about the quotation marks, I used them for jobs in which I was not really doing much of anything. Personally, I found jobs where I was not really expected to do much extremely tiring and I quit them as soon as I could.

Based on these qualifications, I will now try to weigh some of the advantages and disadvantages of being an employee vs. being a freelancer.

Generally Recognized (or Perceived) Advantages of Employees

1.         Employees have a steady income, while freelancers don’t.

This is true. But the fact is that employees’ income is steady because it is so low. This is because most employees generally have no idea what the real value of their work is. And while most employees don’t realize it, they can also be generally fired at any time, at which point their income, low as it is, ceases to be steady for a very long time, often years. When an employee starts her own business, this usually results in two types of outcomes:

A.        The former employee can’t make enough money and has no choice but to become an employee again, or

B.        After a year or two, the former employee doubles what (s)he used to make as an employee, and then (s)he doubles it again. That is what happened to me, which is how I found out what the real value of my work is.

2.         Employees only have to work from 9 to 5 and then they can do whatever they want.

This was definitely true when I worked in the United States in the eighties. But after I moved to Tokyo, I found out that this was not true at all about employees in Japan, including myself.

For example, I was expected to leave the office no less than 20 minutes after 5 mostly to show my loyalty to the company. It was really kind of funny: the  Japanese employees were waiting for me to leave first because after the “gaijin” (foreigner) employee left, they felt free to leave too without being ostensibly disloyal.

I was also expected to be regularly getting drunk with my Japanese colleagues after work. This was not a problem for me, but on top of that I was also expected to show up at the office on Saturday or Sunday whenever the kacho (section chief) said so, without being paid overtime. As a dumb foreigner, I saw this as a major problem.

I understand the free overtime requirement has now been adopted in many working environments also in the United States and many other countries. So the 9 to 5 advantage may be at this point merely a quaint historical fact.

3.         Employees (in United States) have benefits such as health insurance, while freelancers have none.

This was absolutely true when I was working as an employee in the eighties. It was true in Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as well as in America and in Japan. Even an entry level employee at the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau such as myself had an excellent benefit package including health, dental, vision, and life insurance, as well as the promise of a pension.

Unfortunately, the Wall Street style of corporate capitalism for the most part eliminated most of these benefits in this country. Unless you are a high-level manager or work for the government (so that your benefits are paid by the taxpayers), these benefits were mostly phased out in the name of corporate profits. I understand that people in some other countries may still have access to benefits such as comprehensive health insurance and adequate vacation time, but in this country, employees mostly have to keep working without or with very flimsy benefits while keeping their mouth shut if they don’t want to lose their job.

All things considered, the fact is that there are fewer and fewer benefits available to employees, at least in this country. The way things are going, pretty soon there may be none, perhaps with the exception of the following advantage for employees:

4.         Employees can enjoy the company of other people who work for the same company. Freelancers are really quite isolated, which is a factor contributing to translator’s dementia described in this blog post.

This was true three decades ago, and it is for the most part probably still true today. I sure miss my colleagues and friends from the companies in which I used to work in Prague, San Francisco, and Tokyo. I can’t really remember any backstabbing politics, probably because all the jobs that I used to have back when I was quite young were entry level jobs.

There are ways to deal with this problem. Freelancers have Internet, blogs, social media …. and unlike employees, they don’t have to worry that an irreverent tweet or blog post will get them fired.

But still, social media and blogs are a poor substitute for the camaraderie and collegiality that existed in so many places where I used to work many years ago. As far as I can tell employees do have a big advantage here.

These are really all the advantages of being an employee that I can think of, and except for the last one, the modern version of American corporate capitalism, which is very different from American capitalism in the fifties, sixties and seventies, for the most part got rid of them.

On the other hand, I can think of a number of advantages that freelancers have.

1.  Unlike my neighbors who drive big SUVs to work, I spend very little money on gas since my commute involves only about twenty steps from my kitchen to my office. Another advantage is that I don’t have to drink my coffee from a styrofoam cup while driving and spilling hot coffee on my lap.

2.  I don’t have a boss. Most employees would consider this to be a major improvement in their life. I certainly do.

3. For the most part I like what I am doing. I did have a few jobs that were really enjoyable as an employee, but I also remember the desperation that I felt when I had to keep working because I had to pay the rent although I really hated my job.

4. An important advantage is that as a freelance translator, I can move my Internet-based business relatively easily for example back to West Coast again, or to another country again if I decide to do so.

In times like these, it really makes sense to have a plan B, and probably also a plan C for the rest of your life. Employees do not have the luxury of alternative plans, as their only choice is to adhere strictly to plan A that is determined entirely by their employer.

When your employer says that you have to sell your house because your job will be moved to Pennsylvania, you will have to sell your house in a horrible real estate market if you want to keep your job. This is exactly what happened last month to Mike who was a neighbor of mine for the last 10 years.

It is basically impossible for employees to have a plan B which does not involve quitting the present job, and this is a major disadvantage in the brave new world we live in now.

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Responses

  1. [...] Relative Advantages and Disadvantage of Being an Employee – Blog This entry was posted in Blog and tagged calendar, countries, employee, employment, [...]

  2. I generally agree with you, but on the other hand, you are mixing things here. For instance, you are comparing being an employee in Japan with being a freelancer in America. But what about being a freelancer in Japan ? I also like the comment about not having a boss when employed. But as they used to say when I was at translation school, “sometimes, freelance clients can be the worst bosses”. Let’s face it, a full-time boss won’t generally assign you work on Friday afternoon “due back Monday morning” (bye, bye, weekend), or ask you for a price discount. Other than that, I agree with you.

