A couple of weeks ago I came across an article on a site called Raptitude. I can see it was actually published a couple of years ago, but I didn’t find it until last month (if you interact with me on Facebook this may not surprise you). The author had just returned home after a few months travelling and started working full-time again. He’d noticed he was spending more money now than during his travels, but his quality of life seemed to be lower. He argued that companies trick us into spending money we don’t need to spend, and that as a result full-time employees end up “somehow just getting by” financially even though work dominates their lives. The post is here: http://www.raptitude.com/2010/07/your-lifestyle-has-already-been-designed/
He felt he could look at full-time employment more objectively because he’d been away from it for a long time; I feel the same because I’m self-employed. I’ve noticed I spend my money very differently from my friends with office jobs, and when I imagine working in a company again I can’t help thinking I’d miss the freedoms I have now. I know a lot of freelancers work horribly long hours, but I don’t: I work 35 hours a week. Admittedly I end up working a weekend every couple of months, but that’s not exactly unheard-of among employees, is it? Other than that, I find myself feeling hard done by if I do 20 minutes’ overtime, and I have to remind myself that a lot of people regularly put in overtime at the office and then have to spend more time getting home. As for money, while I’ll never earn what I would have if I’d sold my soul to the City, I do consider my income pretty good.
The twenty-first century wasn’t supposed to involve long working hours. For most of the last few decades people were confidently predicting that soon efficient new technology would mean we’d only need to work a few hours a day to earn enough money to cover our needs. As a result we’d have oodles of leisure time. Instead, free time is becoming scarcer and it’s a constant struggle to fit everything in. So what’s gone wrong?
Well, there are a couple of things those predictions didn’t take into account. Firstly, the price of labour – blue- or white-collar – isn’t fixed or linked to inflation, so if less working time is needed to do the same amount of work, then the amount companies are prepared to pay per hour or day will fall relative to other prices. Secondly, the people making the predictions didn’t foresee that instead of being satisfied once our needs were met, we’d just want more and more things instead. This is partly because people will always want more financial security, comfort and status symbols; but, as the author of the Raptitude piece points out, it’s partly because we’re bombarded with adverts all the time so we always think it would be nice to have frill X, Y or Z. I also agree with him about the time versus money pay-off: if you work full-time you have a fair amount of disposable income but not much free time, so you’re more willing to spend money on things that will save time.
Where I don’t agree with the author is when he says companies are in cahoots to maintain the norm of the 40-hour working week. I don’t think companies work together to enforce this norm; it’s simply the norm, so why would an individual company disadvantage itself by having its own staff work fewer hours? Yes, yes, I know: companies offer attractive working conditions to attract the best staff. But most jobs don’t need the crème de la crème, and even those that do would rather have those fantastic people working more hours than fewer. Perhaps that’s another reason those twentieth-century predictions haven’t come true: companies aren’t a homogeneous mass, they’re individual entities that compete with each other, so company bosses won’t do something that benefits their staff if it would also work against their company.
So where does all that leave those of us who are self-employed? Well, obviously we mad freelancers don’t have to toe the company line and can treat ourselves as well as we want to be treated. There are obvious advantages to freelancing that have been described ad nauseam: holidays when we want, access to the shops/gym/doctor when other people are at work, the flexibility to work around family life, no commuting and so on and so on. I don’t think it’s cheaper, however: even though we don’t have to wear smart clothes every day, commute or eat out at lunchtime, we do have to pay for all that extra heating and lighting, live in places big enough to have a home office, pay for IT equipment, etc. What we do have is the freedom to tailor our working life to suit ourselves, not an employer. The trouble is that takes a conscious effort, which I suppose is why so many freelancers get caught in the cycle of long hours and poor quality of life, and end up just as trapped in their way as any company employee. But the potential benefits of working out how you really want your working life to be can be huge – I’ve spent barely more than half my working life so far self-employed, but I can’t imagine going back to a nine-to-five with a boss. Aren’t those benefits worth the effort?