Running in Place - by John Sealander

I think Carol was trying to make me feel better when she told me the story. Apparently one of her co-workers, a vice-president no less, had finally had enough of the rat race and had gotten up the nerve to ask his boss to be reassigned to a different account. The guy tells the boss that his client is incredibly demanding and that he doesn't have a life anymore. He just wants another account, any account will do. "Can't do that," says the boss, "they like you." "But they take up every waking hour of my life," says the guy. The boss shows no emotion. He asks how many hours a week this guy works. "Oh, 65 to 70 on average," the guy says. "Well, I'll tell you what," the boss says, "You can work your first 40 hours a week on the account from hell, and then I'll give you a new account with the time you've got left over.

Carol's friend is horrified. He says he's going to quit. He's going to start his own business. The boss looks him straight in the eye and tells him that you have to have at least a year's salary in the bank to have even a prayer of starting your own business. "You've got no savings, you've got two kids and a mortgage," says the boss, I'd say you're stuck." At this point the guy slunk away like a whipped dog and is apparently still assigned to the account from hell.

Sound familiar? I'm not surprised. Even though I work for myself, am no longer a hostage to office politics and do have some reserves in the bank, I often feel stuck as well. The whole social fabric of the country has changed. The two income family is more or less a necessity. Job security is a joke. And everyone I know comes home tired, pissed off and totally stressed out.

There is no escape. If you work for a big company, every day is a new opportunity to get fired. You live in fear of being downsized right out of the organization. Everyone I know who still has a job seems to be doing the work of three people, mostly because four of their friends have already gotten laid off. That's where I come in. I'm that extra person who takes up the slack. Companies have decided that employees are a nuisance. They come in late, they get sick and then there's all that troublesome health insurance to pay for. It's so much easier just to rent an employee or two when you need them and then get rid of them again as soon as the project is finished.

Outsourcing, consultants, alliance partners and asundried other schemes for avoiding full-time employees are all the rage in corporate America. Under the guise of reengineering, restructuring, re-establishing core competencies and creating new virtual organizations, companies are discovering that they don't really need employees to get the job done. In many cases, they can just hire back the ones they're already fired on a temporary basis and save themselves a lot of money as well as the trouble of payroll taxes and health insurance. All this is creating a thriving market for people like me. It almost seems that for every employee that gets canned, there's another message on my voice mail asking if I'm available for a some sort of rush job that absolutely has to be finished next week.

So what's the problem? Nothing, I guess, if you thrive on demanding, stressed-out people calling you from six in the morning till eleven at night with strange requests and impossible deadlines. It's been six years since I've been anyone's employee, but now it feels suspiciously like I work for six different employers at once. I spend all day in meeting after meeting, just like I used to at the ad agencies. The only difference is that now I've got to stay up until the wee hours figuring out how to deliver on all the unrealistic promises I've made during the day.

I have a whole new respect for the legions of account executives I've maligned during my agency career. Now, I find myself with the unfortunate distinction of being my own account executive. And a damn good one at that. I can bluff my way through virtually any type of meeting, calming nervous fears and promising the moon, while secretly trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Unfortunately, unlike the account executives I maintained an adversarial relationship with for so many years, I don't have a convenient creative department to dump the work on as soon as the meeting is over. I've got to do the damned stuff myself. At two in the morning with no ideas and a blank piece of paper in front of me, I often wish I'd just kept my mouth shut during the day.

It's a brave new world. If you are reasonably competent, can work in a pressure cooker and don't mind getting paid six months after you've finished your assignment, you'll be busy and well compensated for the rest of your life, or until you drop dead of exhaustion. It's unclear at this point which will come first. What is clear is that the world will never return to the way it was. If you're still coming to work at nine, having a cup of coffee, chatting with co-workers and writing a few friends on the internet before returning home again at six, you are definitely living on borrowed time. If you're ambitious and on a fast-track career path, you have long ago given up these pleasantries, along with any semblance of a normal life.

The freelancers, outsource partners, and tiny little companies like my own are setting the rules now. When your employer discovers that an outside vendor can deliver what he needs overnight, you lose the option of telling him that you need two weeks to so the same thing. If the employees can't match the vendor's crazed performance, there's usually another round of downsizing on the horizon. And even more work for folks like me.

I am much faster than I was when I started doing this. I have to be. I feel like one of those chickens on a rotisserie spit. Slowly and inexorably my clients are turning up the heat, testing the boundries of sanity, seeing just how far they can push someone in the name of improved productivity. One thing you learn quickly in this business. If your client is stressed out and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, they certainly aren't going to hire a vendor who is having more fun than they are. I used to think I was in the creativity business, but that didn't last long. I'm in the service business. For an exorbitant fee you can quickly pass off to someone in accounting and forget about, I will share your miserable live for the duration of your project. If things go well, you can claim it was your idea and try to save your job. If things go poorly, you can blame the whole fiasco on me and cross me off the preferred vendor list. It really doesn't matter, because when all is said and done, you are going to lose your job anyway.

Get used to it. As sure as people lease cars today, they will rent employees tomorrow. Get a powerful computer and three phone lines. Prepare yourself for a life that will seem more and more like running in place. You will find yourself doing the same things over and over again with small variations. You will never get caught up. Hobbies and friendships will become distant memories. You will have sex about as often as you take a vacation. You will be tested again and again to see if you are up to the challenge.

Don't think this is just a reality check for management consultants and aging creative directors either. If you aren't up to the challenge of a lean and mean downsized economy, your future is even bleaker. You will be delivering the pizzas to the rest of us.

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