You’re Not “Self-Employed”

What happens if you let go of the myth that you are?

3 min. read

For the past almost-decade, I’ve checked the “self-employed” box lots of times: when opening bank accounts, on lease applications for apartments, and it’s how the IRS sees me.

But it’s a lie. I’m not “self-employed.”

Nobody is.

You’re employed by whomever pays you to work. Your employers are your clients, customers, patrons, or whatever you call the people giving you money that enables you to put food in mouth and roof above head.

If you’re a graphic designer, your employers are the clients who hire you to make their websites, or business cards, or whatever people are paying you to design these days (“gender reveal party” invitations? Is that an industry thing. Please send an assassin to my residence if so).

If you’re a musician, your employers are the patrons who consume your art, and pay you to create it. The people coming to your shows. Buying your albums.

If you run a shop selling widgets, your employers are the customers who buy the widgets (and it’s your moral imperative not to sell Gender Reveal Party widgets, or I’ll start scrapping together the funds to become an assassin’s employer).

So, unless you’re your own client, customer, and patron — and you’re somehow giving yourself money for that work you’re doing for yourself — you’re not self-employed.

(If you are actually self-employed, please direct me to that magical, capitalism-distorting loophole. I’d love to sign up.)

Self-employment is a myth.

Is this just linguistic nit-picking? Maybe. But maybe it’s more than that.

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Maybe the language we use to describe our work is actively shaping the way we think about it. How we see it. How we feel about it, and the people involved.

Seeing ourselves as “self-employed” encourages a few unhelpful mental models:

  • It’s easy to lose sight of who you’re actually working for (it’s not yourself, ever)
  • You believe you’re pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, when you’re actually providing bootstraps for others to pull (or not pull)
  • You can forget that in reality you’re supported by a community, one that you’re in turn working to provide for

Every “you” there is really an “I” (or at least a “we”): these are myths I’ve found myself trapped in, misled by, countless times over the years. Myths I’m trying to unlearn.

What does “self-employment” look like if you let go of the myth? When you start to call it what it really is: mass-employed.

For starters, you become more cognizant of your true employers, and less focused on yourself.

And it forces you to rethink the ways you interact with your employers, provide for them, receive support from them, improve, contribute, grow — together.