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Humane Work Lives

Prefer to listen rather than to read? The audio version of this essay is on the podcast.

This is the final article in the series about compass points we can use for our businesses. I’ve written about how to make progress, how to simplify our work, and what it means to have a financially beneficial business. Today we will talk about how to create something every human being deserves: a humane work life.

Working for yourself has many upsides and downsides. You’ve probably heard a lot about the downsides, all of which boil down to different versions of: self-employed people don’t have the “security” of employment.

There is a level at which this is not air-quotes true but actually true: We have to provide for ourselves things like retirement savings (there is not 401K matching from a company), our own sick pay, our own vacation pay. We have to do all the work of bringing in new clients and delivering whatever it is they paid us for.

From a point of view that still believes in stable, secure employment in a company, self-employment must seem precarious and scary.

As a person who has only worked for herself in the last couple of decades, I am not any kind of expert on being employed. But I am a good outside observer, and from what I’m seeing, that old vision of the security of employment doesn’t really exist anymore. People rarely work at one company or one job for their whole career only to kick off a luxurious retirement at 65. Here's what I’m seeing in my employed friends and family and neighbors:

In the corporate environment, it’s pretty cutthroat. Even if you are very senior and have impeccable credentials, you’re expected to want your time and attention to be owned by your company: Hundreds of emails all weekend, no problem! Constant “emergency” meetings- of course! And for what? Certainly the companies don’t seem to be treating the employees as long term trusted partners in producing whatever it is they produce. And vice versa, employees these days are changing jobs more frequently, as often as annually or semi-annually. Whether this is about ladder climbing and hopping to new opportunities at other places very readily, or about layoffs and job instability or simply seeking for the elusive great work environment, I don’t know. I just know that the 1950’s version of white collar work that we were told to imagine as the American Dream isn’t really a thing anymore (if it ever was for anyone other than an incredibly small slice of the population).

For my friends who work in medicine- doctors, nurses, and high levels specialists, this is supposed to be the ultimate secure and well paid job because people always need healthcare. Those who are employed in healthcare settings worked their asses off to get their credentials and want to be able to help their patients, so they should be rewarded right? Sadly, hospitals are also operating in the corporate model of profit hoarding. This means these bright caring people who took the time to get hard-earned credentials are treated like, to quote one of them, “cogs in a shitty wheel”. And as we saw through the pandemic, they can put their lives on the line in in the midst of a massive crisis and still have the executives at the hospital cut their pay. It’s bananas. What is really is is unconscionable. But doctors and nurses no longer have much say in how the environments they work in do or don’t constrain their abilities to practice medicine (I will also note that I am writing this from within a very broken, profit driven system called American healthcare. Other countries with socialized healthcare have it better, and so their doctors and nurses, and patients, also have it better. Turns out combining profit and medical care is… bad).

For those who work in non-profits, there is the grinding burnout of trying to do good while also constantly begging for money. The same goes for those I know who are researchers. You never know if a grant will come through or not and if not then… what? It’s just like losing a job.

And I live in an academic town- home to Yale University- so most of the people I know work for Yale. If you are an academic these days, it’s not better. Universities are also operating on the profit hoarding corporate model. Back in the day you could be an academic and get a tenured track job, get tenure, make an amazing salary, and focus on your area of expertise. But universities, even the very, very rich ones like Yale, have discovered that they can overwork and underpay people too. Maybe more so at a place like Yale because people want to have the cache of saying they are Yale affiliated. So much so that Yale assumes they’ll work basically for free, and with incredibly unstable and unpredictable employment.

Blue collar jobs have been eaten up by rapid and destabilizing globalization. Getting a good union job is not nearly as easy as it used to be. (Side note: the book American Made is one of my favorite reads this year and takes a deep look at factory work in the US today through the eyes of 3 people going through their ball bearing manufacturing plant laying them off to move to Mexico).

