In your heart, you know that this isn’t what you want to be doing forever. You feel restricted by the rigid routine of the 9 to 5 (which is never really 9 to 5, of course). You are fed up with mindless meetings and bureaucratic processes. And you feel frustrated with doing work that simply doesn’t have any meaning in the real world.
So you may be clear on the ‘not this’ – but the problem is that ‘this’ is also all you know. Those rigid routines have been part of your life since you graduated or, really, since you started school as early as four years old. Working in this job, for this employer, and in this industry, is familiar and comfortable; it’s safe and secure to have a regular salary and generous benefits; and your position offers a degree of prestige and respect from your peers.
So if not the conventional corporate 9 to 5, what are the alternatives? If “not this”, then what?
What is the ‘corporate 9 to 5’?
Let’s start with defining what that ‘corporate 9 to 5’ involves:
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Do you fantasise about a world in which you love your job to the point that you jump out of bed in the morning with excitement at the thought of what you’re going to do today? Do you long for more freedom and flexibility in your daily schedule? Do you wish that you were creating something really meaningful, that could make a difference to something that matters?
- Working in a private corporation, the primary motivation of which is profit and in which you are a small part of a big machine
- Working in an office-type environment
- Reporting to a more senior manager (your boss)
- Working standard hours of Monday to Friday, traditionally 9 am to 5 pm but now usually involving longer days and, thanks to technology, work from home in the evenings and on the weekends
- Receiving a regular monthly salary and other benefits such as insurance and a pension
So any alternatives to this type of job could include working in a different type of company or organisation with different motivations; working at home or in a different environment; working for yourself or for a number of different clients; working atypical hours; and no longer receiving a regular salary and benefits.
Let’s take a look at a few of the main alternatives…
Moving into a different sector
Perhaps the least dramatic change from a ‘corporate 9 to 5’ would be a ‘non-corporate 9 to 5’… That is, moving into a different sector but keeping the rest of the environment more or less the same. This might mean going from private to public (either working in government or perhaps in an NGO or charity), moving to a more creative industry or maybe agency-side instead of client-side, or joining an existing startup. In this context, you would still maintain the office environment, you’d have a boss, work more-or-less standard hours and at the end of the month, you’d get your paycheck.
- The change of scenery might be enough to get you motivated again, especially if you’re working on a product or for a cause that you’re really passionate about. You’ll get onto a steeper learning curve and develop skills in a new area.
- You’ll still have the familiarity and comfort of the fundamental way of working being the same as before.
- You’ll continue to have that regular, albeit potentially lower, salary coming into your bank account (except in the case of an early-stage start-up, which might be a riskier proposition).
- The advantages are also the disadvantages! The familiarity and the comfort of keeping a lot of things the same may not solve the underlying problem and remove the frustrations you’ve been feeling.
Freelancing is an attractive alternative that offers you the chance to use your existing skills, knowledge and network but with an increased sense of freedom and flexibility. As a freelancer, you’ll usually be working for several clients on various projects at the same time, and generally producing a concrete deliverable as a result. Freelancers are especially common in the creative and media industry and you’ll see a lot of freelance writers, designers, web developers, photographers…
In the IT industry, it’s also common to have contractors. The subtle distinction here is that a contractor will often be working fulltime for one client for a set period, and this work will often take place in the client’s office. They are mostly self-employed but may also be placed in companies by agencies.
Consulting is another variant. Here you’ll be paid to provide expert advice in a particular field or speciality, and the project scope will probably be more extensive than that of a freelancer.
And, finally, it’s worth noting the digital nomad phenomenon, with ‘location-independent’ workers who can live anywhere they want in the world and work remotely. They may, in fact, be freelancers or contractors (or entrepreneurs).
- You can choose the clients you work with or the projects you take on.
- You can work from home instead of commuting to an office.
- You don’t have a boss as such.
- You can adjust your workload and your hours depending on your preferences e.g. take on more work when you need more money or decline work when you need a break or have other priorities.
- You can decide your own rates.
