I’ve never come across the concept of serious leisure before, but a bit of Internet ratholing brought me to the Serious Leisure Concept, which takes a look at how people spend their spare time, should they be lucky enough to have such a thing in their lives. The site is heavy on sociological speak, but they break down leisure time occupations into
the sort of instant gratification, hedonistic and gormless thing that gives leisure a bad name – watching reality TV etc. It’s a bit wider than that
[Casual Leisure] is fundamentally hedonic […] Among its types are: play (including dabbling), relaxation (e.g., sitting, napping, strolling), passive entertainment (e.g., TV, books, recorded music), active entertainment (e.g., games of chance, party games), sociable conversation, and sensory stimulation (e.g., sex, eating, drinking). Casual volunteering is also a type of casual leisure as is “pleasurable aerobic activity,” or casual leisure requiring effort sufficient to cause marked increase in respiration and heart rate (Stebbins, 2004a). Casual leisure is considerably less substantial, and offers no career of the sort just described for serious leisure. In broad, colloquial language casual leisure, hedonic as it is, could serve as the scientific term for doing what comes naturally. Yet, despite the seemingly trivial nature of most casual leisure, I argue elsewhere that it is nonetheless important in personal and social life. (my emphasis)
Well, yeah. You need the yin to balance the yang in life, and going without shooting the breeze and eating is taking austerity too far.
I think we all get this side of things. The other two categories were interesting additions to the taxonomy:
is the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity that is highly substantial, interesting, and fulfilling and where, in the typical case, participants find a career in acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge, and experience
They then break down amateur, hobbyist and volunteer down further, but the essence of this type of thing is that it isn’t an immediate and known win like getting a coffee, you must put something of yourself into it to get something out of it. I found this sort of thing more rewarding after retiring, for the simple reason that you have more time to hone the art. I screwed up a little in being shorter of money in the first few years of retiring than I am now – don’t pay off your mortgage early if you want to flatten your income profile 😉 But I would go as far as to say getting into serious leisure will improve your experience of retirement no end. I’m not comfortable with their use of the term career, but perhaps that’s because I have BTDT, unlike Jim I have absolutely no desire to climb another greasy pole. Like him, I did not leave the rat-race as an elective move towards the positive goal of FI, although perhaps I had the advantage of having a three-year run-out period. That nobbled any fond nostalgia for the hell on earth that the modern management practices have turned the professional workplace into for my INTJ type. Either way, I hope they don’t mean career in a work sense, but it is of course true that there is an arc of progression from noob to wizard-guru as you hone the art and craft of your serious leisure pursuit.
I think I want to do more of this. And perhaps less idle surfing, though I do love coming across new ideas and poking a curious ermine snout into the vagaries of this world. I recently got back into video editing and shooting, partly for a short job with some travel coming up, and I was amazed at the improved performance and the way editing and compositing, even 3D compositing is done routinely. I whiled away most of today learning what has happened in this field since I used Premiere around 2007. Is that serious leisure or idle mucking about? Dunno.
is a short-term, moderately complicated, either one-shot or occasional, though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time. Such leisure involves considerable planning, effort, and sometimes skill or knowledge, but for all that is not of the serious variety nor intended to develop into such. Nor is it casual leisure. The adjective “occasional” describes widely spaced undertakings for such regular occasions as arts festivals, sports events, religious holidays, individual birthdays, or national holidays while “creative” stresses that the undertaking results in something new or different, showing imagination, skill, or knowledge. Although most projects would appear to be continuously pursued until completed, it is conceivable that some might be interrupted for several weeks, months, even years
I was unable to work out if I do any of this. I do pursue some projects over time, but I can’t see how “continuously pursued until completed fits in”. That starts to get to sound suspiciously like work 😉 One needs a good few leisure projects, and cut between them. That sort of dissipation wouldn’t be tolerated at work!
I was surprised that so many listed travel in their project-based leisure, I’d have put it in casual. But they did the course so they know better, or maybe their travel isn’t like mine. We also have serious sample bias here because all the respondents are undergraduates, they have yet to join the treadmill of the rat-race and they probably don’t have children.
I got on to the serious leisure site after reading about the demise of the weekend, which is much more the typical narrative that you hear, basically it’s ‘Leisure – what’s that? We work all the hours given us and on the weekend we drive the kids here there and everywhere in between doing the laundry etc etc”. I recognise two of the themes from her piece. The first theme was the much greater freedom I had as a child that seems to be the case for children now, and also the opportunities to fill my own time without structured events. Having children was something people did and fitted into their lives when Katrina Onstad and I were children[ref]I would hazard a guess she was a child less long ago than I, perhaps Canadian kids kept their freedom to roam longer than Brits[/ref], it seems to be much more all-encompassing now.
The other theme was the way people don’t seem to have hobbies any more.
Hobbies are declining, but a hobby is exactly the kind of activity that adds value to the weekend. Stamp collectors and basement inventors may not be cool, but they know the benefits of becoming fully immersed in an activity and losing track of time – that rejuvenating “flow” state
The students were anomalous in that they did have hobbies. When I was growing up in what by modern standards would be a poor area, many of the adult working neighbours had hobbies, they were often creative but low-cost. Many of the guys actually made furniture[ref]Look at this Popular Mechanics from the 1970s for how common making furniture this was – I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of making something accurately enough out of wood to be fit for being in the house[/ref] using hand tools, others made models, and some of the women made clothes[ref]this was the 1960s and 1970s, remember[/ref], presumably both clothes and furniture were much dearer in real terms than they are now. I’d say there’s more consumption and casual leisure now compared to the other types that there used to be.
We’ve imbued work with the job of giving us meaning, and it seems to rob us of our leisure time in so many ways
I recognised another pathology mentioned in Katrina Onstad’s weekend article –
A friend used to make beautiful earrings occasionally. Almost ritualistically, she would buy the beads, and carefully craft the small, coloured jewels in a quiet workspace. Then came Etsy. Now she makes beautiful earrings and sells them, ships them and manages this business along with a full-time job and a family. What was leisure became labour. The side hustle is a weekend thief, but in a time of stagnant incomes, many must choose income over time.
I’ve seen that too. I made some ultrasonic microphones because I wanted to differentiate bat sounds and ended up selling some of these because people wanted to do the same. It was okay, but I was working at the time, so it was a weekend time thief. More recently I had been doing the accounts for a small operation and recently finished that – the time commitment was low, but the relief on finishing up is worth far more than the income. It’s unpleasant enough doing my own tax return, life is too short to see more of the taxman’s tiresome demands on behalf of others.
Somewhere in the back of my mind there must be an old tape still playing out from childhood or early adulthood that income = security, and worse than that, only income from selling my time = security. Perhaps when I finally draw my works pension in a couple of years I will chill from that. Intellectually I can see that I will run out my SIPP in a couple of years, this year it paid me with whisker of the HRT threshold, but I don’t really regard that sort of saved money as an income. There is learning to be had here. I’m not averse to doing the odd hit-and-run job, the microphones were that sort of thing, but I need to avoid regular commitments – the sort of thing Katrina’s Etsy friend ended up with. There is a lot of recommendation to turn a hobby into your job, and yet some good reasons not to.
Much of the point of hobbies and leisure interests is that this isn’t work. The fun with the microphone was developing it and looking for bats with it and hearing the differences, it was solving the problems. After making one or two, the novelty palls, and I’m not good at repetitive things, it’s the fun of the chase of design I liked more. I guess the lady with the earrings may have the same thing – making a new one is the buzz, mailing them out and dealing with returns, not so much perhaps.
There’s a more subtle problem. The business world tends to kill creativity in its search for continuous improvement and optimisation, it strips out the places to play. Although it isn’t creativity in the artistic sense, the design part of problem-solving is a form of creativity, if it isn’t up against the clock IMO. As a young research engineer/scientist I covered many more areas than I did as time went on. Part of that was The Firm shifted quite heavily away from research to development and then into IT, specialising and compartmentalising the workforce as it did so. But I think there is a wider trend towards specialisation – the mantra of concentrate on your core competencies and outsource everything else. In the more vertically integrated scientific and technical companies I worked in 30 years ago I got to learn electronics, I got trained to use a lathe, milling and shaping machines and oxyacetylene welding not because this was what I was going to be doing but because they didn’t want their researchers to run the workshop staff ragged with requirements that couldn’t be made. Companies now would probably outsource all that sort of stuff unless their primary function was mechanical engineering.
That may be more efficient, but it’s much less interesting. Pursuing a hobby doesn’t demand hyper-efficiency, because it is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. There’s reward to be had in the tides of a hobby, in the ebb and flow of the creative process. These meanderings may not be efficient, but they are part of the fun.
Before they are financially independent, most people work to earn the money to buy the stuff they need and want, it’s how 21st century capitalism is meant to work at the moment. It gives rise to the term ‘work’ – something that you have to do otherwise bad shit happens, like you end up with all your stuff thrown out on the pavement.
