Monday, November 11, 2019

The CEO of Me Inc., Quitting, and FIRE

I've often heard that people should think of themselves as businesses: that I am the CEO, the Chief Marketing Officer, and sole employee of "Me, Inc." I honestly kind of like the metaphor. I like the idea that, when it comes to our money, we should think about it in terms of profit and loss statements, of investing in ourselves the way a business invests its capital into its own people and its equipment, and how it might be helpful to have some sort of formal vision statement to guide this little company of Me, LLC.

I like the organized nature of this kind of worldview: its commitment to efficiency. And I find it empowering, in a way, to think of myself as the CEO of this tiny organization. You and me and everyone we know: we're all the head boss in charge, in a way.

Then the other day I read a fantastic article in Aeon by Ilana Gershon about the origins of this neoliberal metaphor: this idea that all of us workers are actually best thought of as businesses, and that we should define ourselves in market terms. It started in the nineties as the USSR failed, the world recognized that capitalism was superior to any alternatives, and, for better or worse, we started viewing everything, even ourselves, through the lens of markets.

But as the world started viewing workers as individual businesses, other changes in the market were occurring, as businesses started viewing workers in strict market terms as well: as human capital. From Gershon's article, "The quitting economy":
[B]usiness writers began to talk about how people need to think about investing in themselves, and viewing themselves as an asset whose value only the market could effectively determine. Over time, a whole body of literature emerged advocating that people should view themselves as a business – a bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences and relationships to be managed and continually enhanced.
The change that saw business writers, career counsellors and others adopting the view that individual employees, or potential employees, should think of themselves as businesses occurred at the same time that the way the value of a company was assessed also changed....
But as market value overtook other measures of a company’s value, maximising the short-term interests of shareholders began to override other concerns, other relationships. Quarterly earnings reports and stock prices became even more important, the sole measures of success. How companies treated employees changed, and has not changed back. 
While individual workers started thinking of themselves as tiny metaphorical corporations, real and giant corporations started viewing workers as an expensive commodity. An expense. Workers were something necessary for the functioning of a business, sure, but could be seen as something to be optimized. Minimized.

The real, huge companies started taking away pensions and benefits from the tiny metaphorical "companies", their workers, and started moving operations to Right to Work states or outsourcing the work out of the country entirely. Companies started favoring temporary workers and contractors to full time employees, so they could scale up and down as needed.

In short, corporations broke the unspoken, longstanding contract between workers and employers: that each party was committed to a long term relationship, that would be beneficial to both, for decades. Instead, what workers now had was a series of short term relationships, with a variety of companies, in a transactional model.

But it wasn't just companies that changed their philosophy of work. Workers noticed what was happening, that a short-term, transactional philosophy had taken over. So workers changed, too: into serial quitters. Again, from Gershon:
Companies now needed to free themselves as much as possible of long-term obligations, such as pensions and other worker incentives....While companies rarely say so explicitly, in practice they often want employees who can be let go easily and with little fuss, employees who do not expect long-term commitments from their employer. But, like employment, loyalty is a two-way street – making jobs short-term, commitment-free enterprises leads to workers who view temporary work contracts as also desirable. You start hiring job-quitters.
The CEO of Me, Inc is a job-quitter for a good reason – the business world has come to agree with Hayek that market value is the best measure of value. As a consequence, a career means a string of jobs at different companies. So workers respond in kind, thinking about how to shape their career in a world where you can expect so little from employers. In a society where market rules rule, the only way for an employee to know her value is to look for another job and, if she finds one, usually to quit. [emphasis mine]
I just love Gershon's article: it elegantly explains so much of what's changed for workers in the past three decades. If you haven't clicked over and read it, you'd be far better off stopping reading this drivel, and using that time to read her excellent essay.

But having read about the quitting economy, I see it everywhere in my workplace, in talking with family and friends about their jobs, and in reading about our relationship with work in the personal finance space. The idea of sticking with the same company for decades seems downright quaint. It's to the point where if I see someone in the same role for anything close to a decade, I wonder what went wrong. Shouldn't they have moved on by now?

