Is it me, or is the world splitting into two tribes of workers?
On the one side, the 9 to 5'ers – salary slaves who have to sell their souls just to keep treading water. On the other, business owners and the self-employed – people who work for themselves, from anywhere, and take control of their time. If you had a choice, which would you choose?
The question is rigged, of course. In 2018, we're supposed to feel sorry for the unfortunates in traditional employment, counting the days until retirement. Clearly, 9-to-5 is the enemy, something to renounce, escape and eschew wherever possible. Admitting that you go to work gladly; that you love your coworkers and look forward to the daily grind, is a bit like saying you like to kick puppies. What gives?
Is working 9 to 5 a waste of your life?
The way I see it, the fervor for freelance turns on the following arguments:
- Working 9-to-5 is not a natural state for most of us. Sure, there are some who love the routine of going to work and spending the next eight hours at a desk, but others - usually labelled "creative" types - can feel bogged down and stifled by this level of routine.
- Humans are not robots, we don't plug in and perform at the same rate of output for eight hours straight. Our energy comes in peaks and troughs. Why not work when we're most productive, not when a job demands it?
- People were not born to work in cubicles. A cubicle is literally a box that you are put inside. It's a metaphor for the inauthentic life, where you can't charge what you're worth and recognize your full value.
Most of these arguments revolve around one supposed truism: that people would rather be broke and do what they love than rich and miserable. In this sense, work is held up as something revelatory about your character. Those who refuse the 9-to-5 are held out as being more creative, more adventurous, more credible, more virtuous, more self-improving than the soulless salaryman who will never self-actualize and achieve happiness.
Ergo, 9-to-5 is something for people with limiting beliefs who are not empowered to live authentically.
Seriously? Traditional work is for the dull, the caged and the limited?
You have to live by your own rules, do what you love and burn for your work to be truly happy and satisfied? What is this fantasy?
What about the millions of people who work a traditional job they love and enjoy all the trappings that come with it (like a predictable salary)? How the people who are happy paying the bills through a 9-to-5 and then do something they're really passionate about in the other 128 hours in a week?
Or – this will blow your mind – what about the hundreds of thousands of folks who are too busy surviving to worry about authenticity? What about the unpaid interns, the gig workers whose contracts are specifically structured to subvert the minimum wage laws, the millions of freelancers on job sites such as Upwork competing for jobs that give them "freedom" for the princely sum of $3.75 per hour?
"Do what you love," writes Miya Tokumitsu, author of the essay In the Name of Love and the book Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, is just another rhetoric for exploitation.
"By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL [do what you love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn't happen to follow, it is because the worker's passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace."
Bringing this around to personality, I wonder if there's something going on behind the freelance revolution. It's well known that certain personalities shout louder than others in the blogosphere. Is it those same voices that make sure only the glamorous, successful self-employment careers get glorified, and not the reality of people's lives?
The 9-to-5 as liberation?
It's possible to be a successful and passionate and authentic person while working 9-to-5. I know this is not chasing a unicorn, because I do it.
As a freelancer, in a profession that allows me to set my own schedule, work from a beach should I wish to, structure my week according to my own INTJ idiosyncrasies, I choose to work the 9-to-5. In an honest-to-goodness office with a desk and swivel chair and a half-hour off for lunch. I actually work a more traditional job now than I ever did as a corporate 9-to-5'er.
And it's blissful.
Because this way, there's a firm distinction between work and not-work. For eight hours a day, my clients get to call on me, my editors get to manage me....and that's all they get. There ain't nobody getting their grubby hands on my interior thoughts, they're not up for sale. Not for monetization by a conventional employer, and not for monetization by my business even though my business is essentially me. When you live in your head like I do, it's so important to embrace the liberating boundaries of a well-defined workday.
And I reckon there's a reason very few people do better starting their own business compared to working for someone else. And that's because most people would rather live this way. Every single person who successfully starts their own business works double the hours of the 9-to-5. Being the boss doesn't mean more freedom, it means more responsibility. You work nights. You work weekends. You skip vacations to keep the cash rolling in. It is easy to lose money and your mind starting your own business.
By contrast, look what a 9-to-5 (or shift work, or any other type of predictable work pattern) gives you:
- A secure job that pays a predictable wage, where you know what your goals are, where most of the risk is on someone else's back, or at least it's shared.
- A life outside of work. Come 5pm, you're free to do whatever you want. That means you get to cook dinner, work out, go on a hot date, train living trees into artistic shapes - whatever floats your boat. Except work!
- Greater efficiency. Essentially, you have a deadline everyday at 5pm. Firmly holding yourself to these boundaries means you have to focus and prioritize tasks. Structure means productivity and for some personalities, this level of focus is a must.
- The ability to take on new tasks and stretch projects without worrying about paying the bills. The 9-to-5 is a security net that helps you dare to step beyond; to learn new things, make contacts, gain self-confidence. For those who hate repetition and safety, these are all opportunities to challenge yourself and switch up the routine.
- The opportunity to give back. Instead of hoarding their skills for personal gain, seasoned professionals can pass their knowledge onto coworkers who deserve and appreciate support.
- You get to be one person at work, and another person after work. Especially in the U.S., there's the idea that these narratives have to converge into one. But for many people, there's a lot to be gained from compartmentalizing your personality. You do your job, you serve society, and then you retreat to the private world. For me, having these boxes is how I get to be everything I want to be. Being able to unplug and come home with a clear mind is a wonderful thing.
Now, there are some that call for shorter workweeks, which is a perfectly reasonable request in the face of ever-increasing work days. No one benefits from being tied to a working construct that constrains their other pursuits and desires. But when the 9-to-5 works, it gives you the best chance of creating a work-life balance that prioritises the other areas of your life. As long as you're getting paid the right amount for your time, it's liberating.
Reclaim the 9-to-5!
A symbol of a dull and boring life? Heck, no! The 9-to-5 is worth reclaiming as an emblem of empowerment-one that can stop work bleeding into leisure time and actually protect your identity as a worker, a partner, a parent, a life-liver. Who's the sucker here: the super-authentic entrepreneur who's running around like a headless chicken, lacking boundaries, spending most of her "leisure" time with the laptop plugged in? Or the worker who embraces a square schedule and its clear-cut boundaries, and actually has time to do what she loves?