Because it’s something you have to do for many years, many of us get Stockholm syndrome with work. Inveterate story-tellers that humans are, we tell ourselves that work is innately a Good thing and lends meaning to our lives. Let’s take a fine example of this from someone who I’m generally in agreement with, other than in this aspect of life:
But I believe almost everyone will benefit from having an ongoing economic relationship with society while they can – even if only for a day or two a week.
I’m the poster child for disputing this paradigm. I consider it a limiting belief, and have taken pot-shots at the Calvinist work ethic every so often on here. The beauty of financial independence, however, is that you get to have the choice of whether to work or not. Over at SHMD, Jim has decided that he missed work, so he went and got himself a job, even though he doesn’t need the money.
I would generalise that to everything that irritates us… I don’t think it’s particularly personal in this case. If Monevator and Jim and 99% of the rest of the FI world want to work till they drop, good luck to them. It’s just the concept that work is an inherent good that gets my goat. As a society, we are going to have very serious trouble and mental distress with this meme if the robots and globalisation really do take half our professional jobs in the coming years, unless we have a social revolution that probably involves bending some of the axioms currently underpinning society. Hopefully one of them will be work = meaning 😉
I realize today that nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.
In order to live intentionally, therefore, I need to separate the beliefs coloured by past experience from my current experience, and my temperament had the past experiences not happened. Otherwise I will live in an imaginary prison, boundaries that once had value but have no more.
What does the word Work mean to me
It means a lack of freedom, it means grind, it means being trapped. It means earning money, it means selling my time for money, it means restrictions on my time. It means doing stupid shit like justifying my existence, it means filling in time sheets that have no bearing on reality, paperwork just because. Because humans are devils with their recency bias, this litany of woe is because the most recent experience was largely negative. But for 27 years out of my 30 it also meant the opportunity to travel, to do good interesting stuff and to build capital across my working life as I slowly exchanged human capital for financial and social capital. If I were to allocate the experience of my years evenly, then only 10% were bad, maybe 12% if I add in the six months I was unemployed between graduating into Thatcher’s first recession in the 1980s and starting work.
So it’s easy to see the limiting belief. Work = pain, and I need get as far away from that as possible. Even in 2009 I intellectually knew that was an extreme view, but one that because of where I was in my working life I could get away with. The power of the intensity of feeling galvanised me to clobber wasteful spend and save and take the necessary risks with extreme prejudice, and reach FI 8 years early.
What I did not realise was that simplification also distorts
and it is the distortion that clouds much of my thinking when it comes to the topic of making money
I think the word ‘work’ has picked up some unnecessary bad connotations […], especially as we’ve transitioned out of the years when ‘the recipe’ (grammar school -> degree -> job for 40 years -> pay your dues -> final salary pension scheme) still worked.
I was that grammar school guy, son of a maintenance fitter, who went to university, got a degree, then worked only four real jobs[ref]excluding casual crap before leaving university – kitchen portering, repairing radios and TVs and odd-jobbing[/ref], have a final salary pension scheme. It worked for me. I was able to retire early because I saved roughly half the notional capital behind my FSP, but having the FSP effectively gives me a massive bond-like holding, which means my risk tolerance with stock market investments is insane, because the FSP will keep the wolf from my door.
Liberate.life is the counterfactual to my experience – younger and more dynamic, but electronics engineering is the field the younger Ermine worked in. And yet he is yin to my yang – he can sell, and freelances, and as I read this it looks like the antithesis of everything I know about work. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing half the image right way up and half of the reflection upside down. I’m damned if I know which half is off but I suspect it’s mine 😉
So it was time to investigate the subject of work and money deeper. For a long time the obvious issue, that I associate work with pain, simplified things too much
I associate specialisation with success with work
For 25 years I was working in a big company, and in a big company hierarchy. Big companies tend to narrow people down into specialisms in engineering, because they have enough people that they can do that. I pursued some technical interests after leaving work, and have some of this on a blog, when I read it back it is a whole load of random bits and pieces on all sorts of subjects as I flit from one are of interest to another. Mine is worse on that front than your typical engineer’s blog, they at least tend to have a reasonable common thread for a few posts. As someone who is financially independent I can afford to pursue my whims, but if I were looking for staff and I saw that sort of character, I would think Jack of all trades and master of none, and file the CV in the round filing cabinet on the floor.
I haven’t even stayed with electronics and software, a few weeks ago I offered to fix a generator on a no fix no fee basis. I was pretty sure that Google was going to be my friend, the world is full of Honda GX small single cylinder 4-stroke petrol engines and Google is full of people who are describing faults and getting hints on how to fix them. The fault was the engine would run for about 20 seconds and the die. Google told me this was likely a blocked breather vent in the fuel cap, which I confirmed by unscrewing the fuel cap as the engine was about to conk out. Whereupon it ran fine[ref]Obviously you shouldn’t run an engine with the fuel cap open because petrol vapour is inflammable and invisible so don’t try this at home.[/ref] 😉
TFS identified this sort of mentality as a ‘scanner’ but twenty-five years of working in big companies has taught me to identify it as ‘dilettante’. Apparently it is more tolerated in today’s world of work, a kinder term for that sort is multipotentialite. It is more tuned to today’s world in some ways, because better communications means provided you can search well, you can gain the benefits of other people’s experiences by covering masses of ground. You just couldn’t do that before the Web, you couldn’t find enough different people to talk to, and it would have taken ages anyway. Multiple tabs were made for that sort of approach to finding stuff out – cover masses of ground, fast.
So I have uncovered some unhelpful associations, and indeed at some level I despise that generalist tendency because for 25 years that wasn’t how to have success at work. It is possible I played against type for a quarter of a century because I prized security and stability and did not know how to manage money over more than a monthly basis. I always needed an answer to the Micawber question, and a regular income made that possible. I struggled with that while running several years from savings, in hindsight I didn’t spend enough. The generalist tendency occasionally caused me grief at work and probably slowed my rise up the greasy pole, on the other hand even in a big company you need people who can cross domains. It tended to work well in good times but be awkward in bad times.
But since I have the drains up I may as well keep on digging at these unvoiced assumptions…
I associate a steady stream with income – I am virtually blind to feeling uneven income is income
I can’t really relate to income that comes in unevenly in dribs and drabs, because for 30 years income arrived in roughly the same amount each month, apart from overtime (in the early days) and bonuses (in the last couple of decades). It’s still a little bit of a mystery to me how a string of lousy £50 here, £100 there dividends in my ISA adds up to a good few thousands of pounds of income when rolled up over the year. I was able to jump over the uneven lumps ≠ income in the ISA because there are so many of these minor transactions I can think of this statistically. Many people work really hard to make their dividend income spread evenly across the year, this sort of happened naturally for me, although slightly peaking in Q1 and Q3. You can have 20 companies working for you in a HYP, but I would defy anybody to work 20 part-time jobs or even have 20 streams of income, that sort of diversification is hard to have with many income streams.
At a gut level I don’t really consider the sort of hit and run one-off jobs like the generator as income. For sure, Quicken adds them up for me so I can declare this, as long as I keep my pension + earnings below the personal allowance I am chilled. Last year I was able to toss a lot more than the usual £3600 in my SIPP because these things added up to a fair bit more than that. But it doesn’t feel like income, because it is unreliable and lumpy.
I associate earning money with work
and worse than that, I associate earning money with selling my time for money. So these one-off jobs don’t feel like work which is good, but they don’t feel like earning money either, which is bad. I don’t trust them, so I just bung the result into SIPP and live off the steady income from the SIPP, because I can’t budget with variable lumpy amounts. By a curious twist of fate a retiree older than 55 can put all their earnings into a SIPP in one year and get it bumped up by 20% to extract the next year, provided they don’t draw more than the personal allowance. I’ve only got another few years worth of that before my main pension shoves me well into the normal tax bracket, but I may as well enjoy the windfall while it’s there.
And yet together with the income from the ISA these odd jobs will start to add up to about the national minimum wage. It was not so long ago that I was chuffed that the dividend income from the ISA matched what I would have got from jumping through the hoops to get JSA (£71p.w so ~ 3700 p.a.) and yet the rate of increase of the ISA income per year is creeping up[ref]in fairness that was written nearly six years ago when the best you could put into an ISA was about 10k p.a. Some of the win in getting to three times that was the fact Osborne turbocharged this to time and a half, the time honoured magic of Saving Hard at work rather than any particulalry sharp investing chops[/ref]. I don’t draw an income from the ISA because I don’t need to – I want to pump that up as much as I can before I enter the regular BR tax bracket in a few years, since it is tax-free income.
I have lived in a big-company bubble for 25 years and it has limited my vision
I owe liberate.life some beers for widening my search. Because the similarities of the engineering skillset (naturally separated by 25 years or so due to the age difference) and yet pretty much everything else looking like a counterfactual, he’s shown me a set of limiting beliefs I was unaware of. More surprisingly to me, they aren’t particularly due to the trauma of the nutty performance management usage and abusage I took in 2009. That does exist, and has it’s own consequences. The idea of following Jim SHMD’s path and selling my time to an employer to draw a salary brings me out in hives. I’m not gonna go there, and I don’t need to.
