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Nowadays many believe that to lead a happy life, one must attempt to escape reliance on employers and instead work for oneself. That working life contains the need to flatter or negotiate with colleagues and superiors. That it’s better to work at one’s own pace, for one’s own rewards.  Many a book or web-site advises that there is freedom in leaving offices or factory jobs. 

It’s not an old complaint.

Such calls began in the nineteenth century and came in response to an opposing trend. For the first time in history, a majority of people ceased working on their own farms or in small family businesses. Instead they began bartering their intelligence or their strength for a wage paid them by someone else.

So began the worries of being an employee.



Group of happy business people in a meeting at office

These invariably include duration of one’s employment and the everyday humiliation of many working practices and dynamics.

Most businesses look like pyramids, with a wide base of employees giving way to a narrow tip of managers.  The question of who is promoted, and who left behind, thus becomes one of the most oppressive anxieties of the workplace.  It is one that, like all anxieties, feeds off uncertainty. 

Compounding the misery is the fact that success has an uncertain relationship to performance. Those at the top may not be the most deserving. Not even at the task at hand. Instead they may be those who have best mastered a range of political skills. Skills in which ordinary life does not generally offer instruction.

It may not be a lie to say that selfishness, deceitfulness and cunning are all required to reach the top. Or possibly even to keep your job. Even if you are certain you can require the skills to keep you secure in your job, the need to do so is not reassuring. Not in the fast changing world of the modern market place.  

For workers in an organisation, job security depends not only on internal politics but also on a company’s ability to remain profitable. The market’s passion for movement and change means few producers can defend their competitive position or pricing power for long. 




To save profitability companies may hire cheaper replacements in faraway lands. They may enhance profitability by merging with competitors. Or they may turn to mechanisation, computers or robots. All destroying jobs in the home land. For an economy as a whole this may be good. New jobs are created. Yet this hardly lessens the anxiety of individual workers.

Moreover, the recent history of the economies of nations has been one of repeated cycles of growth and recession. Four or five years of expansion usually give way to one or two of retraction. Occasional massive retrenchments last five or six years. Graphs of national wealth often resemble angular mountain ranges. The valleys of which lie the bankruptcies of long-established firms. Along with layoffs, closings factories and the destruction of stock. 

The best efforts of governments and central banks show that it is difficult to control such turbulence. Going it alone may not give the reassurance you require either.

In a recession companies and entrepreneurs flounder or go bankrupt and unemployment rates rise. As confidence evaporates, borrowing and spending dry up. Companies and individuals sell assets at a loss, but many potential buyers wait for the market to hit bottom before purchasing. This delays the recovery.

Rather than a sign of hysteria, a state of steady anxiety may be a reasonable response to the real threats of the economic environment. Working for an employer has many benefits but a certain amount of anxiety comes with it.


This essay draws on the work of Alan de Botton, particularly his book Status Anxiety. To learn more click here.

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