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Or, why I don’t work 9-5 any more

Modern work is rubbish, even if you’ve got a McJob

When I was a student, we called them McJobs. Undemanding gigs at a generic pizza place or in a bookstore where no one expected you to smile – not the customers, your employer, and certainly not yourself.

Everyone involved knew you were doing a McJob for the money – all £1.56 an hour of it – and as long as you didn’t vomit into a bin or miss three days in a row for Glastonbury, you’d hang on to it. If you didn’t, there’d be another McJob around the corner.

Yet 20 years on, the McJob is going the way of free student grants, teenage rebellion, and the thrill of finding your dads’ porn stashed behind the tubs of Turtle Wax in the garage.

We’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Faster, stronger, more productive

It’s the competition, you see.

In the globalised, inter-connected, bullshit-fuelled modern world, it’s no longer possible for bright kids to take a multi-year breather, unless it’s for something officially sanctioned like a gap year (deemed improving, despite everyone knowing gap years are Club 18-30 for middle-class kids with a few National Geographic photo opportunities thrown to please Gran).

Due to the intense competition foisted by continual tests in school, ubiquitous A-grades, university for all, and the big influx of talented immigrants, you need to know exactly what you’re doing and where you’re going from the moment you rise from your potty to the day you follow your nose into a modern office.

Get the qualifications, gather the work experience, collect your badges and go, go, go – headfirst into a depressing facsimile of what you were led to believe would be your life.

And boy, you’d better be committed. Even if your job is merely to serve hot brown liquid to commuters at an 85% profit margin.

On track for partner by 40

Pity any poor teenager or twenty-something without a master plan.

While they’re busy wondering what it’s all about (life, I mean), some Hermione with half their imagination is already out of the starting gate, hell bent on achieving Grade 4, Level Six Employee-of-the-Month status in record time.

Far from aggrieved that she’s been turned into just another square peg, Hermione will be all foam and fury if she doesn’t feel adequately shepherded through her career by her employers as studiously as any kid tending his ant farm.

In today’s corporate world, the spiritless Hermiones have taken control, which is why long, gossipy lunches, Mad Men-style gender tension, and genuinely creative and inspiring work has all been outsourced to independent outfits who’ve not yet succumbed to pay scales and route maps.

Once named the rat race, for 95% of people the ordeal of the resultant 9-5(-10) is more like being a hamster running on a wheel.

The difference is nobody expects a hamster to be ‘committed, enthusiastic, and a genuine team player’ when he’s running on the spot to go nowhere.

I’m loving it

If at this point you’re shaking your head, then either:

  • You’re under 35.
  • You create short films for Pixar, you manage an exciting investment fund (fixed interest doesn’t count), you work with animals or kids, or you do almost anything medical. Congrats! Today’s post is not about you or your life.
  • You’re self-employed or you run your own business. (Ditto!)
  • You still believe what they told you.

It’s excusable to be young, everyone should be so lucky as to get paid for doing what they love if they can, and becoming self-employed is the most realistic escape pod for most of us. (It’s what I did).

But there’s no excuse for believing what they told you.

I was happy to have a job once. Then I reached 30, and younger, fitter versions of me came along to be happy with it instead.

I’d noticed the wrong people got promoted. I saw that when I was promoted or offered new jobs, it was for the wrong reasons. I realised that sucking up was more important than competence.

Finally, I saw that the average office was a white-collar version of a bukakke session – an orgy of desk-based fluffing, slurping, and spitting behind your back.

What about the workers?

To appreciate how the modern workplace can crush the soul of anyone creative and bright faster than Simon Cowell saying, “Really? Who told you that?” then consider this interview with the boss of Whitbread, the owner of Costa Coffee:

Alan Parker, the chief executive who has been with the chain for 18 years, took a £5 million bonus this year for his work turning Whitbread into one Britain’s most successful companies.

Asked if it was time for his employees to share the rewards, the normally smooth Parker prevaricated. “We are looking at improving employee engagement at all levels,” he said. “We take employee morale very seriously.”

Did that mean pay rises? “Engagement has gone up,” he replied, before confirming the pay freeze was lifted.

Let’s repeat that again in slow motion and close-up, with Parker’s mouth opening and closing like a dreadful goldfish of the deep.

“Engagement has gone up,” he replied.