In my own work experience, to get paid closer to market rates, I had to quit. My then-current employers would never match what the market would bare: they even told me so. So to get the big jumps in salary required to pull even with my peers in my field, I had to leave.

The kicker? My last employer, a Fortune 100 company, told me that if I wanted to get the salary I was asking for in negotiations, the salary being offered to new employees in my role even though I had more tenure with the company, all I'd have to do was to leave...but then come back. So long as I quit and found that salary with some other company, then all of a sudden my employer would find a way to not only match it, but beat it after hiring me back again.

I found this patently absurd at the time. Here I was, the same employee they'd hypothetically be letting go and then hiring back again. Rather than giving me the salary I was asking for, they'd prefer to let me leave, prove that the market would bear that salary, and then they'd be happy to pay me more than my initial ask. It made no sense at the time, but now I kind of get it.

True to their word, this is actually what happened after I left. Just a few months after starting at my new company, I started getting calls and emails from my former employer asking if I could come back: what number would it take?

By that point it was too late. I wasn't going to leave a company that just hired me, and have to answer about that short employment in every future interview, just to go back to the company that wouldn't pay me what I was asking for until I left. I figured, fuck 'em. They can chalk this one up to the cost of their short-term thinking.

But when I look back at how it happened, I can sort of see why it happened that way: how much modern quitting culture has impacted my working career, and the decisions of the companies I work for.

Of course, I'm not actually a business. Me, LLC is a fun idea and maybe would look good on a t-shirt. But I'm a living, human being, not a company.

This framing of people as businesses, as entities which, at least in their corporate form, have a profit motive and are required to put the needs of their shareholders, their owners, above the needs of themselves, is a pretty cold metaphor. It's literally dehumanizing.

Still, the part I found most interesting about this framing is how the climate in work environments over the past thirty years might not have only motivated workers into becoming serial quitters, as Gerson notes, but indeed might have created the environment in which the FIRE movement would flourish.

If workers are going to look at their employers' short term approach to benefits, wages, hiring, and retention, and then decide they need to move to another employer for better compensation, isn't it logical that some of those workers might take that culture of quitting in another direction, and search for the freedom to quit work permanently?

Gershon describes a work culture that inspires quitting. But in addition to creating a workforce of serial quitters, this culture might have accidentally made early retirement so attractive that books like Your Money or Your Life, published at the same time these neoliberal policies were being put in place, and, later, blogs like Early Retirement Extreme and Mr. Money Mustache, would give workers dealing with employers who saw them as short term commodities a way out, if they wanted it.

Workers who don't necessarily want to leave work entirely still might be inspired to at least work to some level of financial independence. Understanding that their employer might cut you loose at any moment or pile on additional work after they've cut staff, workers who are financially independent at least have options: they can set boundaries on extra work and say "no" when appropriate.

I guess I like the idea that my drive to financial independence and an early retirement might not be just some quirk to my own personality: some sort of defect in my protestant work ethic, or some sort of general laziness. I like thinking that maybe my desire to get out of corporate America and to get my time back is logical: a rational decision borne out of a changing workplace.

If corporate America up and changed the rules of the game, maybe quitting is the right thing to do.

*Photo is from 松林L at Flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. I have noticed this so much over the years. It stood out to me most post recession. Before there felt like there was a tiny bit of loyalty on both sides left. But after? Not at all. My last company was a perfect example of that. It's a train-wreck! I think back to my grandpa who worked at Ford Motor Company all his life and how they threw him a huge fancy party when he retired. Remember when you used to get watches? lol! Yup, times have changed.

    1. I know what you're saying, Tonya. Shit really did change around 2008.

      I remember when I was working for a Fortune 100 company in 2009-2010, and we all got word that our entire organization, like every person from our C-level leader on down, was laid off, and we'll all get the privilege of applying again for our jobs.

      Shit got downright cutthroat in the recession. (And we didn't get any watches.)