    • The last f/t job I had – at a French-owned company in an unnamed former communist country – involved endless unpaid overtime (the one young man who promptly stood up and walked out every day at 5:30 p.m. was given a talking-to early on for “not demonstrating enough dedication” and was fired within months), Friday afternoon assignments due by Monday morning (or, even better, Sunday evening), shifting goalposts ( = not asking you, but telling you you’re going to hand over a “discount”), long periods of travel, five-day “team-building” exercises and “incentives” to which our families were not invited, office bullying … I only stayed so I could collect great maternity leave benefits once I finally got pregnant. Whenever I start to suffer from The Dementia and think how nice it would be to have a stable income and stable hours, I just think of what it was *really* like back in the corporate world and I say – no, no, no.

  3. “sometimes, freelance clients can be the worst bosses”.

    That is true.

    But they are easier to fire than one’s employer.

  4. @La_Boheme

    And here I thought things were bad in Japan.

  5. You are “spot on,” as we now say, about the friendships one makes as an employee. Some of the best friends I have made were on wiretap-monitoring stints in other cities, and it becomes impossible to keep in touch. What was especially nice about those assignments was the wonderful diversity of “colleagues.” I would probably never have met them or socialized with them in another environment.

    One of the best aspects of working alone is not being constantly reminded of the deadwood making the same or more money. A frightfully lot of people work harder at not working than they would actually working. The boredom many can tolerate as a result is astounding. And need we mention the jealousies that result when one tries to be productive?

  6. Advantage #5 of being a freelancer: being able to take a nap after lunch (and not just the kind where you put your head down on the desk).

  7. And to add: I liked the intro video! I only wish they had shown one of the musicians waving off a fly.
    Then I kept clicking through to the b-w brass band videos. I think I was exposed to too much Lawrence Welk as a child.

  8. “Advantage #5 of being a freelancer: being able to take a nap after lunch (and not just the kind where you put your head down on the desk).”

    This is a big one for me too especially since as I get older, I am waking up much earlier than I used to.

  9. Woody Allen once wrote, “When I am in New York, I want to be in Europe, but when I am in Europe, I want to be in New York”.

    This kind of reminds me of this discussion. When I was in an office cubicle, I dreamed of being a freelancer, doing what I want, making my own hours, taking on new jobs and new clients.

    Now that I am a freelancer, I miss the routine of an office, the colleagues (some of them), and the “it’s Friday, I am done for the week” aspect.

  10. Be careful what you wish for.

  11. One of the best blog posts I have read recently – was a bit sceptical at first when reading the title, thought this would be another sermon about how insecure and risky it is to have your own business vs. being employed. But the article is great! I know exactly what you mean by “incompatibilitiy with the corporate culture!”

    I could add numerous other advantages of being a freelancer – do groceries, sit down in a café and go to the gym when no-one else does (did you notice that employees know the world only crowded?), easily go to the doc or office appointments without begging your boss to leave office early, go on holiday without asking permission six months in advance, etc. etc.

    True that your clients can be the worst bosses, but as said, you can get rid of them, and if you make a mistake you don’t have to justify yourself in umpteen meetings facing 20 managers.

    Last but not least, the risk of getting burned out or depressed are virtually zero when being self-employed. Burnout typically occurs when you do not have a way to be creatively productive, shape your working environment and make decisions. That is why so many employees nowadays get burned out.

  12. Why burnout occurs is a subject in itself. Nevertheless, right on, Nathalie! When one is self-employed, if any job or money requirement takes 20 hours to complete, one does not have to hang around for another 20 “just” to get benefits, do other laggards’ work, polish apples, etc etc etc.

    P.S. Do y’all know the song “Nathalie”?

  13. [...] This May I celebrated 25 years since I’ve been fired for what later my employment coach (this was a big thing in the eighties) Charlie called “incompatibility with corporate culture&#82…  [...]

  14. [...] conference) Reporting from Canterbury – Part 2 (Comparative Law: Engaging Translation conference) Relative Advantages and Disadvantage of Being an Employee Versus Being a Freelancer When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter 10th [...]

  15. Every coin has two side.Although you have discussed very well.There are following benefits Flexibility of hours, Work load control, New skills, No office politics, No commute.

  16. [...] Because it would be much worse if you were an employee. If you were an employee who got fired for some reason, usually because your employer finds somebody cheaper than you, you would be receiving unemployment for a while, corresponding to a fraction of your normal income, which would be followed by no income at all. Freelancers don’t depend on an employer. If we lose a customer, that’s too bad, but it is not really such a big deal. There is always other fish in the ocean. I was fired once as employee many moons ago. It was such a huge blow to my fragile ego that almost immediately I determined to try to make it from now on as a freelancer. [...]

  17. While freelancers enjoy many perks, such as flexible schedules and the ability to work from home, there are some inherent disadvantages to working freelance jobs. If you are a freelance writer, web developer or artist, you are self-employed, which means you must obtain assignments to work. And even if you’re an independent contractor with preassigned duties, you must still pay more in certain taxes than employed workers.

  18. The first holiday is the hardest. After that you learn when to go, where to go with good wifi coverage, or whether to arrange someone to cover, or whether it’s ok to take a complete break.
    I like to go to Asia because it’s so cheap there. It’s actually cheaper to live there in a hotel than it is back at home. So if I stay for long enough and rent out my apartment in the UK I actually save money by being on holiday!
    I’ve found the best time to go on vacation for a freelancer is between December and February. Things naturally slow down a bit then.

  19. […]  Stats for: Relative Advantages and Disadvantage of Being an Employee Versus Being a Freelancer […]


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