At this point I suppose I should discuss how the average worker just wants this and that, and how ‘engagement’ is a poor parody of the other.

But I can’t be bothered. Really, I’m feeling in a Bolshie mood, and that Karl Marx had a point.

If capitalism had a soul, then all the boring and awful jobs would be the best-paid jobs, and fun careers like playing football for Man United or running hedge funds or being George Clooney would pay the minimum wage.

Instead, capitalism has a sense of humour.

Doublespeak but no overtime

Whitbread CEO Alan Parker’s job isn’t good because he gets paid £5 million a year. That’s an awesome bonus.

Parker has a good job because he’s in charge, he can make things happen inside his company, and because work excites him when he wakes up and never leaves his side.

Compare that to the average worker in a coffee shop. He or she will spend all day making coffee, be abused by customers, and even has to put up with patronizing garbage about ‘engagement’ – with only a piss poor level of hitherto frozen pay to compensate.

While the CEO is moving little plastic figurines depicting his various executives around his industry battle map, his employees are choking on their cappuccinos at the thought they’d come to work for anything other than a day’s pay.

A coffee chain CEO thinks his staff are facilitating a third space encounter for beverage-based mini-break client experiences or whatever waffle it uses to describe fleecing the drones as they make their way to their corporate slave ships, foolishly hoping a shot of caffeine might make another day of being dragged down by the Hermoines a smidgeon more bearable.

But his staff think they are selling coffee.

And they have to sell it like they love it! Like arriving to work in Unit 41B at 8am every morning is almost as good as being the fighter pilot, poet, brain surgeon, or lap dancer that they once imagined they’d become.

They have to love their little part of the big picture, even if it’s not a job anyone ever dreamed about except in one of those “Would you rather have syphilis or crabs?” type daydreams.

If they don’t pretend to love their dreary career convincingly enough, then sooner or later somebody else will come along who can.

McJob R.I.P.

Tune out, drop in

Ignoring for now the downsides, the revolution in art, culture, tolerance, and opportunity that happened in the 1960s occurred because bright people could drop out.

There were plenty of McJobs to clock into half-asleep while you were being a part-time hippy, and a clever person with a degree and fast tongue could sweet talk their way into a career in Bloomsbury or on Madison Avenue when they were done with peace and love.

A disappointing career in a dull office was never the be-all and end-all, but we knew it and admitted it back then.

In contrast, last week I met a top-flight Oxford graduate who has already done nine months of unpaid intern work – racking up huge debts living in London in doing so – and who insists she needs to do more.

She hasn’t had a job yet. I wonder how long she’ll feel engaged for when she does?

Readers, I suggest you consider these new realities of work, and start building a freedom fund pronto. Live cheap, and consider working with your hands or doing something else that keeps you from the Hermiones. And never leave a job you love, because there aren’t many left out there. What do you think?

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • 1 Financial Samurai June 29, 2010, 3:08 pm

    Sounds like you are having a moment?

    For me, 30 years old is too young to give up the day job… what after working only 8 years after college.

    35 years old, maybe.

    40 years old seems much more reasonable and sensible frankly. Meanwhile, it’s so fun to work on something on the side without it having to be work. All this online/side income stuff, if it became something I needed to live… would cease to be fun!


    Yakezie Lifestyle
    .-= Financial Samurai on: Isner vs Mahut- The Greatest Match In Tennis History =-.

  • 2 OldPro June 29, 2010, 3:09 pm

    Just so you know… we like the post Monevator but we’re fearful of intruding on such a mood.

    You’re not far wrong about all this but the sun is out so pah… so be it.


  • 3 The Investor June 29, 2010, 3:14 pm

    @OldPro @Sam – Thanks for your thoughts chaps. I’m not in the best of moods, it’s true, but that’s responsible for the grumpy tone, not the message. It’s crazy how efficiently our brightest are being turned into careerist money-focused drones – my chat with the smart woman I mentioned at the end really brought it home again.

    (I know this is a money blog, but it’s for guerrilla warriors, not foot soldiers! 😉 )

    To be clear I still have work and a career (sort of). But it’s all freelance, and replaces the fake nonsense of the office with the hard realities of self-employment on the ground.

    I can’t imagine ever retiring completely – I’m not one of those who thinks doing work for money is wrong. It’s the inanities that surrounds the rigid modern workplace that’s getting out of control, IMHO.

