Are you self-employed or self-unemployed?

By Neil Patrick

As the economy improves, so too are the prospects for self-employment

The government has been making bold announcements about the fall in unemployment lately.

On the surface, the latest UK figures are very good news. Employment is up, unemployment and youth joblessness is down.

Almost a quarter of a million jobs were created in the three months to February a rate of growth which is easily outpacing the US, still the world's biggest economy.

UK self-employment has risen by more than 600,000 since the 2008 crisis to 4.5m. Some argue that this is a sign of entrepreneurship. This may be true in some cases. But my experience suggests something else.

I call it ‘self-unemployment’

There’s a whole army of professionals in the UK, who for years enjoyed well-paid secure jobs. Their skills meant they could be confident about long and rewarding careers. Then, in 2008 the tsunami hit.

That was almost six years ago.

In the ensuing collapse, hundreds of thousands of established career professionals watched helplessly as not just their jobs, but often their employers and even whole industry sectors were swept away.

If you are one of these people and if you’ve been largely unemployed for that period, even if you’ve called yourself ‘self-employed’, your chances of getting hired into a new job again haven’t improved much.

For a start you are six years older. And six years is the total career history of many of your younger, more up to date competitors for jobs. Whilst they have been growing their skills and experience and keeping up to date, what have you been doing?

I know dozens of formerly employed people who have lost their often well paid jobs in the recession. They are nothing like the traditional long-term employed, low on education, skills and motivation. They are used to getting up and going to work. And they have valuable skills.

They don’t like the stigma of being labelled ‘unemployed’. But they haven’t been able to find jobs. So they have turned to self-employment, usually trying to apply and sell the skills they have acquired during their career.

The reality of self-employment

When they did this they experienced a rude awaking. They discovered that earning a living in this way is much harder than they ever thought possible.

There are many reasons for this. The fact is that being highly skilled in your profession as an employee, doesn’t automatically equip you with all the skills you’ll need to do a similar type of work as a self-employed person.

For a start, some jobs just do not lend themselves to self-employed variations of what you did when you were employed.

Secondly the work will not come to you. You have to hunt it down, grow your network and opportunities. This work which of course is always unpaid, consumes a large part of your available time.

Third, when you find an opportunity, you need a whole set of sales and marketing skills to turn that opportunity into an income stream.

And you need to keep the work coming month in month out, just like your bills.

Overcoming these obstacles is a skillset all on its own.

But things are set to improve

Right now, the economic recovery is still fragile and organisations are cautious about any expenditure, often preferring instead to try and solve problems with their existing resources. However, assuming the economy continues to improve, this caution will ease, particularly in the private sector, creating a greater willingness for businesses to spend again.

Hiring extra full-time staff can be a big step for firms. Plenty of skilled work needs to be done which may not warrant a full time position, but which can be ideally carried out by a part time contractor, who is flexible on the hours they work and carries no overhead or legal and contractual obligations for the client.

Second, as employment levels rise, the available pool of talent will shrink, forcing businesses to look around more widely for the skills they need.

My feeling is that in the UK, the prospects for the self-employed are likely to slowly but steadily improve over the coming months.

So if you are currently self-unemployed, my view is that you should stay the course. The jobs market may be improving, but you will not be at the front of the queue when the hiring decisions are being made.

Play to your strengths, recognise the economic environment is changing and set out to capitalise on it. You may have been self-unemployed, but right now the prospects for being self-employed are looking better than they have for years.

Recognise this is happening and prepare for it. Revisit your contact list and prospects. Review and update your marketing. Attend more networking events. Step up your social media activity.

You’ve got this far and the tide is turning.

If you recognise any of these things happening in your business, do please post your experience and observations below.


  1. Neil, this is just as true and valid in the U.S. Excellent article.


    Diana Schneidman, author, Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less

    1. Thank you Diana for a US perspective on this. I suspected things were similar, but I don't have first hand experience of what's happening on your side of the pond. And I thoroughly recommend your book for those who may be grappling with these problems. :-)