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 outcome:
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.