But unassociated with that, my concept of making money was massively narrowed by my experience of working life, the unchallenged assumptions of that grammar school kid who followed the default track. Now that I am grizzled of fur and sufficiently past the finish line that I have options all the way up to and including doing nothing, I can zoom out and ask myself the question – is there a better way?
Perhaps I should turn the telescope round and ask myself what do I want out of earning money. I have identified a project where I could use a bit more money. It doesn’t directly change my own lifestyle, so my greatest fear of earning more through selling my skills doesn’t apply – that fear is that I would earn money, inflate my lifestyle with Consumer Crap™, get locked into it and lose the delightful freedom of FI. I am happy with what I will have, my lifestyle will inflate somewhat anyway as my income increases once my main pension starts. I don’t need to earn more money to raise my lifestyle. Although once I believed that I screwed up discharging my mortgage early which meant I took an income suckout for the last four years, now I am on the other side I’m not so sure that I regret taking the suckout over the convalescence period. but that’s easy to say from the other side of the mountain. I got a significant ‘pay rise’ this when my DC pension started in June and will get a massive ‘pay rise’ when my non-deferred pension starts in a few years. Breaking the link between making money and my own lifestyle gives me detachment which can distance me from the suffering normally associated with ‘work’. It is one aspect of the freedom to that financial independence is about, once you have spent the time integrating the freedom from.
So what do I want from off-piste opportunities to make money?
a subset for the simple reason that I have command of my time, being FI. I will do other things that fulfil me, this does not need to replace my use of time, but it needs to add, or at the very least not take away.
I want to earn through doing something that is congenial
has some originality or novelty
creative in some way[ref]it doesn’t have to be engineering – for the past few years I have been makingsome money from photography and from sound recording. But trends in the wider economy are running away from those sorts of things[/ref]
with decent people who aren’t dickheads in general[ref]Everybody s a dickhead sometimes, it’s part of the human condition, and that’s OK. Persistent dickheadery is what I want to avoid[/ref].
that helps people or causes that I know or care about personally
that is specifically something I bring to the party from skills, temperament or talent if any
I want to spend less than a day a week on this, but I favour that being in all-or-nothing chunks with long gaps in between. Part of this is that I am limited by the tax system, I don’t want to work for the government 20-40% of my time. I have done my share of that over the last 30 years.
I don’t what to sell my time for money. Obviously doing something creative takes time, but I don’t want it in the form of billable hours, more billable results
I don’t want to ever see performance management. An engineer’s work speaks for itself, should that be the field I use
I don’t want regular or ongoing time commitments. Hit and run jobs are what I want, get in, do, then get out
I am happy with no fix no fee and no guarantee of regular work – but if you aren’t there regularly for me there’s no guarantee I will be there for you 😉 and yes, that is sort of at odds with 9
I prefer to sell Mind, not Stuff. Stuff gives warehousing and cashflow problems, and regulation is a bitch. It’s not hard and fast though.
I do not want to be derivative or routine. I don’t want to be a replaceable work unit. No chuntering out ebooks or matched betting which seem common fave side hustles in the PF scene. I am rich enough not to have to do this, and old enough to know my time is limited.
no franchising, if I am not original enough to make a decent return then I will just walk away
and if I do do this, I want to earn a lot more than the minimum wage for the time I do spend on it. Unless it really is so much fun that I don’t mind, but I’m not building that assumption in from the off. I am not volunteering. I don’t do that, particularly the sort of staffing job. I have done one-off data analysis and design stuff for the RSPB, but not under the usual volunteer x hours a week, it was task-oriented.
Unfortunately the logical conclusion is freelancing or contracting. I have no experience of that at all, zero track record, no domain knowledge, I am an introvert and can’t sell. So I have never done this in a big way although I did have a multimedia/web design company on the side in the early days of the WWW mid 90s to early 2000s. But selling was my weak point and when the major customer changed technology I folded the company. I read this and think ‘bloody hell, I can’t do any of that’.
Not only that, but it appears that small companies are where the most likely chances of success are. I have worked for a small company, a 10-15 man band, but it was at the very beginning of my career 34 years ago. Small companies are like the past – they are a foreign country; they do things differently there.
I had some bizarre engineering experiences in small firms, two stick in my mind. In my first company, the design engineer swore blind that a virtual earth amplifier had a high input impedance. Now at 22 I didn’t know a lot, particularly when to keep schtum and STFU, and I had been testing these blasted things which used to want to take off and oscillate more often than not. That’s bad in an optical sensor. But I did know that a virtual earth was a low impedance input. So when there was much head scratching in a meeting as to why we have more duds than good ‘uns I go and pipe up “but a virtual earth is a low impedance – the clue is in the name”. I was dead right, and the clue is indeed in the name, but there was a deathly silence and the assembled multitude digested the unwelcome fact that the lead designer had goofed, as pointed out by the rawest recruit. Seemed a good idea to move on from there after a year…
The second was when I was the lead engineer on a project at The Firm, and we had contracted some clever fellows in the Cambridge Fens. These guys had minds like planets, and I had told them the average TV sound in expected typical audio levels of 0.7Vrms. For some reason they decided they only needed a peak to peak level of 1V, sadly convention has it that the peak to peak amplitude in this case is 0.7×(2×√2) or nearly 2V. The passage of time had gentled the Ermine’s needle-sharp teeth and I had learned that it pays to nudge people to coming to the conclusion that perhaps a mistake had crept in somewhere. But I confess I had to look it up in a textbook after a meeting where one of these guys a lot brighter than me was declaiming that the signal was entirely correctly 1V, he really believed that. They were awesome at digital stuff, could pull their set-top box code apart and have it have it changed in a few hours. In a bigger company somebody else would have been in charge of all that fuzzy analogue stuff and this challenge to basic engineering fundamentals wouldn’t have happened, particularly in front of the customer 😉 Small companies have much more of a heady mix of absolute brilliance and the occasional absence of fundamentals, in my limited experience of them.
For many reasons I would be a fish out of water trying to apply what’s left of my skills in this different world. I have no knowledge of the terrain, and I don’t know if my passport is good for the country. To my advantage I don’t have to succeed, though of course that may work against me too, perhaps I will not have sufficient fire. It’s not looking good, but I have one key advantage. I am not desperate – I am financially independent. Even at the moment the amount in my current account slowly creeps up month on month and I need to toss it into the Nationwide every so often to win 5%. As a result my risk profile is very different from normal, I can screw up a few times and let it go.
There are other odd wrinkles, take this perfectly reasonable recommendation
I can see that might work when each piece of work is won anew, ie there is no history, it’s obvious to play to your strengths. But in my career I achieved many wins by fighting down weaknesses – it is this which turned an introverted young Ermine into someone who could speak in public and lead international teams. Even in the specific realm of personal finance I had to fight down the common get rich quick belief that trading is the way to make money with stocks, and come to understand that the noisiness of the information, the abnormally high likelihood of infrequent outliers and the high frictional costs mean that often the less you do[ref]inaction on its own is not enough although Robert Kirby’s The Coffee Can Portfolio made a good case it was, inaction is necessary but not sufficient IMO[/ref] the better your long-term performance.
So there are many hurdles and mindset-shifts before I could turn freelancing for small companies into something workable. And surprisingly, none of them are particularly associated with the issues that finished my big company career. Why consider this route? Because the one thing I know I don’t want to do again is a regular job. I don’t have the time, there are all sorts of bad associations, and it’s not what I want to do with my life. Because that was the only way I knew of making money, I accepted I was never going to make money from my human capital again.
People have occasionally challenged that assumption. But it took time for the noise and hum from the crash-landing of my career to die down, and for me to see an opportunity that wouldn’t lock me into a consumption lifestyle, so that I could see the remaining limiting beliefs. Whether it will amount to aught is unknown at the moment.
Andy’s liberate.life is a different take on financial independence, with less emphasis on the financial and more on the independence
In the personal finance sphere our weapon of choice is of course personal finance, it is the Law of the Instrument. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s written in the term financial independence, hell, what other sort is there? Well, given the assumption we are talking about living in a First world consumer economy in the 21st century, that is.
We are aiming to save enough money to not have to work. RIT is the poster child for doing this relatively young, but his journey to FI was a pretty harsh ride. I’ve never earned anywhere near the amount of money I guess RIT earns, but I’ve never taken that sort of punishing schedule for years on end either. In my case, because I was naturally closer to the end of my working life, I could get away with focusing on the financial route to independence. You can become more independent, in terms of choice on how you spend your time, without becoming financially independent. The model I and most people follow, working for a company to get nearly all your income, is one of the least independent ways to get the financial capital you need to live life in a Western consumer economy.
You made it! You’re financially comfortable. Your car is new enough to not break down all the time. You live in a nice house. If you have kids, they’re well dressed. People hold you in high regard and by society’s standards, you are a success.
So why the hell does your life feel like such a grind? At one point, you were young and full of optimism but now you just follow the routine, day in, day out. You don’t have any passion for what you do any more. You do it because you have to. You’ve got bills to pay. You can’t see a way out of this before the sweet release of retirement at 60-something… and then you’ll be too old and worn out to live out the dreams you’ve always had anyway.
