Wild ride ... scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb imagines a taxi driver surviving a downturn better than a salary man. Photo: Ryan Osland
It's the great economic puzzle of the day: if things are really so bad in Britain, why is employment rising?
Ah, the left says, these aren't proper jobs. Instead, the increase is in self-employment - by 367,000 since the financial crisis, according to figures released by Britain's Office for National Statistics.
It's a sure sign, the critics say, that there's not enough full-time work to go around: indeed, many of these people are probably de facto unemployed, but with too much pride to go on the dole. The only way to get people back into work, they say, is to deliver growth - but what if it never comes back?
This is the disturbing picture being painted by an increasing number of experts. The details vary, but the general theory is that we are now mired in a ''Great Stagnation''. What that means is, first, that we have exhausted the most obvious long-term spurs to growth, such as developing mass production, or bringing women into the workforce, or introducing computers to offices.
Second, the industries of the future won't employ as many workers: for all their value, Google and Facebook employ a fraction of the staff of Tesco or Boots.
Meanwhile, outsourcing to cheaper and hungrier nations and the loss of jobs to artificial intelligence and automation could make an increasing number of professions obsolete, from factory workers and shelf stackers to doctors and accountants.
With fewer jobs to go around, no one will have the money to consume, so whatever government does, we'll be condemned to bump along with high unemployment and paltry demand.
All of which ignores two inconvenient facts. First, it's far too early in the course of the internet revolution to declare its ultimate impact will be to kill jobs rather than create them - even if you ignore the potential of nanotechnology or genetics or biochemistry.
Second, and more basic, those proclaiming the surge in self-employment to be a sign of a ruined economy need to answer a simple question: if these are non-jobs, why did the statistics bureau find that the people doing them work longer hours than the rest of us?
There is, in fact, a counter-argument, which holds that the rise in self-employment isn't a sign of economic disease, but exactly what Britain needs. Amid all the doom and gloom, few people have noticed - despite much trumpeting by the government - that new businesses in Britain are being created at the fastest rate since 1989. A recent study by Adam Lent of the Royal Society of Arts, Generation Enterprise, pointed out that young people today are far more entrepreneurial than their elders. Yet one of the most pleasant surprises of the bureau's statistics is that 84 per cent of the increase in self-employment is among those aged over 50; partly, that will be firms shedding expensive veterans, but not entirely.
Going it alone might seem risky, but it has two great advantages.
The first is the internet, which enables sellers to connect with buyers far more easily, however niche their product. My cousin and his girlfriend, both in their 20s, recently set up Victoria Sponge Bakery, which makes gluten-free cupcakes. From their kitchen, they supply businesses, stores and private events.
They hope to expand into cookery courses and cookbooks, and to advising restaurants on how to go gluten-free. Another friend has just started a firm named Beautiful Computers, after health issues prevented him working as a programmer. At his home, he turns computing devices into objets d'art - concealing a desktop computer inside a classic Bakelite radio, or a hard drive inside a vintage book.
''I wouldn't say it feels safe yet,'' he says. ''But six months in, it's not feeling like it's going to fail.''
The only disadvantage, he claims, is the lack of an office environment: ''The dogs are good company, but they're not so good around the water cooler.''
And the arrival of 3D printers - a technology that allows people to print out customised products and hailed by The Economist as ''a third industrial revolution'' - will turbocharge this phenomenon, as distant mass production suddenly has to compete with a million designers tinkering away in their own homes.
Many people may prefer the security of a salary. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in his recent book, Antifragile, self-employment is actually more suited to our turbulent age.
He imagines two brothers - one a taxi driver, the other a salaryman. The first lives by his next fare and is constantly fretting about it; the second has the security of a pension, medical insurance, etc.
Then the recession hits, and the wage slave gets the axe.
Suddenly, he's out of work, with few people hiring those his age with such a narrow skill set. Meanwhile, the taxi driver weathers the shock just fine.
Taleb's point is that a ''portfolio'' lifestyle - doing a little of this and a little of that, rather than putting all your eggs in one basket - may sound pretentious, but it leaves you more able to cope with shocks.
Of course, it's possible to exaggerate. There are only so many of us who can carve out a niche designing techno trinkets in the living room - and taken to its ultimate extent, this ''march of the makers'' would turn the economy into a giant car-boot sale.
But if Britain is going to maximise its national talents and opportunities, the first step is to realise that being your own boss is not a sign of failure but the shape of things to come.