And that brings us to us: the self-employed folks. Those who were always considered a little lone-wolf-crazy to be able to tolerate that level of precarity in earning a living. But is it precarious when we consider what work environments look like for so many? It sucks that work environments in all sectors are just plain bad at this time in history. If I had a magic wand, I would definitely use it to improve work conditions for workers in all sectors. Or if we’re talking magic wand, maybe a universal basic income for all? I don’t know what I’d do with an actual magic wand…

Point being, I do not take any comfort in the amount of precarity and frustration that exists in modern day work for so many people. But it does make me see my own choice, to work for myself, as a pretty damn good gig even if I do have to provide for my own retirement, my own sick and vacation pay, drum up business for myself and have to deliver my offering to people all by myself.

Having many clients is actually far less precarious than having one boss. One boss can fire you at any time. One company can disappear at any time. But having many clients is like having many bosses: yes you need to produce work for all of them, but also, if one of them “fires” you, or that job you did for them is simply completed, you’re not unemployed. It just means you have a new opening for a new client! Not so precarious after all is it?

We also have some amount of control over the ecosystem of our own work. Sure, we still have to work. And some weeks can be very full and it feels like crunch time. But other weeks are more chill and it feels like recuperation time. All without a boss furrowing their brow at you to make sure you always look “busy” or stressed enough. (I know I’m aging myself with this, but I always thought the Seinfeld episode where George’s strategy to rise to the top of his corporation was to be constantly huffing and puffing, deep sighs and paper shuffling and signaling feeling so stressed… even though he was doing literally no actual work, was spot on.)

We don’t have to signal stress or busyness to anyone, so we can own our own time. In my case, being self-employed as a single mom, especially during the years when my son was younger, was essential. Instead of being responsible for an 8-hour inflexible block of time, which I would have to beg a boss to change, I had client-based work which meant I had smaller units of flexible time I could move around. If there was a school play, I could move 2 clients from one time slot to a different time slot. If he was home sick from school, I could clear a day of clients and move them to a different day. I’m not saying this was a stress free experience. It was actually very stressful, but it was possible for me to be flexible around the demands that parenting a young child brings.

As another example, I also have a health condition which makes me tired. Napping is not an optional “nice to have” for me- I’d be a zombie if I forced myself to avoid it. I need to nap everyday even though that’s something adults aren’t supposed to do. So I have time to nap every day. If you have a health condition that means you have certain optimal and non optimal ways of functioning. Self-employment can be more humane if you allow yourself to create the supports that you need. Again, the flexibility of my schedule is up to me.

More broadly, I mentioned in my essay on How to do The Thing that many of us entrepreneurs are not the most neurotypical bunch, and that being self-employed means that we can also own our own ways of doing things. Do you have ADHD and you do terribly with a lot of noise and frequent interruptions? You don’t have to be stuck in an open cubicle setting where people can swing by and interrupt you at any time. And if you feel unmotivated working at home alone and do much better with the hum of other people working around you, you can instead head to a co-working space.

We can set things up in our favor. It doesn’t mean we can have constant impeccable perfection: some tasks are boring. Some work days nothing goes as planned. I won’t pretend that self-employment is a guaranteed ticket to spending your days in a utopian bubble of your own design. Being human comes with being human: nothing is perfectly controllable. Nor would I want it to be (those who have constant control over all variables, often through extreme wealth, wind up doing weird things like building rocket ships to go into space for a fun 11-minute ride. I don’t fantasize about this kind of disconnected life.)

The if the curse of self-employment is that we have to make our own security happen by creating work and income for ourselves, the gift of self-employment is that we can do this with all the creative freedom we need to create structures and systems that create humane work lives for us and for anyone else who we employ in our businesses.

To embrace the gift of self-employment, all of this agency we have, we have to swim against the current of some pretty intense cultural conditioning. We will have to put some effort towards breaking the mold of inhumane work environments. In my case, I catch myself recreating the mold over and over, though it has gotten significantly less frequent and rigid over time.