Now since I am not a million years off 60 I would dispute
and then you’ll be too old and worn out to live out the dreams you’ve always had anyway.
Bollocks to that, mate, remember that statistically happiness is U-shaped across the life cycle in many Western societies, so some of this is part of the human condition. But that proviso aside, he’s offering a freebie course in how to get FI[ref]for the sake of full disclosure I have done neither[/ref], and if you want to pick his brains specifically 1:1 interactivity is there if you pay him for his time.
In many ways getting to FI is a matter of asking the right questions as much as finding the right answers. The right questions can lift limiting beliefs into the light of conciousness. You don’t have to fight limiting beliefs if you don’t want to or need to. I’m not going to bother fighting the belief that working for an employer has become a soul-destroying issue of gamesmanship and playing the game with meaningless metrics that strip out the joy of solving problems sometimes otherwise known as work, because I don’t need to. It’s probably not universally true, even for me now.
But now I have found a potential application for deploying the residual vestiges of human capital I may still have which won’t lock me into lifestyle inflation and consumer crap, it is worth challenging some of the limiting beliefs about making money other than just using my financial capital. And without a doubt, Andy helped me ask some of those questions, and I have found that the default answers were often wrong, inconsistent and incomplete.
So if you feel you have made it but want a way out go read some of his work, if only to ask yourself some awkward questions. You may not like the answers but they can serve you well.
The Grauniad has some good articles on the future of work out today, and it looks like going to seven degrees of hell unless we can seriously reduce the number of people who want/need work. The latter is quite possible, but it is a social and political problem. I guess I can take some solace from being part of the solution, leaving the workforce eight years early. The issues were foreseen in the depths of the 1930s Depression by John Maynard Keynes with his piece on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes extrapolated some of the trends from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the 1930s, and increasing productivity, and figured we’d all be working less. These trends are being amplified by automation and to a smaller extent globalisation. As one of their commenters observed about automation
“Automation is fundamentally the substitution of capital for labour. The problem is that the people who already have the capital are the ones who will benefit most, because they’re the ones who will invest in the new automation.”
That, fundamentally, is why some of you are pitching for FI as soon as you can get there. Because you want to be on the side of Capital…, you want to be on the winning side of the fight 😉
Let’s take a look at some of the other issues
If we ignore summer jobs as a kitchen porter, an Ermine travelled from Technician -> team technician -> (interruption of MSc) -> design Engineer -> research engineer -> international team leader -> strategic engineering consultant-> then some period of wilderness as coder, pseudo ‘intrapreneur’1 then running into the flack and financial crisis that made me want to get out-> engineering consultant on prestige project -> right outta there
That’s roughly seven layers up the greasy pole, and it got harder as time got by, because of this delayering as well as the natural narrowing of the pyramid. I had to switch across four companies and three cities to get there. The Guardian tells me
Rather than moving up in one direction, ambitious employees will be able to move sideways, tapping into new networks
Am I the only cynical bastard who reads this and thinks, well that’s fine and dandy for the company, but WTF is in it for the ambitious employee? Sideways moves come with sideways pay. I heard a load of this bullshit at The Firm in the latter years where they were thinning out the management structure, the aim of one prize prick was only six levels ‘twixt the lowliest employee and the CEO. As a result we had line managers trying to manage over two hundred people at some point. Be that as it may, the ambitious employee does get to broaden their experience, true, and in places like London where you can find enough other places to work this may be showing up as a positive force because you take this and sell it to another firm for the pay rise you didn’t get in the sideways move. Look at the career progression the ONS shows for younger cohorts (I am roughly the middle track)
It seems to indicate career progression is much faster now. So maybe it all works out all right in the end, although it doesn’t really square with Merryn Somerset-Webb’s commentary on the extent of the welfare state or indeed nearly five million households on working tax credits2. If the ONS chart is really adjusted for inflation as it claims then all I can say is that inflation adjusted real money doesn’t seem to stretch anywhere near as far as it used to 😉 It’s the old saw – luxuries are much cheaper now while essentials like housing and childcare have gone up like a bastard…
“Large organisations have a huge challenge in attracting the millennial generation to come and work for them. Those people expect much more entrepreneurial environments – more freedom to operate, less control,” says Philippe De Ridder, co-founder of the Board of Innovation, a consultancy firm
Philippe, me old mucker, I don’t know what you’re smoking at the Board of Innovation but it must be good and I bet it isn’t legal. Out there in the real world some of those poor bastards from the millennial generation are working on London for bugger all, otherwise known as interning, because presumably these large organisations are struggling to attract talent so they have to pay….boom..tish….nothing? The Guardian offers internships here and some, though not all are even paid these days 😉
Another piece of the interning pie is this sort of thinking:
Van der Mersch argues that there are career development opportunities for cloud workers, with many startups using the site as a way of testing out freelancers to see if they’re a good cultural fit before offering them a permanent job – and vice versa.
There’s already the interesting concept of a permanent job at a startup – over half of startups fail within the first five years making the permanence a moot point. I learned some things with that Web design stuff, in particular that people who want you to work for free will never pay you properly. True character will out…
Not all of us want to be startup entrepreneurs
There’s a much larger social perspective here, which is what do most of us want to do with our lives? Do we really want to give so much headspace to working, or do some of us want to turn up, do a reasonable day’s work and then go home and do something with the rest of our lives, you know, all the way from having children to maybe doing something other than work? How the hell have we come to this ugly pass where earning a living takes up so much nervous energy and angst, in what is a rich First World country? Now some of it is due to globalisation and the fact that two thirds of the world (the Communist countries and what used to be known as the Third World) were largely outside the capitalist system, and now this has changed the water is finding its own level. Living standards in the First World will have to fall until they meet rising living standards elsewhere. That’s not enough, IMO, to explain all of what’s happening to labour. Some of the problem is increased mobility and communications. A hundred years ago if you were the carpenter in your town you didn’t have to be the best for 200 miles around, just the best for 20 miles around and you’d have a lifetime of work. Whereas now if you want to grok code for Google, you’d best be among the upper reaches of the bell curve compared with people in a radius of five thousand miles. There are no middle-level regional search engines.
The gig economy is all right for some and not for others
I’m with Lucy Kellaway on this FT article – one of the biggest issues about freelancing is that a lot of it isn’t about the work, it’s about getting the work.
You are forced to become a one-woman sales team, endlessly having to flog yourself — which means networking and being nice to people you don’t like much. You also have to do all your own tiresome admin and then, when your computer crashes, you have to be your own IT help desk, too.
FWIW I have some experience of running a separate company, I ran a modestly successful web design operation on the side for a few years. But what I above all else hatedabout the job was selling and finding new business, and in the end I wound it up when a large customer moved their work in house. Some of us just don’t want this endless fight. Being a startup entrepreneur is a fantastic story and it’s great for some people – but I’d put that number of people at a lot less than half of us.
For a contrary view on the precariat Money Week tells us that yer average self-employed geezer is on £50k p.a. It’s a classic example of lies, damned lies and statistics, since this assertion comes from Boox who presumably have the same supplier of marching powder as Philippe, since they are making this rosy conclusion on a sample of 1000 of the self-employed and when you ask the ONS then you find that the median income from self-employment has declined to £207 p.w or £10764 p.a. Nice creative use of sample bias, Boox. Presumably the self-employed army of Avon and Betterware and Kleeneze reps who infest my letterbox with their worthless tracts to get enough self-employment income to claim tax credits rather than be mentally tortured for being unemployed under the DWP sanctions system don’t need Boox accounting services 😉 Roll on the universal income if only so that I will be able to find the odd real letter among the blizzard of multilevel marketing material one day.
That’s the trouble with working from home opportunities. If you need someone to design the business for you, you’re always going to be on the bottom rung at best. Part of the reason is encapsulated in the Google strapline for that link
Working from home is a great option if you want to spend more time with your children.
Trying to process self-employed statistics is always going to be the devil’s own job because of the wider range of forms of self-employment. Presumably the Government will move an Ermine from the ranks of the economically inactive – a slightly offensive term for a beast with investment income of a significant part of the NMW, to the ranks of the self-employed though I will still be virtually catatonic in terms of hours a week worked. The only information HMRC collect is the total earned in the tax year – it’s irrelevant if I earned that in five minutes of frenzy or 220 days of getting a pittance for twelve-hour days.
She says: “My father had one job in his lifetime, I will have six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will have six jobs at the same time.” Does she think that is that a positive thing? “Well,” she says, “it seems strange to me that we would always recommend to companies that their revenue streams are diverse, yet for individuals, the smallest and most fragile economic unit, we say: you must only do one thing all your life. What a crazy way to live; 87% of people in full-time employment are not passionate about what they do. When I look at this new way of work, I think of it as opt-in. It gives people economic agency, it puts them in charge. And it gives them flexibility. People love those things.”
