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The Post-Employment Economy Makes Entrepreneurs of Us All

It’s time to rethink the relationship between employers and employees.
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Not a bad business. (Photo: Rob Marmion/Shutterstock)

Not a bad business. (Photo: Rob Marmion/Shutterstock)

The United States economy added 192,000 jobs in private industries in March, according to numbers recently released by the Labor Department. Unemployment is staying stable at 6.7 percent, down from over nine percent in 2011. Retail sales rebounded in March as well, jumping up 0.8 percent after the winter. Inflation is low. So why do we still feel so sluggish?

Along with all the good news that suggests a continued, though gradual, recovery from the financial crisis this spring comes the surprising fact that our country’s labor participation rate, or the ratio of employment to population, is now at just 63.2 percent, a low that hasn’t been seen since 1978. That statistic caused the Financial Times to publish the pointed headline, “U.S. Loses Edge as Employment Powerhouse.”

Perhaps this lack of participation is the cause of our malaise. Despite the incremental growth in jobs and employment figures, many of the long-term unemployed are giving up looking for jobs and dropping out of the labor force, padding unemployment rates since they no longer count as employed nor unemployed. And on the younger side of the labor force, we have another symbol of employment crisis: the unpaid intern.

As larger companies fail to provide what they once promised, I see myself and those around me relying more on ourselves, finding creative solutions to economic precarity and thriving in the process.

The archetype makes for a potent image. Recent college graduates, fresh with enthusiasm about the world and their place in it, run up against cold reality as they find themselves unable to break into the desirable industry of their choice without working for free, and, saddled with debt, young workers take on less meaningful jobs to finance loan payments or a coveted internship. Even in that internship the scene is dismal: Tapping away at a keyboard on a low rung of a corporation designed to extract value from its employees rather than support them.

The internship paradox—find a way to float an unpaid internship or you won’t get a paid job—plus the low labor participation rates add up to a shifting landscape for career-seekers. Jobs simply don’t follow the linear, one-company path they had decades ago.

“If you are 35 or younger—and quite often, older—the advice of the old economy does not apply to you. You live in the post-employment economy,” wrote anthropologist Sarah Kendzior in a stinging Al Jazeera op-ed last year. “You will work without a pay rise, benefits, or job security. Survival is now a laudable aspiration.”

At The Awl, Molly Osberg paints a harrowing picture of what it’s like to find work to survive in Kendzior’s “post-employment economy.” She defines the “barista class” as a dead-end service sector in which workers circulate, serving those already ordained into the creative class. Osberg holds down an ostensibly hip collage of gigs, from artist’s assistant to Brooklyn coffee-slinger, but explains that these jobs too are exploitative traps: They build “a downwardly mobile middle class reducing workers’ personality traits and educations to a series of plot points intended to telegraph a zombified bohemianism for the benefit of the rich.”

What’s to be done when we serve our jobs rather than our jobs serving us? Osberg’s self-described “hustle” and her politicized awareness of herself as a worker points toward a possibility: Maybe it’s time to rethink the relationship between employers and employees. Though the buzzword has been drained of some meaning, perhaps we can appropriate Silicon Valley’s obsession and become our own entrepreneurs, making the most of the post-employment economy.

I COUNT MYSELF AS lucky to have never taken an unpaid internship. During college, a school-funded grant program gave me enough money to live on for a summer as I pursued an internship at an art museum that was otherwise uncompensated, an experience I could not have had without the school’s help. Then, nearing graduation with a growing stack of unsuccessful fellowship applications—desirable, funded programs like Fulbright—I bargained my way into an entry-level job at a magazine in China. I would get paid, not much, but enough to get by, and at least the exchange rate was good.

There in Beijing, I worked in an open office the Esperanto style of creative operations all over the world. The job was more apprenticeship than anything, a crash course in magazine making, not to mention copy editing and Chinese-to-English translation. Then the magazine informed me they couldn’t pay for the flights I would need in and out of China several times a year to compensate for my temporary visa. I jumped ship when I was offered a position at a blog in Brooklyn that I had connected with over Twitter. Always looking out for new opportunities lead me eventually to freelancing, working as a business of one.

This hustle isn’t just a young person’s game. It’s also the experience I’ve seen my parents go through over the past decade. Both highly educated engineers, they worked at suburban material-design companies of the kind that were supposed to provide a lifetime of employment, promotions, and stock options. Yet bosses got in the way. Stock options never panned out. Companies shut down, investigated for fraud.

My parents pivoted, to use the Silicon Valley-favored term that means switching the orientation of a business. My mother became a high-school science teacher, sharing her expertise with students. My father tried teaching, then grew an independent engineering consulting business from our basement. As that, too, faded, he turned an annual robotics summer camp he ran in my small Connecticut hometown into a non-profit education center that stays open all year. Scrambling for funding is difficult, but at its small scale, it’s sustainable.

As larger companies fail to provide what they once promised, I see myself and those around me relying more on ourselves, finding creative solutions to economic precarity and thriving in the process. If working for a corporation doesn’t even come with stability, why bother? Being able to make changes and be flexible is a powerful asset in the new economy. I find my career feeling more sustainable in freelancing than it ever has in a full-time job in the relentlessly churning media industry.

Like any crisis, post-employment is also an opportunity to make change happen. If a low labor participation rate creates the impetus for us to permanently rethink the relationship between employee and employer, then it’s a welcome motivation. Even if we don’t have to be, we all should be entrepreneurs.