The most glaring “molds” that keep inhumane work environments going, including for the self-employed, are the cult of busyness and “hard work” and the undervaluing of maintenance and care.

In Tim Kreider’s article from 2012 titled The Busy Trap he writes:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “ So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint…Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”

2012 was a very different time, and in Kreider’s recent 2022 follow up article, a kind of part-two to The Busy Trap titled It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam he points out that

“To young people, America seems less like a country than an inescapable web of scams, and “hard work” less like a virtue than a propaganda slogan, inane as “Just say no.”

Youch. Yep we are living through the great resignation, the great pivot, and quiet quitting. I’m hopeful that this means the virtue we assign to busyness is shifting, and with it that inhumane work environments will also go out of style. But large organizations move very slowly. I expect that work environments will go through some false starts and hiccups that redirect the cultural conditioning we have around busyness into some other version of this same striving. At my most optimistic however, I do hope that eventually these slow moving large organizations: corporations, hospitals, academic institutions will catch up and find a new way forward.

While shedding the long-held “achieve at all costs” frame will be slow and clunky for them, we, in our tiny but mighty businesses, are more nimble. As Tim Kreider goes on to say in his most recent article:

“I don’t believe most people are lazy. They would love to be fully, deeply engaged in something worthwhile, something that actually mattered, instead of forfeiting their limited hours on Earth to make a little more money for men they’d rather throw fruit at as they pass by in tumbrels.”

We have the opportunity to be fully, deeply engaged in something worthwhile more immediately. We don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission to experiment with the possibilities. That said, the possibilities themselves can sometimes be passed through the lens of the other big chunk of cultural conditioning that keeps us from humane work lives: the undervaluation of care. And if we don’t take that into consideration, playing with the possibilities for being deeply and fully engaged in something can lead us right back into inhumane work. In her article The Valuable Business of Maintenance Work, Tara McMullin writes:

“As a culture, we overvalue creation and disruption, while we undervalue maintenance and care. The countless hours devoted to raising children, caring for elderly parents, maintaining a home, and nurturing our own bodies are pushed to the margins. Unpaid. Under-appreciated. Unrecognized. Women and people from marginalized groups bear the burden–resulting in less financial stability and more negative mental health outcomes. On the other hand, we turn the disrupters into heroes—even when the products they create undermine our communities. We lift these people up—often privileged white men—and celebrate them with magazine features and mythic status. As more of us are herded into freelancing and self-employment, we carry this cultural pattern into how we set up our businesses. We’ve been led to believe that the next disruption or startling new idea will be the ticket to ultimate success. We’ll finally overcome whatever circumstances we find ourselves in and achieve our dreams! But even when significant disruption is present at the genesis of a business, it’s never enough to make it sustainable. Disruption, after all, is the polar opposite of sustainability. The decisions that get made after the disruptive idea are the ones deciding whether a business continues or dies.”

Maintenance and care aren’t sexy. They are the quiet day-to-day tasks of operating a business. If we undervalue those tasks and expect that we will always be coming up with the big genius idea to launch us forward, we get stuck in that same busy/striving trap.

Tara McMullin goes on to say:

“We’ve internalized cultural values that make it nearly impossible to say no, to rest, to prioritize care over trying to get something new off the ground.”

But we can bring our awareness to that, and learn to say no, to rest, and to prioritize maintenance and care over trying to get something new off the ground.

To create humane work, we get to ask ourselves: “How can I set this up to work best for me and for anyone else the business touches?” Whether that’s about your schedule, your offering, your routines of when you work in your business and when you work on your business, or how you manage your energy levels and attend to your health, just asking these questions is disruptive to the status quo.

That we get to ask these questions of our work lives is a privilege we should rise to. Maybe then rather than recreating the mess happening in so many other corners of the working world, we can sow some seeds for a different way of doing things and those seeds will spread. I do believe that Creating our own humane work ecosystem can have powerful repercussions over time in the larger collective. And in the much nearer term, and closer to home, we can simply have work lives that work for us.


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