The narrative sounds great from Robin’s lips. Maybe not so great from the huddled masses working minimum wage jobs on zero hours contracts. Now we should ask ourselves why we encourage many people into higher cost lifestyles such as having more children than can be paid for with the wages their talents can command , and then mentally torture them using the DWP sanctions system when they fail to find the jobs that aren’t there for their abilities/time commitments. The Quiet Man IDS thinks this is a failure of process and 14 day warnings are the answer. There’s something to be said for George Osborne’s more direct approach of limiting benefits to families with up to two children; it may be unpopular but it is at least honestly straight between the eyes and aims to fight the fire before it starts. Either way these are not concerns for the likes of Robin – after all people have agency, they’re in charge and have flexibility, so that’s all right then. Me, I’d want to be on the side of Capital in this fight rather than Labour. The battle between the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object ain’t gonna be pretty.
Work is increasingly always-on in a random way
The 1990s dream of being able to work at home with phones and remote access and what-have you happened – in a big way, from the Blackberry email appliance to the smartphone. But it was a gun that fired on both ends, it seems, because it corrupted the meaning of the working day too. Once again, that’s great for the startup, and the entrepreneur – that technology lets you look a lot bigger than you really are. It also facilitates the zero-hours contract and a pernicious leakage of work into time that once upon a time was clearly off the clock.
There’s a secondary problem in that a lot of work nowadays is terribly hard to qualify whether it is done well, and many of the political issues that ERE described in his post about careerism start to raise their ugly heads.
The difficulty of qualifying a job then runs up with bullshit metrics that focus on process rather than intent. This delightful piece of management theory gives us DWP setting targets for the number of the unemployed sanctioned, because presumably some pipsqueak has prior knowledge handed down on tablets of stone that x% of claimants are taking the piss. I’ve no doubt that many well be, but nevertheless the point of the DWP isn’t to turn down the claims of x% of applicants, it is to evaluate the claims and pay up if they meet requirements. If we are spending too much on unemployment benefit than that is the job of Parliament to fix – by paying less, by paying under fewer circumstances or whatever. The setting of job performance targets to process statistics by incompetent gits who don’t understand statistics, the inherent variability on small sample sizes and who are fetishisers of tickboxery is making a lot of jobs needlessly crap with a misery of micromanaged metrics.
Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.
That’s all very well, but in the case of the DWP as so often the managers set the targets on an internal marker. Even the Harvard Business Review concedes the problem as applied to CEOs
Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.
We pay the blighters more and get less for it. As the guy said
if we measure just what’s easy, we’ll maximize just what’s easy.
The Ermine is introverted, it was already picked up at school that I was not a team player – I never have been, and never want to be. I believe that the finest engineering work is had in a duel with the laws of physics and the constraint of engineering without the incessant background flapping of lips, although like all things balance is needed, I won’t go as far as to say every man is an island. And I was able to work with and lead teams, but it probably is true to say I did my best work alone or with fewer than two other people. Success was identifiable in innovation, in faint signals pulled out of the noise and the success of projects and their teams.
It’s absolutely at right-angles to the current correct business thinking, which is all about the hive-mind and networking and collaboration – the group is the hero and individual talent and expertise is zero. The hive-mind is normative, it stamps out dissent and difference. Not in the old way of prejudice and stereotyped -isms, but in new ways. As Lucy Kellway observed, this conformity takes new forms – people in the new East London cavernous creative spaces have no space for the ugly. What really worried me, however, was that when she was making a radio programme, even the sound engineers were pretty boys. Engineers aren’t meant to be pretty. When I worked for the BBC, this wasn’t the case, you could immediately tell Production from Studio Engineering in the Television Centre bar – as soon as you got in the door and looked round 😉
I’m glad to be out of it
To some extent as you get older you get less adaptable, and while I can use some of these methods I don’t want to live life that way, and I am lucky enough to have the choice. In one of the other good articles on this topic in the Graun Jeremy Rifkin (author of The End Of Work) opines
A lot of the change, he suggests, has to do with a transformed idea of freedom. When the older generation thinks of freedom it imagines it as autonomy, self-sufficiency, personal choice. “Freedom is exclusivity.” When the younger generation thinks of freedom, he suggests, it is no longer about exclusivity, it is about inclusivity. “For them the more networks they are in, the more social capital they establish, the more free they feel,” he says. “It is about expanding the network. This is the sharing economy.”
Partly, though, I say, isn’t it also that grim economic necessity has become the mother of all that invention, all those millions of apps? The fact is that in developed countries, that generational gap about ideas of freedom is also a glaring generational inequality in assets and opportunities.
Rifkin likens the gig economy to the establishment of common land in feudal times. “This sharing economy is reestablishing the commons,” he says, “in a hi-tech landscape. Commons came about when people formed communities by taking the meagre resources they had and sharing then to create more value. The method of regulation of these systems is also comparable,” he suggests. “If people are trusted and vouched for they are accepted as part of the sharing economy group. If they behave badly they are excluded. Your social capital means everything in this new economy.”
I read that a couple of times, and I still can’t work out whether it is the most arrant load of claptrap or there is a kernel of truth and I’m just on the wrong side of the divide. I recognise some of what he says about the sharing economy. I also recognise squarely that my view of freedom is exclusivity – the freedom to choose what I do with my time, and largely with my resources. I don’t understand the part about networks, but then I am not a cloud person, and I always ask who gains from munging my data ‘for free’. And yet I see the symptoms of this networked utopia at least – in every railway station the soft glow of smartphones reflecting off other people’s eyes. People used to think you were a nutter if you talked to yourself in the street, and I still have the urge to cross the road when I hear someone talking to nobody in particular before realising that they are on the phone yelling out details of their love life or business transactions to all and sundry.
Perhaps what looks to me like a dreadful, overweening and controlling aspect of work for employees, or a revoltingly competitive bear-pit favouring the loudest wide boys selling their wares on the freelance/entrepreneur side is simply a new generation defining new ways of being human. If it’s the latter, then it should all come out in the wash and good luck to them, I will try and stay on the side of Capital and sit back and enjoy the ride. I do wish that people would seem to be happier with the result, however. It looks like hell on earth to me, but maybe I just don’t understand the digital commons. I confess that one of the first thoughts I had when I read Paul Mason’s stuff about the end of capitalism and the sharing economy was ‘yes, but what will people eat and where will they live’ which a fellow reader took up with greater vim.
A lot of the things that are offensive about the way work is going cease to be offensive once you are financially independent. What is going wrong is the power balance between capital and labour. If you don’t need the money then the power balance swings back, you can afford brinkmanship or indeed to walk away. As my favourite 1950s ad says, the financially independent can walk tall, because they can walk away. However, it does take over 10 years of decent and continuous earnings at a pretty high level become financially independent, or several decades of still a decent level for the rest of us. It’s the dirty little secret of the retire early scene – you need to earn well to get to retire early, as well as not screwin up. Most of the narrative out there is about not screwing up, which is necessary, but not sufficient nowadays.
If you are entrepreneurial you can do that well in the gig economy, because more of the fruits of your labour accrue to you – as the old saw goes you never get rich working for someone else. It is presumably the successes who are skewing those ONS figures up for cohort earnings for those aged 21 in 1995, but at the same time the ONS figures show the reality of self employment is an average wage of less than the National Minimum Wage. If you work in finance or IT you can do it in less time too, indeed you will need to do it, because if you work in an office where fewer than a third of your colleagues have grey streaks in their hair3 then statistically you want to be FI or have alternative employment planned by the time you are twenty years from State Retirement age.
Perhaps all the non-entrepreneurs will be kept as pets by the entrepreneur winners, via universal income so they don’t all gang up against them, while the go-getters charge around like flash Harrys with bigger and bigger yachts. Else there could be trouble in Paradise.
thank you, Guardian, for that piece of jargon/insight ↩
ERE introduced me a while ago to the four types of personality suited to differing phases of colonising new fields. These are the Craftsman, the Jungle Fighter, the Company Man and the Gamesman. The craftsmen are geeks, they know stuff but aren’t perhaps best with people. They value technical skill over people skills. The Jungle Fighters are the robber barons, taking the results of the craftsmen’s work and fighting turf wars to expand scale. The Company Men are the white collar workers of the 1970s t o 1980s, and the Gamesmen are the spivs and bansters Vince Cable is getting all uptight about – playing the system to their advantage.
I haven’t quite worked out what I am. The obvious one is Company Man, which is why I am somewhat of a fish out of water with the institutionalised sadism of modern performance management systems. I feel somewhat drawn towards the Craftsman approach, which if anything is even less well adapted to modern work.
The oldest culture, the craftsman culture, is hard to find. If you want to see the difference try to contrast and compare an popular science magazine of a hundred year ago, full of information and requiring a solid foundation to understand (if you can get your hands on old copies, get them!), and a present popular science magazines with it’s glossy pictures and prose written to entertain rather than inform.
