Posted by: patenttranslator | December 4, 2010

Living off the Grid of Traditional Employment Is Mostly Beneficial During a Time of a Major Economic Crisis


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.



  1. Nice post.

    I was in (serial) full-time employment for about 18 years and never for a second considered giving it all up and going freelance, other than if I ever won the lottery. Being in a full-time job with a decent salary, soul-crunching as it may have been, had a certain feeling of comfort, stability and predictability about it. Now that I have been self-employed for about a year I cannot believe that I didn’t start sooner. Especially in times “like this” (were there ever other times?), living off the grid can give you a lot more security because you are flexible in a way that a big company isn’t and, never forget, there is always a job somebody needs done, a niche that somebody needs filled, economic crisis or not.


  2. So I take it you never got fired as I did. It was a formative, character building experience for me. I would probably never have had the courage to strike out on my own otherwise. You’ve got to pay the rent.

    But I am also glad that I had a number of different jobs before I became self employed. I can imagine what it is like to work in various environments, for instance working in a news agency office in Prague or as a “salary man” in a Japanese office in Tokyo.

    You get a lot of exposure to different occupations if you work as a freelance interpreter, but if you work as a freelance translator, you spend the rest of your life staring at a PC monitor in your home office.


  3. It took me about 3 years of employment to realise that I was “incompatible with the prevailing corporate culture”.

    Deep down I always knew I was meant to be my own boss. The trouble is companies say in their advertising literature that they want entrepreneurial, dynamic self-starters with initiative, but the harsh reality is that they want people who will do what they’re told without question and without making waves. After two unhappy years as a wave making dynamo we set a “get out” date and my resignation letter was tendered just after receipt of Christmas bonus.

    Woe betide you if you are more intelligent than the boss, unless you are naturally blessed with the skills of a diplomat.

    I’m not sure if I could go back to employment except in very special circumstances.


  4. Thirty years ago, corporations were not the same heartless, ruthless predators that we have come to know and love. I don’t know where you are based, but here in US, things have changed drastically compared to the situation in the eighties. When I was a low level employee of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau back in early eighties, I automatically had all kinds of benefits such as life insurance, health and dental insurance, substantial vacation time, etc. These benefits have been drastically reduced or eliminated altogether.

    It really makes sense to be self employed these days, rather then being dependent on a boss who works for a cruel machine designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to squeeze as much profit as possible out of workers and customers alike, regardless of the consequences in the long run.

    The corporate culture of large corporations that are or were among my best customers has also changed. I really prefer to work for small companies now because they usually pay much faster and they still believe in a quaint, old concept called accountability.

    When I sent a past due payment notice to a young lawyer in a mega law firm last month, his response was:”I just work here, I have no influence on these things.” I told him that I would have to raise my rates to his firm next time because it takes so long to get paid and his response was:”I don’t blame you”. I wonder what else was going through his mind.


  5. Double rates 50% up-front sounds about right for that client. 🙂
    (Well we can always dream)


  6. I do increase my rates slightly, by about 10%, when this happens, both for my rush and non-rush rate.

    Small firms usually somehow find a way to pay faster, large ones usually go somewhere else. Which is bad in the short term and good in the long term.


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