    When menial job adverts are asking for character qualities and talking about challenges, we’re living in a fantasy land.

  • 4 Everyday Tips June 29, 2010, 3:59 pm

    I cannot reiterate the point enough that enjoying what you do is the key to success, whether you have a corporate job or work for yourself.

    Where I used to work, the company was thriving. But, since every other company was cutting pay, they did the same. They would report record earnings and they fire a ton of people and cut pay by 10 percent. When and if this economy ever turns around, I predict people will leave companies like the one I worked at in droves.
    .-= Everyday Tips on: Three Healthy Foods That Are Easy To Add To Your Diet =-.

  • 5 The Investor June 29, 2010, 4:02 pm

    @ET – Cheers for your comment. Yes, if you love your job for intrinsic reasons, that’s great. It’s the mandatory elevation of banal work to ‘aspiring, challenging and engaging’ in Orwellian doublespeak – and the day-to-day reality of most dull and enfeebling jobs, of course – that I can’t abide.

  • 6 ermine June 29, 2010, 6:04 pm

    This is awesome. Simply inspired 🙂 You’ve nailed one of the essential and needlessly crap parts of many modern jobs – all the ‘engagement’, ‘investing in people’, ’empowerment’ dross.

    White collar bukkake, that’s a truly wicked summary 😉
    .-= ermine on: Cameron Tells Us to Get On Our Bikes- The World Doesn’t Owe Us a Living =-.

  • 7 Financial Samurai June 30, 2010, 2:03 am

    Monevator, I think something is bothering you. Are you sure you didn’t lose a bet on the England match, or see some undeserved person get promoted and make tons of money recently?

    What is it that ticked you off to write this post? Come clean! Is it bankers getting peak bonuses again as the job market and war for talent is back in the UK?

    I’m honestly sad for your very cynical view of work. As I write in “The Dark Side of Early Retirement”, nobody quits a job they don’t love. You just haven’t found that special thing yet! It’s like love.


    .-= Financial Samurai on: Being Overly Content Can Be Detrimental To Your Career =-.

  • 8 Early Retirement Extreme June 30, 2010, 4:12 am
  • 9 Bytta@151DaysOff June 30, 2010, 10:01 am

    Funny… and I’m saying this 30 feet (or more like 16,913 km) away from you to avoid the spray projectile :p

    In most cases (including mine), “engagement” doesn’t happen everyday. Normally your learning curve peaks in the beginning (probably this is the time when you are engaged with your job the most) and reaches plateau for a very long time unless you are the Hermione of white-collar world.

    For me, it took me a few years to get “engaged” again with the same job, mostly because I plan to break away from the normal office structure. I’m going to move overseas, start a new representative office for my company while enjoying steady income. This is not a handout because I initiated this plan. Yes, I’m probably going to do similar things overseas PLUS extra business activities that are currently outsourced to a different department. Yes, I can imagine my engagement level will move up and down through the years.

    One thing I know about keeping yourself engaged is to be a self-starter, to initiate things. Don’t expect the company will take care of you or hand out 80% pay rise out of the blue.

    Btw, I’m doing all three: breaking away from the normal office structure, building freedom fund (5-year financial plan) and live cheaply (move to Asia where the living cost is half of our current budget… while planning to travel more, cheaply of course).
    .-= Bytta@151DaysOff on: Day 32- Sunday Prayer 20 – Part 2 =-.

  • 10 Single Mom Rich Mom June 30, 2010, 3:00 pm

    I never found the Hermione’s to be any competition at all. I think there’s been a breakdown in the Hermione-training in the last decade or so. In my experience, they’re more interested in being able to go on Facebook while at work or running out the door at 5:00 when there’s deadlines to meet. As a former manager, I spent more time trying to engage them than I should have had to.

    Maybe fortunately – or unfortunately – for me, I used to have your perspective and then somehow rediscovered my love for solving work puzzles when I hit my very late 30’s.

    Having said that, knowing that it could change, I ended up salting away loads of cash in preparation for that and to give myself the flexibility to have a job or not. But it would be by choice, not economic necessity. And at my latest, I’m at an 11 hour work week, so I’ve got your 25 hours beat (totally agree with your TM article BTW – “get in, get done, go home” is my motto.) 🙂
    .-= Single Mom Rich Mom on: The Woman’s guide to shopping like a man =-.

