The term “living off the grid” usually means reducing or eliminating the reliance on fossil fuels by switching to renewable sources of energy, such as the sun or the wind. Sometime it can also refer to things like turning off traditional news sources such as cable news stations, which more and more people seem to be doing these days, mostly by switching to other sources of information deemed more reliable that are freely available on Internet. Or it can also mean moving to a remote cottage or cabin to turn off all external sources of information and listen to yourself as Henry David Thoreau did to write “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience”.
I would like to use these words today to describe what this patent translator has been doing for more than two decades now – namely living off the grid of traditional employment. I have been an employee on 3 different continents and in 4 different countries from 1980 until 1987: in Czechoslovakia and West Germany while both countries were still around, and also in Japan and here in the United States. I went off the grid of traditional employment out of necessity, when for the first and last time in my life, I got fired from a pretty stupid and mundane job for what a career guru in San Francisco by the name of Charlie later described to me as my “incompatibility with the existing corporate culture”. This was such a huge blow to my ego that it turned me into a self employed freelance translator right then and there. Incidentally, Charlie told me back in 1987 that I should forget about stupid jobs that pay the rent but leave me unfulfilled and concentrate on finding a job that I would really enjoy for the rest of my life, whatever it takes. That is the most important thing, he said. I paid Charlie a lot of money for this advice, which is something that I could and should have been able to figure out on my own. But I still consider the money I paid to Charlie in a hip, new agey office near the Fisherman’s Wharf money well spent. If you are wondering, the most new agey thing about that office was the receptionist. My wife kept referring to her as “the witch”.
Since 1987 there has been a major shift away from traditional employment toward self employed contractors not only here in the United States, but also in other countries such as Canada, England, France, and Australia. Freelancers, also known as “elancers”, are becoming the new normal. Even the people who come to my house these days to install satellite TV, a dishwasher, or a new garage door are invariably either self employed or they own a tiny business with a couple of people working for them, usually on a freelance basis.
When I open the newspaper or turn on the TV, I am often treated these days to a sad saga of a man or woman in his or her fifties or sixties who have been unemployed for two or three years and who due to their age and the horrible economy have bleak prospects of ever finding a decent job again. One advantage that those of us who went off the grid of traditional employment have in this situation is that we are used to periods of scarce or nonexistent work, often coming just after a period of too much work in a cycle which is so familiar to freelancers and which is also called “the feast and famine syndrome”. No matter how long you have been in business and how good you are, or you think you are, at what you are doing, you are likely to go through weeks or even months when there is not that much to do just about every year. It’s just a fact of life when you are off the grid of traditional employment. The flip side is that unlike an employee, you simply cannot be fired. At some point, work will find you again, and unlike in the case of a traditional employee, it will not take two or three or more years, although it could easily take two or three or more months. Different people find different ways to cope with this problem. Maybe your wife or husband should finally get a job? If you are a freelancer, you could also for example move to a cheaper place. Traditional employees would have to find a new job first in that new place, but it does not really matter where you live when you are a self employed translator. Home is where you hookup your Internet router. I could probably move to Papua New Guinea if I wanted to and pretty much continue the same work from there. I wonder what taxes are like in Papua New Guinea. But once you are older and put down roots, it’s not as easy to move, of course, as it used to be, whether you are an employee or a freelancer. Most people have family and friends and want to live close to their family and the people they know.
Traditional employees also often suffer from what is called “age discrimination.” Self employed people usually don’t have to worry about this. Since “employers” of freelancers don’t have to pay for benefits and pensions, they don’t care how old we are as long as we are not likely to die of old age before the latest project is finished. The fact is that freelance translators often work well into their sixties, seventies and eighties, not necessarily by choice, as I write in another blog.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the global economy and globalized marketplace are now going through a major transformation (often referred to as “a paradigm shift” by smarmy economists) from an employment pattern that was based mostly on the traditional employer-employee relationship to an economy that is much more based on self employment, especially in professions involving tasks such as consulting, writing or translating. If that is the case, you can either fight the trend (good luck to you!), or you can go with the flow.
However, we should keep in mind that economists usually don’t know anything about anything anyway, since as J. K. Galbraith, a noted Keynesian economist, is said to have once remarked: “economics was invented to make astrology look respectable”.
Whatever the real situation in the new “globalized marketplace” may be, the fact is that once you have been self employed for a few years, you can’t really go back to being an employee anyway because after a few years of having no definable boss, you will become completely “incompatible with the existing corporate culture” because that is what being your own boss will do to you for sure.
Newsflash: These people are still allowed to have fun in public without color-coded warnings and they don’t get arrested for dancing naked at a train station:
Dancing to Sounds of Music at the Central Train Station in Antwerp, Belgium.
Flash mob dancing at the Central Train Station in Prague, Czech Republic.