Thet struck me too, recently. Google books has scanned back-issues of Poular Mechanics – take a look at one from 1950 and compared the content of one from 2005 and it is clear that the latter is much more consumer oriented whereas the former was for guys that made stuff and knew how to use tools. In PM’s defence, I did learn something from the how to use screws article which perhaps indicates I’m rather less than Craftsman in things mechanical 😉
One of the interesting things in Jacob’s analysis was that two of the forms are essentially parasitic. The Jungle Fighters tend to get ahead by destroying, and it appears that the Gamesmen do too, introducing fiendish complexity and benefiting from it, as perhaps we have recently found out in the field of banking and finance, hence Vince spitting bricks.
I don’t get on well in a work environment dominated by Gamesmen – all procedure and little rooms for creativity and substance. There’s probably not enough left of my working life to go through the next cycle, since the Gamesman is in the ascendant at the moment. If peak oil happens and enegy and resource crunches causes a shift down to more fundamental things then perhaps it will become the time of the Craftsman again.
That might suit me in some ways, though somehow I need to learn how to use my screws and building tools right, as electronics and software aren’t going to be tremendously useful skills in a post-peak oil world…
On here at the moment I spend far more time on breaking free of the rat race than on living intentionally. Part of that is for journalistic reasons. Pick up any paper and most of the articles are about stuff that has gone wrong it gives a more dramatic story. It is also the area which takes up most of my time at the moment.
So is work getting worse or not?
My job is getting worse. It has been getting less intellectually interesting since the year 2000. From an income point of view this is somewhat offset by me rising up the greasy pole. It’s become more stressful all the time. Some of that is because some old clauses in the pension scheme make it expensive to have compulsory redundancies, so HR is trying to bully the weaker people out with nasty perfomance management system abuses and buy others out with voluntary redundancy.
This is an enervating environment to work in, but is understandable; the company clearly has too many people and would dearly love to replace them with Indian IT guys at a lower cost. So I feel the chill winds directly and am only shielded somewhat by the idealism of the people that negotiated the pension scheme terms in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m lucky enough to be old enough that soon I will have enough to be out and free of this rat-race.
Obviously my vision is coloured by my own experiences, and heck, it’s my blog and if my experience of work is that it’s going to the dogs then that’s what I’ll be ranting about. However I do generalise about work getting worse, and Monevator is quite right to pull me up on that. So, after considering the issues let’s take a look at the whole related areas of education and work –
What’s gone wrong with school
I don’t have children so I don’t have personal experience of this. However, the damage that has been done to the qualifications systems by moving away from norm referenced grading means that you can’t tell bright kids from dumb ones. That’s good for the self-esteem of the dumb ones, but probably not so good for the UK’s competitiveness. This crabby old git from the QCA describes the UK exams system as diseased. Call me old-fashioned, but I also always like to see people leave school able to read and write and use a calculator to add up a bill. I don’t expect them to be able to write deathless prose, solve quadratic equations or know what Gauss’ theorem means, but you need some basic skills to survive in an industrial society.
What’s gone wrong with university
University degrees are worth a lot less now than they were 30 years ago, but they cost students a lot more. How did that happen? We bottled the tough task of telling dumb people they were dumb in the name of equality. That meant we couldn’t tell which were the clever ones that would give the taxpayer a return on investment, so we said let everybody pay.
There’s a recurring theme here. If you want to treat everyone equally, then by definition you can’t identify the bright from the dim. That’s fine if the aim of education is to build students’ self esteem. That’s bad if the aim is to target scarce resources at the able so they can invent and discover new technologies and stuff, or create inspirational designs. It’s also, incidentally, bad if you want to target other scarce resources at the dim to enable them to make the bst they can of themselves. If no child is left behind, then no child will get ahead.
On the upside, nowadays university is mainly about finding the money. It appears you don’t have to be that smart to go to uni. On the downside, you now start people off in their working lives with more unsecured personal debt than I have ever borrowed in my life. Is it any wonder that people get personal finance wrong? When I borrowed £3k to buy a car early in work it scared the hell out of me and I focused on paying that back ASAP, it was gone in less than a year. If I already had 30k of personal debt at the time it would look so huge in comaprison to my outgoings I’d go whatever and borrow the £3k and not be scared by it.
The small number of 50- to 60-somethings who were educated in the grammar school system after passing their 11+ and who went on to university were cut from entirely different intellectual cloth to the great mass of the near-50% of students that now enjoy higher education.
All students from across the eras were not created equally. The 11+ passer was the elite achiever of his (or more rarely her) generation – the equivalent of today’s multiple A* student who aspires to earn a fortune in law or The City or medicine. And if anything, those that climbed out of the comprehensive school system were even brighter.
So students are getting a different deal nowadays – less work needed, fewer rewards in the end and more debt. Me, I’d take the old version of harder work needed and no debt, but then I would say that wouldn’t I, it worked for me. The 93% of my school cohort that didn’t get to uni might feel differently, though as I recall it they were too busy driving fast cars and pulling girls to be that bothered – there were jobs waiting for them, remember. Other European countries have the same system we used to have, such as the German numerus clausus.
I haven’t got great experience working with Gen Y’ers because my company takes on very few graduates – they’re trying to reduce numbers so this is only to be expected. Monevator seems to find a lack of work ethic there
chimes with my own experiences. Well, I find originality/smart thinking much more than 10% of the time – maybe 30% – but it’s too often outweighed by their ‘what are you doing for me?’ attitude. They seem to take an employer as the next step of their academic career, rather than at the point where they start paying back (for their mutual benefit, of course)
I think I’ll have to charge him with being more of a crabby old git than me there. In my first company I was a cocky young pup, educating the digital design engineer in a troubleshooting meeting that the reason we were having grief was that a virtual earth input is a low impedance, the clue was in the name, rather than the high impedance he thought it was. This is an issue in analogue electronics, not digital electronics, so he wasn’t necessarily to know that, but I was a complete and utter tw*t. I was right, but in the wrong way. I didn’t quite understand why when I related this story to my mother she suggested that might have been unwise. The qualities than make a decent engineer are not a million miles from those that make a sociopath, particularly when combined with the arrogance of youth. Never did work out why it seemed hard to get ahead in that firm, but I left after 9 months so it didn’t matter 😉 I also wasn’t that dependable, and the Television Centre bar was the location of many a long lunch. There at least I was taking a lead from the old hands…
I think the their ‘what are you doing for me?’ attitude goes with the patch of being young. They also think they know it all, which is different from knowing it all. When young folk stop thinking they know it all and that the world owes them a living, the human race is doomed 🙂
What’s gone wrong with scientific and technical jobs
In startups and small to medium companies, probably not too much. We’ve got more of these than people give credit for, because a lot of them are B2B and therefore tucked away in anonymous industrial estates. I’ve only had experience of these as a corporate customer and consultant once I left my first company way back in the 1980s. Obviously job security ain’t all that in small companies and startups. In big companies, well, line up the usual suspects
death of leadership
outsourcing to lower-wage economies
ossification due to the above
My company has peculiar issues of its own, but looking at what happened to other great British engineering companies many of the pathologies are replicated. Something very nasty has happened to the management of multinational companies, it has become sytematized and dehumanised. In the past they offered great career paths, training, less of the dead mens shoes progression of small firms and chances to job-hop for the ambitious. Now they are front-ends for outsourcing jobs. Project management is the thing to go for to get places in vaguely technical fields there.
What’s gone wrong with manual jobs
Most of them disappeared! That’s a bugger if you’re academically challenged. I fully agree with Monevator that a lot of these were crap, but when I part company with him is viewing the absence of a job as a better option to a crap one. It’s nice to at least have the choice.
What’s gone wrong with skilled manual jobs
they’ve largely disappeared. We don’t fix or custom build things where we can avoid it, commercial off the shelf is king.
Work in general has gone wrong in some areas across the board
pensions – largely gone in the private sector
job security – what’s that?
training – employers want to hire in from abroad rather than train graduates
This litany of lament applies to regular jobs where you become an employee. Against that should be set the vastly improved opportunities for the self-motivated to set out their stall and sell their skills as freelancers and consultants. This employment pattern suits the self-motivated, the talented and the entrepreneurial among us – computers, the internet and better communications generally allow these guys to compete with the big guys for a fraction of the cost.
Unfortunately, they are at the extremes of the bell curve. Most people don’t want the stress, they want an employer to deal with the risks. So the opportunities are opening up massively for a minority, while closing off for the majority. I’m not at the extreme of that bell curve, and I’ve been a company director for more than a decade before packing it in because I hated the sales side of things.
So the overall problems with work is that the opportunities for the majority of averagely skilled Brits are fast disappearing, big companies are ossifying into shell companies for outsourced workers elsewhere, UK unemployment is well into double digits when you factor in all the not economically active adults of working age. Monevator comes across as a bright and above all, highly entrepreneurial chap and is probably drowning in opportunities, but I’m not sure that experience is so widespread. It’s the people that would once upon a time have staffed the office typing pool, the auto shops and the book-keeping department that are taking the shaft, and they are going to be bored and very pissed off at the lack of jobs.