      I don't know where we go from here without some sort of organization for workers: some sort of revitalization of unions that can help level the playing field again.

  2. This is very thoughtful. This is advanced Capitalist society we're living in. I wonder how it will continue to change over the next 30 years. Everything will come down to money. You have to lookout for #1 and quit as often as possible. Employers will screw you over. There are no loyalty anymore.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Joe. Late stage capitalism is right.

      I have no idea where things are going in the next 30 years but if I had to guess, I'd say that outsourcing to low cost countries will continue to chip away at US worker's leverage, wages, & benefits, and then automation will change the game entirely.

      Just more reason to save up as much as we can now, IMO.

      But yeah, even now, there seems to be very little loyalty from employers. We're going through layoffs again right now and morale is pretty low.

  3. I despise that short term thinking. It makes no sense. If you're GOING to be willing to pay that much, then PAY IT. Why waste everyone's time sending them out there to get the new job and then try to woo them back? No sense at all.

    I'm doing my best not to allow that to be part of our company culture, wherever I have leverage.

    1. I completely agree, Revanche. In a way it worked out as I'm happier with my new company and my WAH role than I think I would have been with my last. But, you know, why openly tell me I'd have to leave and come back just to pay market rates?

      That's awesome that you're trying to keep this shit out of your corporate culture, friend. Glad there are good people in management out there!

  4. As a species, we have yet evolved to the level of sophistication where the macro economic is capable in the extraction of the best in potential of each and every human can bring to the table - especially, the college trained resource.

    If you invested 4 years or more of college and lost the passion within 5 to 10 years of working - that is a really low ROI.

    1. I don't follow your comment at all, but thanks so much for stopping by. 😅

  5. Fantastic Stuff, Mr. DBF! I have felt this hard the past 7 years. Leaving Grad school after spending a long time thinking I'd definitely be a professor and stay in my tenured position at X University forever... Woof. Now having had 3 positions at 2 different companies over that span. I'm not complaining, it's been good to me, but definitely an enormous change from what I had been led to expect from my parents, both of whom were in highly stable careers (my father just retired after 34 years with one company).

    And like you, at my previous job, I ran into a pay barrier. They're not calling me now asking me to come back at a much higher salary though. ;-) I had to leave them though to get anything close to market value for my skills and training.

    Here's the thing though - I'm just tired. Already a burned out Millennial. If this company continues to pay me alright, and doesn't become hostile in any sense, I would love to just hang out here until I'm ready to retire (10ish years). I know that's probably not going to happen, and in another few years I'll get the bug to move. But right now, I'm done playing the game. I want out of the game. That's why I'm saving up that FU money, because I can't wait to use it to its highest potential.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your own thoughts and passion.

    1. Hey there, buddy. Thanks for stopping by!

      As you know, we followed somewhat similar career paths. I, too, hit a point recently where I was happy with my 'last' spot before hitting FI that I decided just to stay through my FIRE date. I think it makes sense if you find a good spot that you're happy with. But as you said, if your feelings change then maybe the best move is to hop once more.

      I, too, go through a cycle in how I feel about a job: the honeymoon period, then some stress as I get up to speed, then a good period where I feel I'm at maximum competence, but then usually a period where I start to feel dissatisfied with the job and kind of stuck. Then I want to quit & find that 'new' feeling again.

      What I loved about the source material was thinking that this cycle might not be due to some defect in me: some part of me that can't be happy staying with the same company for decades.
      Rather, that the workplace itself had been designed to encourage short term focus, and, thus, serial quitting.

  6. The CEO of Me Inc. is a compelling guide to personal empowerment, encouraging us to take control of our destinies. Quitting isn't always a setback; it can be a bold move towards self-discovery and fulfillment. Embracing FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) is a testament to strategic planning and financial wisdom. Together, these concepts inspire a life of purpose, autonomy, and financial freedom. Cheers to embracing change, pursuing passion, and achieving the extraordinary with The CEO of Me Inc., Quitting, and FIRE!

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