From the outset, my parents raised me with a very specific, narrow path in mind. Go to college, get an entry level position at whatever huge company I could, and work my way up the ladder. Make money. Invest and save so you can make more money and live comfortably into your old age. Retire rich. Enjoy yourself then. The prospect that tomorrow is promised to no one didn’t seem to faze them. (And if you see this article, mom, trust me, I love you, I just disagree.)
I spent four years at college studying for a computer science major and English minor degree, and eleven years after that working there before I finally found how empty that left me inside.
I wish I’d realized it sooner.
I am a millennial, albeit at the oldest top of the range — born in 1983. The gig economy had not quite matured when I graduated — freelancing was a thing, sure, and always had been, but sites like Uber, Fiverr, Upwork, and so on had not quite germinated, so the freelancing world had a higher barrier to entry. You couldn’t just smart small as a side venture, as gaining clients was much more difficult. At the time, the prospect still appealed to me, but as a very recent graduate with little experience, I felt I did not have the skills, world knowledge, or personal savings to fund such an endeavor. I went to a job fair and landed a technical support role without too much difficulty, and I was all too content to have a 9–5 office job where I moved up the ladder. Increased responsibilities, becoming a team lead, and then being put on an experimental message board platform to represent the company online were all fine and dandy. I never had a single issue that I can recall with my coworkers, nor my bosses — as far as I was concerned, they were all lovely people.
The longer I stayed, though, the greater emptiness I felt inside, and it was a hunger that my company seemed ill-equipped to address, despite the well-recognized and appreciated efforts of those immediately around me.
Narrow band percentage raises dampen the desire to excel
Performance-based raises were allotted in a narrow percentage raise. If you were a ‘good’ performer, you might get 2%. If you were exceptional, you might get double that, 4%. On paper, this sounds like a fair deal, right? Your increase was double the amount of your peer’s. What is there to complain about?
The problem comes in when you factor in those increases into a pre-defined salary ($50,000 per year, for sake of argument). The ‘good’ performer will be making $51,000 after that raise, while the stellar performer will be making $52,000 after a year of work — 101.9% of the ‘good’ worker’s salary, despite having an order of magnitude higher output. It takes decades of maintaining such a performance level before the pay level and output level would equalize, and there is no guarantee that your job would even exist that long. Job hopping to open negotiating breathing space was the best option for those that sought higher salaries, rather than grinding years at the same company. Job hopping wasn’t my style. I loved the idea of digging roots into a single company, but I hated that I had to trade lifetime earnings to do so. The idea of ‘company loyalty’ began to feel like a very one-sided sacrifice.
Nevertheless, I pushed myself to excellence every single year out of a desire to do well by my clients, but I always felt slightly miffed that the performance gap and the pay gap were not even close to commensurate. Perhaps this would not apply in another field such as sales, but as a technical support worker, I felt I had very few options to demonstrate excellent work for excellent pay. The rules were firmly set by groups far removed from my direct manager, and as such there was little room for negotiation.
Fiscally speaking, I would have been far better off remaining as a ‘good’ performer and using the extra time during the work day to freelance on my own projects. Of course, this raises a host of ethical concerns on its own, and again, I refrained from proceeding with such an endeavor, but such circumventing and manipulating of the system should not be rewarded. Your company should reward you with pay amounts commensurate to your output, and at least in my profession, that wasn’t happening. Routinely hearing upper management crow about strong financial positioning, even during the Great Recession, certainly did not ameliorate the situation in my mind.
Flexibility for me, but not for thee
My company to its credit flirted with alternative working arrangements, but in the end implemented them as inconsistent half-measures. I got to enjoy a 4/10 shift for a year when it was introduced — a benefit I was told to give up while the program was swept under the rug.
The homeshoring question was something else entirely. The rules for who could work from home, those who were able to do it partially, and those were not allowed at all were arcane, and worse yet, unpublished. You had no idea if you were in a position where you would be ‘someday’ allowed to move home, even while there were several people on your team that were afforded the privilege. The question I often had to answer when broaching the subject was “How does this benefit the company?” which felt right out of Office Space. The question being asked revealed the underpinning thought that it was an indulgence that was to be carefully meted out rather than a single aspect of a holistic, mutually beneficial arrangement between employee and employer.
In the end, the criteria were not related to tenure, performance, communications, or job skills, but rather being able to pull the right levers with the right people. If it was deemed that “too many” people had a certain perk, you just weren’t allowed to partake. And even if someone with one of those perks moved on, that was no guarantee it would be offered to someone else. In my experience, it rarely was, and the company soon chose to pull back entirely on all flexible working arrangements. Many that had those arrangements had been grandfathered in, leading to the haves versus the have nots.
Now that Agile has become the newest corporate metagame, especially in the software development field, other companies are ending their flexible working practices, such as Wells Fargo and IBM. As accessibility and opportunities for remote work increase, it’s becoming clear that some of the biggest players in the industry have no intention in playing along, either.
Jobs cost money to maintain
One of the final pushes towards leaving came from merely living with another freelancer. I was stunned at how low her monthly expenses were compared to mine. Although she had a car, it was largely an afterthought that she rarely drove and an expense she chose to fit into her budget, rather than something that was completely necessary for her way of life. The extra time in her day afforded her flexibility to do more cooking, and as such she had become quite good at it. Furthermore, a significant chunk of her bills was written off through home office deductions, whereas I had to pay for gas, car insurance, on-site food, and time spent commuting (and nothing taught me the value of the phrase ‘time is money’ more than doing my own work.) It is true that my paychecks were larger, but that was more a function of a large age and industry difference than a statement about her skill or potential. Had she chosen to, she likely could have out-earned me while simultaneously having lower bills; yeah, she’d have to work more hours to catch up, but she didn’t have a 70-minute commute, either. She was completely dedicated to her craft, and mine felt stale and outdated by comparison.
I’ve had a full quarter now to evaluate my life choice of leaving my job. The exit, of course, was amicable, with a stellar performance track record and a good relationship with both my managers as well as my coworkers. I gave plenty of notice and got my replacement up to speed as a show of goodwill.
Do I make more money? No, but the cost of living and tax base shrinking compensate well enough. My hourly rate hasn’t changed all that much, but rather filling a full work week has become the new challenge. That has most certainly been trending positively over the months, though, so I am wholly optimistic.
Do I enjoy my work more? Most certainly. I’ve gotten rave reviews from my writing, editing, and transcription services. (If you’re interested, contact me on Upwork and we’ll work something out.) I’ve been taking programming classes again on the side to hopefully add that to my repertoire.
Has my work satisfaction increased? Immensely. I take a far greater degree of pride in my work now — not that I didn’t before, but for the reasons above I rarely felt like giving more than I needed.
Can I more fully live life on my own terms? Beyond a shadow of a doubt.