How I learned to stop worrying and love self-employment

The latest figures that 168,000 people became self-employed in the UK this year, which is a record. This is the story of how I unwillingly became self-employed, and learnt to love it.

Back in 2007, I persuaded my employer, a financial magazine called Euromoney, to send me to Russia to be their first full-time Moscow correspondent. I’d worked for Euromoney for three years or so, hated most of it, but had clung on because it was the first job I got after university, and I was terrified of getting fired and somehow not fitting in with the capitalist economy.

After I’d been in Russia for three months, my editor emailed me to say he was coming out to Moscow. I thought this was rather strange – he didn’t say he was coming out for a story or a conference, just that he was coming out. But I put aside my paranoid concerns, and went to meet him. As soon as I saw him approaching, I knew things looked bad. He looked incredibly sheepish and downcast. We went to a local cafe, and he came out with it: “I’m really sorry Jules, but we’re going to let you go.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was 26. I had turned down another job in London, with Reuters, to move to Moscow; I had moved most of my possessions, learned the language for six months; I had found a flat; I had bid farewell to all my friends. And now they were firing me after three months? “It’s not my decision, Jules, it’s the publisher [Richard Ensor, seen on the left giving one of Euromoney's endless awards to a Croatian businessman called Darko Marinac, shortly before Darko was arrested for fraud. It was an award for 'excellence in corporate governance']. Ensor is worried about the payment protocols, controlling expenses, that sort of thing.” I looked at my editor in shock and growing disgust. “Believe me, I wanted to resign over this”, he said. “But I’ve got two kids and my pension to think about.” Uh-huh.

And so I became a freelancer.

For a couple of weeks, I was in shock. I really didn’t want to return to England with my tail between my legs. But I had no idea if I would be able to stay afloat and make it in this new and strange land. But I discovered, very quickly, that I could. Partly, I was helped by the fact I kicked up the mother of all fusses about how Euromoney had treated me, and got several leading bankers and even the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere (he also owns Euromoney) to write to the publisher and complain. They were mugging me, and so I drew as much attention to their assault as possible. Sure enough, they got ashamed, and paid me half a year’s salary to shut up.

But I also discovered that freelance life suited me. There were hardly any other freelancers in Russia covering the business and financial sector, and before long I had a whole string of clients, from all over the world. I made far more money than I used to do with Euromoney, and worked for better-known clients: The Times, The Economist, The Spectator, Foreign Policy.

But the biggest reward was emotional. For three years, I had worked for Euromoney, and been terrified of getting fired. I felt I had to fit in with the office environment, which I hated; and that I had to gain the approval of my superiors, some of whom were OK but some of whom were less so.

Suddenly, I didn’t have one guvnor, but several. This changed the power dynamic utterly. If one boss was being too difficult or demanding, I simply worked with them less. I was in control. I could choose how much I worked, and when. I could choose what time I went into the office, or if I went into the office at all. The freedom and autonomy was delicious.

I loved that first year of freelancing. I would work a bit, do some interviews, play some video games, stay out late with friends (why not? no need for an early start in the morning). I was playing Grand Theft Auto at that time, and it struck me: this is my model of employment. In Grand Theft Auto, you are a self-employed hustler from Eastern Europe, trying to make it in New York. You have a range of different employers you can work for, some of whom you meet, some of whom are just voices at the end of the telephone. You go around the city doing jobs and missions for them, cash magically appears in your bank account, and your credibility rises at the same time (unless you mess a job up).

This aptly described my new life (though I was from the West, trying to make it in Eastern Europe, and sadly with less bazookas involved). I probably worked for over 30 different titles and organisations in my time in Russia. Some paid very well for boring work. Some paid less well, but the jobs boosted my credibility because they were well-respected titles. I never met some of my regular clients – just received jobs by email, and then the money appeared in my account.

As the knowledge economy expands, more and more people will be following the Grand Theft Auto model of employment. They will also organise into hubs or syndicates to protect their interests. They will go co-op on missions when it suits them. They will find ways to make the game more social, for example by hiring out office space together.

You can criticise this model of employment: first of all, not everyone has the particular transferable nomadic skills for that sort of market. And that market isn’t suitable for everything: you can’t build a dam or an airplane using freelance consultants. It works particularly well for people in the media. But that isn’t – nor should it be – the whole of the economy. For one thing, I don’t employ anyone. And just because it turned out OK for me, we shouldn’t forget how tough and demoralising unemployment can be, and should do our best to protect people from that experience. And perhaps the GTA model is rather atomised and lonely: what happened to corporations and corporation man?

But keeping those criticisms in mind, I’ve found that the GTA model is fun. And judging by the latest employment figures, it’s catching on: this year, there are 168,000 new additions to the ranks of the self-employed, which is a record. I’m sure that many of them were, like me, unwillingly shoved into self-employment. But hopefully some of them will learn to love it.

Now, I occasionally receive offers of full-time employment from publications. And I’m sometimes tempted to accept. I worked for one magazine for a year, which was fun, but I still couldn’t help feeling that a lot of the time in the office is just killing time. You know that sort of dead atmosphere in an office, when everyone is just watching the clock? You’ve basically sold your whole day, five days a week, to someone else. I get a lot more done in my own time. And I can go for a walk in the park, play sport, have leisurely meetings that I actually enjoy. Life is better.

You think you’ll miss the office banter. That’s why we like sit-coms like 30 Rock, which portray an idealised version of an office, where everyone helps each other and laughs together, and the CEO is a friendly father-figure. But, like a lot of sit-coms, 30 Rock is selling a version of community that no longer exists: or at least, I haven’t found it (if you have, let me know! I’ll put together a wall of fame of companies people actually enjoy working at.)

I went to work full-time at one title last year, and I couldn’t believe how bad the atmosphere was. There was no banter at all, just desultory descriptions of PR events and conferences, and the occasional row over responsibilities, like caged animals biting each other. I handed in my notice after three days, realising I far preferred working for myself. I know that some offices are much more fun, but we can build our own places of work – where free people come together out of choice and passion to work together. Places like the Hub Westminster, for example.

As The Office put it: ‘All you’ve got in common is that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day’. So why do it? Why not connect with people who really want to be there, who really share your passion?

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