Ever the cheery optimist, UK PF blogger Monevator has made some pretty good observations about some of my views on work, and takes issue with a recurrent theme on here that basically work has gone to pot over the last 30 years. He’s not actually saying that work is a bed of roses –
It’s my contention though that work was mostly always rubbish for the educated classes, and that it’s only nostalgia that causes people to believe otherwise.
I didn’t have this experience of work being rubbish, at any rate once I’d job switched a couple of times early in my career. It is only towards the end in the last few years, coincident with globalisation and business process outsourcing. Looking back, however, the rot set in in the late 1990s, but for various reasons I was sheltered from it.
Ermine’s post follows a coherent and consistent line on his blog – modern life is rubbish, it’s increasingly justifiable to hate work, and he’s determined to get out.
It’s largely a fair cop. Guilty as charged, though I’d say modern working life is rubbish rather than modern life is rubbish. There’s actually rather a lot to be said for modern life, though much of it is unsustainable and I expect living standards to decline very seriously in the West at some point. I don’t think short-haul city breaks are going to be common in 10 years’ time, at least for the average income punter.
I’ve had a pretty rose-tinted experience of work for most of my 30 years of it. I was one of the grammar school kids that was among the 7% or so that went to university. Science and engineering were what I was interested in, and I pursued design and research jobs in industry, I’ve never worked for the public sector, other than having the local council as a customer for a web design and software company I ran as a sideline for several years.
Work, what’s it all about and what is it for, anyway?
Monevator makes a fair point that a lot of the gritty manual work of the past we are well shot of. Although things like coal mining and car construction employed whole towns, it seemed, the jobs themselves were pretty ropey and industrial accidents and degenerative effects like deafness, respiratory ailments and suchlike were a high human cost of this sort of employment, which often led to early death due to the physical toll it took.
These rotten jobs have been replaced by a combination of two things in our society now. One of them is the equivalent sort of rotten jobs but with fewer of the physical costs – these are generally service industry jobs like call centre workers, shop workers and the like. The other thing that has replaced this sort of work is unemployment – although the figures have been fixed by changing the criteria of what counts as unemployed these days. It is shown in the suspicious variance between the official unemployment rate of 8% and the official employment rate of 71%, in 16-64 year olds. When I went to school, 8% and 71% didn’t add up to 100%, so the true UK unemployment rate is greater than 8% and could be as high as 29%.
Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong with work. Most people want to live life, and work gives them cash to do it. They want to have a good time, find love, raise kids in many cases and enjoy life. For many, work is a means to an end, rather than the aim of living, though there does seem to be a strong Calvinist streak in the PF blogosphere that seems to be of the opinion work is good for the soul. I think they’re nutters, but each to their own 🙂 In modern industrial societies, you need a certain amount of money simply to exist, and you sell some of your productive capacity to do that. In return, people grow food for you, dig stuff from the ground and generate power for you, rent you a roof over your head. You may also buy trinkets and gewgaws to amuse you, Christian Louboutins to make yourself look good/connect you in your mind’s eye with people richer and prettier etc etc.
Productive capacity, in terms of intelligence, diligence, smarts, brawn and physical prowess is not even spread evenly throughout humanity. As a result, as a society we need jobs across the spectrum to match people’s capability to wealth production. In the past we had such a spectrum. It is a tragedy that most people are of average ability and so they need mostly averagely stretching jobs. Previously, we managed this because communications and transport were expensive, and as a result we needed to do many things in the countries they were consumed. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that we humans have an economy to enable us to trade things with each other to enhance our quality of life, we aren’t actually indentured servants of a pre-existing economic system created by God. The economy is a human/societal construct, and if our economy doesn’t work for us, it behooves us to change the damn thing so that it does work for us. That’s the theory, at least.
Monevator makes a good case for free trade, and so far it has been the least worst of all the alternatives tried. His example of North Korea shows what the opposite, called autarky is like, but free trade and autarky are extremes. Very few real-world optimal outcomes are all one thing or all another.
What we call free trade isn’t really that free at all. For instance there are all sorts of subsidies to large-scale agricultural production in the West. From one perspective these should all be removed, and we should give up growing food in the West. The sun shines stronger in equatorial regions for simple physical reasons, and equatorial regions are far more productive as a result (I rudely simplify a lot of issues, for instance the Sahara might be put to better use for solar panels rather than attempting to grow carrots, but in general Northern Europe isn’t the most efficient place to grow lots of food compared with parts of the US, Africa and Asia). Not only do we have passive distortions like that, but we have active ones too. The World Bank spent millions to get people in Peru to grow asparagus to sell to the UK market. We can grow it here. They get them to do it in unsustainable ways that destroys their water supplies. It’s all part of free trade, apparently…
This shows one of the really bad downsides of free trade, it has a nasty habit of trashing the environment, because environmental downsides tend to show up in the longer term, a long time after the money has been made. Or they affect people who aren’t part of the group making the money, so their costs aren’t factored into the trade price. Slash and burn free trade works, but the aftermath isn’t pretty. The wandering invisible hand of the free market needs a good smack every so often to stop it straying into all sorts of places and making a mess there – places like the Niger Delta show this all too well. Compared with that BPs tribulations in the Gulf of Mexico were a paragon of virtue. You can’t have economic activity without risk, but you should make the polluter pay for restoration…
Since free trade is an extreme position let us look at where it would go. Do we really want to become megacities in the West and depend entirely on imported food? With true free trade we would probably have done that, however, should oil become scarce we may come to value the fact that we can still produce food in Europe… The agricultural subsidies in the UK are a historical relic of the Second World War when Britain found itself cut off from supplies, and there is some case to be made for retaining some capacity for the basics of life, even at the cost of some inefficiency. Resilience and efficiency are often at odds.
There are all sorts of trade-offs, distortions and horse-trading that make free trade more free for the stronger trading parties and less free for others. Some of the issue we are starting to have now is that we are used to the West giving other countries the shaft, and rather less used to being shafted by others, hence for instance the current US/China spat about the value of the Chinese currency being held down relative to the dollar.
It is also worth observing that a lot of our Western lifestyle isn’t really sustainable in the long-term (another 50 years or more) – it was built with a lot of equity that was effectively pillaged from external sources. These sources include the energy stored over millennia by life-forms that were converted into oil, and some pretty unsavoury practices carried out on other groups of people.
What seems to be going wrong now for Western workers is globalisation. The upside of globalisation in that we get cheap TVs and DVD players. The downside of globalisation is a lot of those jobs for average ability people are disappearing, because average ability is to be had cheaper in China and India. Hence the increasing unemployment and economically inactive people here, some of which was disguised by Labour in inflating public sector employment and some of New Labour’s public works. More jobs and buildings are good, but not so good when they do this to the economy.
Somewhere around 2002 it all started to go pear-shaped as the cost of public sector employment and works outstripped government income. There is a theory that some of the business process outsourcing to India was the result of the rush to work on the Millennium bug, that was beyond the capacity of Western IT departments, and the work jumpstarted the Indian IT industry. That would stack up with the great sucking force of back-office administrative and IT jobs in the UK due to BPO after the dot-com bust. Sure, these jobs weren’t inspiring, but for many people they put food on the table and paid for the annual package holiday to Spain. What do we want those people to do now?
Although my background was in physics and electronics, I moved to IT as my company’s focus shifted in the direction. To outsiders, IT is some really hard techy geekfest, but it has a dirty little secret. The vast majority of IT work is routine. IT qualifications such as Cisco’s CCNA are largely memory tests of the worst kind, and even the higher-level ones test for skills that are gained by repetition and honing response times. It doesn’t involve the creativity needed to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, or even the originality and creativity to write a decent short story. That’s not to say some of the qualifications aren’t hard to pass, but they’re not intellectually demanding.
My company is all for professional development in IT qualifications. I switched to using a legacy skill rather than jump through these hoops. I’ve got ten years to go, tops, before reaching normal retirement age for the company. There’s no point in me doing these IT qualifications because a) I can’t be arsed to do the memory cramming and b) I’ve got eyes in my head even if my company’s management hasn’t. This sort of work will be outsourced within the next two years. The very fact that they are trying to standardise and template designs point that way.
There’s a big picture going on here, and it isn’t good for a lot of people in the West. Early Retirement Extreme’s Jacob is brighter than me and has summarised the trends pretty well. I didn’t see quite as much of the big picture until my nose was rubbed in it in 2007, but once it was, I made it my job to find out because I don’t like being sideswiped by crap flying out of the blue.
Monevator makes the excellent point that the world has been getting richer over the last 100 years. Someone on unemployment benefit today has a better standard of living than a middle class family in the 1970s, in purely material terms. Unfortunately what we have also been doing with the world is filling it up with people, so I don’t know whether the world has been getting richer per capita.
Much of those riches have been predicated on cheap oil, and we may be having issues with that in the not too distant future. The good thing about oil running out is that it will kill off the excesses of globalisation, and the world will become a bigger place again. The bad thing about oil running out is that a lot of that so called wealth will disappear, but unfortunately all the extra people we’ve been adding to the world won’t. I don’t have a good answer for what to do about that.