- It can be hard, especially when first starting out, to set your boundaries and to say no to clients even when you know it’s not the best fit. And most likely you will end up working with similar clients – i.e. private corporations – to the company where you were working before.
- You may still have to travel to clients’ offices, while working from home also comes with its own challenges.
- Although you don’t have a boss, you will still be reporting into clients – so, in a way, you have several bosses.
- In practice, you can’t adjust your workload just like that and the reality will most likely be a ‘feast-or-famine’ scenario when you sometimes have too much work and sometimes have too little.
- A lot of clients will have standard rates and won’t negotiate, and you will face constant pressure to discount your rates.
Launching your own business
Setting up your own business is the dream for many of us, and in my opinion, it also offers the most possibilities when it comes to choosing what you’ll work on and the way you want to work. You may be a ‘solopreneur’ i.e. running your own show or you may have one or more co-founders. The difference between building a business versus ‘just’ being self-employed is usually that you have found a customer problem that you are solving, and you are creating something that can survive without you. You’ll favour systems and automation and, eventually, hire a team. Serial entrepreneurs especially will launch one business and then move on to the next challenge.
- You can choose what problem you want to solve, what sector you want to work in, what clients or customers you want to serve…
- You can work from anywhere.
- You’re your own boss!
- You can choose your own hours.
- You set your own prices and all the profit goes to you (unless you get investors and shareholders on board but let’s not get into that for now).
- As with the freelancer, you may find that you have the most skills and expertise in the area that you were working in before. And if you start in a totally new field you may well be starting from scratch.
- Although in theory, you can work from anywhere it can be lonely to work alone all the time and you also need to be out there meeting clients and customers. If it’s a physical business with a brick-and-mortar store, of course, you’ll be tied to that location as well.
- You’re your own boss! Yes, it’s an advantage (freedom!) but also a disadvantage (no one to support you) all in one.
- The reality of setting up your own business is that you’ll almost definitely be working longer hours than you did on your so-called full-time job and the lines between work and personal life will become very blurred.
- Although you don’t need a huge investment to start a company these days – you can easily put up a simple website and do your business via phone or email – you are also unlikely to be bringing in a whole lot of money when you are starting out. You’ll be lucky if you break even in your first year.
Creating a portfolio career
This may well be my favourite and essentially means that you’ll be doing some kind of combination of the options above. It’s a fantastic proposition especially for ‘multi-passionate’ people with many talents and interests, and if nothing else it’s a good transition from what you were doing before to what you really want to do, as you leverage your skills and experience from the past while you build up your plan for the future.
- You can find a great match for your different skills and interests with several different roles in different sectors (e.g. you can be a yoga teacher and a photographer, a web developer and a personal trainer, a marketing consultant and a personal coach).
- You can work from anywhere – or at least in a variety of different places – depending on the type of work you’re doing.
- You are your own boss overall at least.
- You can work flexibly and choose which project to work on depending on your energy and mood.
- You can set your own rates. Having a portfolio of different jobs and roles will also mean that your income is diversified so if one area sees a bit of a dip you can compensate with another.
- Again, at least one of the jobs in your portfolio will probably be directly connected to working in a similar kind of role and sector as before.
- You may end up running back and forth between different clients and locations.
- Depending on the portfolio that you end up with, you may still have a boss or clients to report to in some of your jobs.
- Having more than one job will mean more complexity and if they are completely unrelated to each other it may end up feeling like two full-time jobs.
- As with freelancers and entrepreneurs, you’ll have clients negotiating lower rates and may not have a lot of steady income coming in at least in the beginning.
So which one is right for you? Well, it all depends on your career goals and what ‘success’ looks like for you. But the point is to, first of all, open up your mind to the different possibilities that are out there and, second, to seriously consider the advantages and the disadvantages to find which of these might provide the best fit for your goals and priorities.
Learn more about the alternatives to the corporate 9 to 5 and case studies of people who have pursued them in my book, Leaving the Corporate 9 to 5: Stories from people who’ve done it (and how you can too!).