  • 11 Car Negotiation Coach July 1, 2010, 5:19 am

    I’m right with you Monevator. I’m scrambling like a mad-man for a few years to be able to set my finances on auto-pilot and strictly do what I love (of course I haven’t decided exactly what that is yet…too many things to choose from).
    .-= Car Negotiation Coach on: Save on gas – 11 extreme tips =-.

  • 12 The Investor July 1, 2010, 3:42 pm

    Thanks for your comments everyone, some great insights here. To be clear, the article was simply inspired by that newspaper article quoting a boss talking about ‘engagement’ when his staff simply want their pay unfrozen.

    I am appalled that such idiocies have infested even our lowliest jobs. If you’re earning a substantial salary, then it might be a fair enough trade-off to put up with such talk, but for someone on near the minimum wage, they’re suffering enough!

    @Bytta and @SMRM – Very interested reading about how you are or re-jigging your ‘engagement’. While I have escaped corporate life, I admit my freelance existence has become a bit humdrum recently, too. Maybe I need to do some rethinking!

  • 13 Edindie July 1, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Everyone dreams of getting out, but the trouble is we get out by going to a different version of the same thing.

    Doing new things helps people see what they liked and didn’t like about the last thing. We need to remember this when we set our new goals.

  • 14 Susan Tiner July 2, 2010, 6:39 pm

    Got here via the Oblivious Investor. This post rings so true, especially “you need to know exactly what you’re doing and where you’re going from the moment you rise from your potty to the day you follow your nose into a modern office.”
    .-= Susan Tiner on: 5 When I Was Jewish =-.

  • 15 Aury (Thunderdrake) July 2, 2010, 6:53 pm

    Being under 25 and self employed, I read this article with a bit of a neutral and inquisitive response. Though I do dread most McJobs out there today. It’s one of the most painful elements of Capitalist nations.

    I suppose that’s why I’ve been so bent into chasing various side shows instead. Though I’m going to have to second a lot of what Sam of Financial Samurai said. This stuff can get pretty dull if it becomes developed into a working mindset.
    .-= Aury (Thunderdrake) on: Movie Review- Prince of Persia- Sands of Time =-.

  • 16 Kevin@InvestItWisely July 3, 2010, 4:39 am

    Well, someone working a McJob is still vastly better off than a peasant (or worse, an intellectual) was under Mao’s days, so I’ll take the capitalist version any day 😉

    That said, I completely hear you; when I read job descriptions that go something like “Looking for a motivated worker with a dynamic personality; must be able to think out of the box” and it’s for a minimum wage job, I think to myself “what are these guys thinking!?” No wonder those guys have such high turnover.

    I think you simply need to detach more from your job and find more of what it is you love to do. Although I sometimes feel the way you do at my current job, I’m with Financial Samurai on this one.
    .-= Kevin@InvestItWisely on: How to Use Fear to Manipulate People =-.

  • 17 The Investor July 5, 2010, 11:41 am

    @Kevin – Exactly. I think a McJob with a minimum wage where everyone takes it for what it is was actually a desirable strata to have in the range of employment options. The thought that it’s being Hermione-fied out of existence is depressing.

  • 18 Shares Coach May 1, 2012, 8:46 am

    I like your provocative writing style and there is lots of stuff in this post that rings true with me. For those people towards the lower end of the pay scale, I think there is little to argue with other than some people do the job for the sense of belonging, community, etc. which they would miss if they worked alone. I’m sure I could come up with more positive reasons for joining a corporate company if I thought about it. Hence they are not just serving coffee!

    As one who got fed up with corporate life and have been self-employed for several months now, I am missing the opportunity to work on large scale projects and with teams of people and make decisions that affect lots of people directly. But then I was a corporate middle-senior manager and I don’t think your post was aimed at people like me – or was it? Somehow, blogging and selling information products isn’t quite as fulfilling although I do like the business model when critical mass is reached – there I go sounding like a corporate again!!!

  • 19 @freepursue May 16, 2014, 5:11 pm

    Love the post (aka rant). There’s a reason Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, is so popular. Humour is the best means of speaking the truth and, for his readers, surviving the hellish reality. Glad I escaped before having my soul sucked right out of me.

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