This brilliant article from the Grauniad absolutely hit a nerve with me. It describes the reasons why I hate the management edifice around what my job has become, though at the moment what I do is okay – if only the blasted System would let me get on an do it with death-by-bureaucracy.
When I started work at my current company as a lowly grunt Assistant Engineer, I had the authority to fill in a purchase requisition for up to £500 without higher level authorisation, and that was about right for the level of work. It wasn’t generally abused, either.
Now I have to get authorisation from the next level up simply to buy a rail ticket, and that next level has to get the okay and a reference number from some other part of Business Operations. I don’t know what you have to do to buy pens and paperclips these days. The company’s perfectly entitled to introduce all this bureaucracy, but it was all snuck in while talking about employee empowerment and BS like that.
Software development used to be a creative process. It is now a revolting straitjacketed system where an idea gets posted to s Star Chamber whose purpose is to destroy anything that is innovative or potentially risky, then fire anything that gets through into another bureaucratic process to make sure it fits in with a morass of process and policy definitions. Presumably the original purpose of the Star Chamber was something else but my description fits the most obvious results. For some reason we seem to take longer to get anything involving software to market, so we outsource more of it to India. The main advantage the Indian guys have is they don’t seem to have to go through this process, though they don’t always have the gumption to apply common sense to the results, ending up with some classic howlers. This isn’t a Daily Mail-esque rant on Indian IT people – the contracts seem to be written in some peculiar way that almost prohibits initiative. These guys are bright enough but their hands are tied. You gets what you pays for, and we don’t want to pay for them to think. So we or our customers end up debugging the results, but hey, the cycle time is shorter, and Agile development is all about failing fast and frequently. Well, that’s how we seem to do it, it is meant to work differently.
Fortunately I got out of software into a one-off hardware project that will hopefully see me out 🙂 I’d have throttled one of the process monkeys by now if I were in software now.
The problem is that technology has allowed bean-counters to micromanage our jobs at arm’s length. Taylor introduced ‘scientific management’ as a way of getting the American worker to do as they were told; it had the side effect of deskilling workers and de-humanising the workplace. As the Philip Brown from Praxis puts it
the twentyfirst century is the age of digital Taylorism. This involves translating knowledge work into working knowledge through the extraction, codification and digitalisation of knowledge into software prescripts and packages that can be transmitted and manipulated by others regardless of location.
The Graun follows on:
From now on, believe Brown and his colleagues, “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers in the UK”. The rest will be turned into routine and farmed off to regional offices in eastern Europe or India.
Nice. I want out of that sort of environment. Working without thinking is like living without breathing to me.
Companies are using the very latest
technologies to produce high value-added goods and services
in the midst of third world poverty as they no longer require the
full array of institutional supports to provide the skills base that
we are accustomed to in the West.
Fasten your seat belts, folks, and adopt the brace position. If these guys are right we are stuffed in the West – there is nothing we can do to compete in the race to the bottom. As the Philip Brown et al say on page 15
The growth of this high end capacity in emerging economies is
likely to cause a serious challenge to the West as differences in
productivity and quality narrow, contributing to a reverse (Dutch) auction, reflecting a weakening in the trading positions of large numbers of middle class professionals, managers and technicians in OECD economies.
What’s up with that? We seem to definitely be in the ‘no pain no gain‘ zone. Work is there to pay the rent, not there to give meaning to life. Saying it is necessary and good for the soul seems downright Calvinist to me.
When I started work, true, it did give me some meaning, because it was a continuation of the arc that I had been preparing for, as I accepted society’s view of what a good lifestyle would look like. That path runs along these lines
go to school
go to university
All very 1950s, and I wasn’t even born then, but this expectation ran on through the 1970s.
At the same time, however, I was working and living life, and there was the process of what Carl Jung termed individuation going on in me. According to Jung, it is
the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated [from other human beings]; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.
Psychological Types, Coll. Works V6
Work is good for the soul is probably the force that drives Western capitalism according to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I’d go along with him in that the notion that work is good for you is part of western collective psychology, indeed I had to get to middle age before I found it possible to conceive that this was not a natural part of the way life is. That takes some doing, for instance this lady waited till retirement itself to challenge it, she has seen the light now 🙂
Compare my failure to challenge the status quo with Weber’s agricultural labourers on page 59:
since the interest of the employer in a speeding- up of harvesting increases with the increase of the results and the intensity of the work, the attempt has again and again been made, by increasing the piece-rates of the workmen, thereby giving them an opportunity to earn what is for them a very high wage, to interest them in increasing their own efficiency. But a peculiar difficulty has been met with surprising frequency: raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time, because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of his work.
Compared with those guys I have 150 years of educational advances, two college degrees, the hindsight of the Enlightenment. They spotted something I didn’t – enough is enough, the aim of life is to have a good time and probably a few beers with their mates. They could recognise what enough looked like, where I had to see more than four decades before I could even recognise the concept.
Of course, I’m selling the Protestant work ethic short. It was part of putting men on the moon, it drove people to cure smallpox and all sorts of good stuff that the West has achieved. It’s problem is it knows no bounds, so it also gives us the BP oil spill, climate change, bad advertising, junk food. It adds energy, but little critical direction, apart from the search for more.
It may even be possible that work is good for some people at some times, but it isn’t necessarily good for everybody, all the time. Yes, we should not become freeloaders on society, to that extent we should do enough work to pay our way. Cutting costs and retiring early doesn’t mean living on benefits for me, unless they are ones everybody in Britain enjoys like using the NHS. I’ve paid my taxes and my NI stamps for more than 30 years.
Early in my career I did get meaning from work, because I had not begun the process of individuation and establishing what my own values were. As I got older, I realised that I was a debt slave, but in a velvet lined rut. I needed to work to be able to pay the mortgage.
Once I jumped to this, I realised that I didn’t like having other people having such control over my life, and looked at how to pay down this debt. I worked that out without PF blogs and suchlike, because there was no Internet at the time I started. It’s not that hard to work out that you have to spend less than you earn, and it was pretty obvious that if you don’t want other people controlling your life then don’t owe them any money 🙂
Even after paying down the mortgage I didn’t jump to the slavery part, until my declining but erstwhile good employer began to bring in nutty demeaning performance management BS, at the same time as the project I was working on was cancelled. The manager I worked for tried to use this to squeeze me out after having said he’d back me to retrain earlier on, before the credit crunch. It was at this point that I realised working for someone else, particularly in an office, is bad for you. D’oh…. So along the same lines as ‘if thy mortgage offends thee, pay the damned thing down or don’t take it out in the first place’, I realised that my office job was beginning to offend me.
Enter the PF blogosphere. I had failed to think independently and PF blogs made me realise that with grit and determination you can save enough to retire early, particularly if you spin off alternative income sources. I can only do the preparatory work and learning with alternative income while I am still working as I’m bloody well not going to pay 42% tax on any alternative income streams, sod that for a game of tin soldiers.
I managed to get one final, and pretty high-profile project in an unusual area for which I happen to have the right skills, which is due to complete in 2012. I have screwed down my outgoings to less than what I would retire on, and save well over half my earnings to the end of retiring early.
So I don’t get the Calvinist angle one bit. Work is not good for youper se. If you’re the sort that needs work to give you meaning, as I was to stage 4 of the list above, then yes, it is good for you. One you have individuated, you can make your own decisions. Work may be good for you, it may not. I’m with Max Weber, when he says
the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.
Work isn’t good for me. What’s wrong with enough? Meaning in life can also come from who you are and who you relate to, not just what you do and what you own. To paraphrase the words of a song
I don’t need no stinkin’ iron cage…
Calvinist work ethic be damned. Freedom for self-determination is my birthright, and I’m going to claim it in the second half of life and continue the Jungian path to individuation. Know thyself…
A ropey copy of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism can be read free on archive.org. Go for the PDF, the text version is rough as guts
Page 2 of the Foreword lends credence to my viewpoint that for modern Westerners this work ethic is an atavistic echo of a religious nature. Like any element of the psyche that is part of an unconscious archetype, challenging the concept that work is an inherent good is met with fierce resistance and rejection. We had it right as part of the 1970s ideal of greater leisure, but urged onwards by those who could not brook the repudiation of such an archetype, we are unable to say enough is enough. We are still paralysed by monetary systems that require a long-term increase in GDP, despite the consequent environmental despoliation that is becoming increasingly clear.
The central idea to which Weber appeals in confirmation of his theory is expressed in the characteristic phrase “a calling.” For Luther, as for most mediaeval theologians, it had normally meant the state of life in which the individual had been set by Heaven, and against which it was impious to rebel. To the Calvinist, Weber argues, the calling is not a condition in which the individual is born, but a strenuous and exacting enterprise to be chosen by himself, and to be pursued with a sense of religious responsibility. Baptized in the bracing, if icy, waters of Calvinist theology, the life of business, once regarded as perilous to the soul
summe periculosa est emptionis et venditionis negotiatio
acquires a new sanctity. Labour is not merely an economic means : it is a spiritual end. Covetousness, if a danger to the soul, is a less formidable menace than sloth.