Charles Handy reckons that now is the time to take the plunge and become your own boss
So, the unemployment numbers are rising dramatically again. It reminds me of the time they last did so on this scale, some 40 years ago. I had just published a book called The Future of Work. The BBC were planning a radio report on the same subject. So they sent a much younger Andrew Marr to interview me.
In the book, I’d argued there weren’t enough jobs for the people who wanted them, but there was still an awful lot of work to be done in the world. We had to go hunt for it ourselves and create our own little businesses. It was already happening, I pointed out. I thought that within 20 years, the number of self-employed would more than balance the number of unemployed. Problem solved.
Andrew listened intently but looked more disbelieving as I went on. He concluded the interview by saying, “well, that was Charles Handy who believes that the number of self-employed will more than outnumber the unemployed. But as I talked,” said Andrew, “I looked out of the window and I saw a flock of pigs flying by.”
In other words, what I was saying was fantasy.
At the time I thought he was probably right. I thought back to how lucky I had been to have had a secure job at the Shell International oil company. I remembered then when I met the original Shell interview panel, they were noticeably unimpressed by my first class honours degree from Oxford (which meant I had a well organised mind, but an empty one which needed to be filled with something useful like chemistry or the nuts and bolts of running a business).
But their eyes and faces perked up when I told them what I’d been doing in the holidays. I had started a little printing business in my bedroom at home using a small second-hand Adana printing machine and two trays of metal type, printing letterheads and invitation cards for the parents of my university friends.
It was a nice little business which didn’t make me rich but certainly made my time at Oxford much more enjoyable and boozy. You could see Shell thinking, ah ha, here’s an entrepreneur in the making, we need more like that. And they smiled encouragingly and offered me a job in their Singapore office which is where I went a year later.
But of course I was not allowed to be an entrepreneur out there.
After two well paid years, but being just part of another big bureaucracy, I missed the freedom I used to have running my own show. So I left Shell to try the academic life as a professor and worked for various Church of England organisations for four years.
I had assumed these benevolent bodies would allow me more freedom to be more innovative but I discovered to my dismay that they were as entangled in bureaucracy as Shell had been, and were staffed by people whose job in life seemed to be to stop me doing anything innovative.
So, encouraged by my wife, I decided to practise what I preached: I gave up my salary and free house and became a freelance writer and speaker.
Now, there is no more insecure a career than a freelance actor or a freelance writer, and I struggled for a while. But in the end I loved it and I earned much more, actually, than Shell had ever paid me.
So I encourage everybody to try a spell of flying solo. I can tell you, it’s not as cold outside as it looks, once you get going. But if you’re over 40, I suggest you pay off the mortgage before you take flight. Just in case.
I think that’s what’s going to happen again now – more and more people will go self-employed and find that it’s fun. You don’t have a boss. I urge you to try it.
Note from Ed: Here are the latest self-employed numbers; we quote from the Office for National Statistics’ latest release: “By the fourth quarter (Oct to Dec) of 2019, there were more than 5 million self-employed people in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000. Self-employment has contributed strongly to employment growth in the labour market, with self-employed people representing 15.3% of employment, up from 12% in 2000.” We predict that the numbers of self-employed will continue to increase as job losses rise.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.