Working 9 to 5. It offers stability, and the predictability can sound pretty appealing to people working jobs with irregular shifts. But the reality for many is that 9 to 5 really means 8 to 6, possibly with an unpaid lunch hour in the middle. It means you’re always at work or traveling to work. And importantly for both employees and employers, it has a way of squashing and shrinking and shriveling your passion for what you do.
I spent the first half of my twenties working 9 to 5 jobs with just a little freelancing on the side. When I was 26 I jumped in at the deep end and went full-time freelance—and although there are some really hard things about it, I won’t go back. Traditional employment simply isn’t sustainable for me. I’ll tell you more about that a bit later (it involves electrical malfunctions and a baby).
A growing number of young people are not striving to secure themselves a steady 9 to 5 job. A recent study by MetLife found that 57% of employed workers overall are interested in going freelance, while 77% of millennials are more drawn to freelancing than salaried employment.
The 2019 Freelancing in America (FIA) study, conducted by Edelman Intelligence (an independent research firm) and commissioned by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, found that more people than ever think of freelancing as a long term career path. This is, in part, because a growing number of professionals at the peak of their industry are choosing to work for themselves—so there are role models to look up to. Successful, knowledgeable and respected people killing it in their careers without the backing of a company or salary.
But why are so many of us moving away from the 9 to 5? What is it about conventional employment that isn’t working? And is freelancing the future — or could our old bosses win us back?
A brief history of working 9 to 5
The introduction of the eight-hour workday was at least partly an attempt to strike a work/life balance for everyone. But it was a damage control effort rather than a well thought out way to make working…well, work.
When the Industrial Revolution catalyzed huge changes in manufacturing processes in the US and Europe, starting in the late 1700s, produce became more important than people. Factory workers were made to work up to 18 hours a day, often in terrible conditions, and campaigners fought against this exploitation of human labor.
A British socialist named Robert Owen argued that the best way to maintain productivity while protecting workers’ wellbeing would be to split the day into three: eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. It took years of fighting and a host of other campaigners, including Tom Mann and his “Eight Hour League”, to implement the eight-hour workday. But finally, in 1937 it was standardized by the US government, and regulated under the Fair Labor Standards Act which still stands today.
It became the norm to work eight hours a day, to a total of 40 hours per week. And until recently, standards hadn’t really moved on in terms of what was seen as an acceptable and respectable number of hours to work each week.
But we have to move on because we have moved on. We know, now, that the number of hours worked doesn’t tell us how much energy or effort was used during those hours. We know that the majority of human beings can’t really focus on one task for more than 50 minutes without regular breaks or diversions.
Productivity is, perhaps, the key to making more companies consider a new approach to work. A growing body of evidence shows that an eight-hour workday doesn’t support optimum output; with studies highlighting that anything from a four-day workweek to a six-hour workday could increase productivity, company health, and employee wellbeing.
It doesn’t end at 5
A few years ago you might have walked out of the office at 5 pm and not communicated with a colleague or client until you got back to the office the next day. Not so anymore. With smartphones and tablets and watches that vibrate when we get an email, employees are increasingly expected to work after work.
A survey by CareerBuilder found that 45% of workers say they complete company work outside the office, and many professionals answer emails outside of business hours. Employees don’t charge overtime for this—they just feel like they have to do it.
Zoe, an employee of a major London-based IT firm, told me “if I don’t respond to stuff after I’ve left the office it’ll look like I’m not as dedicated as everyone else on the team. It’s an unspoken thing, but everyone feels the pressure.”
Zoe’s experience is reflected in research by Bupa, which revealed that 75% of employees felt pressure to read and respond to work emails outside of their contracted hours. A third said they still check their emails even when they’re on sick leave.
All of this I can relate to myself and the most frustrating thing is that it’s really hard to call your employer out on it because they’re (usually) not explicitly asking you to work more than they’re paying you to. The pressure comes from a broader culture of work; and within that, the knowledge that you’ll be passed over for promotions, or just not liked very much by your team if you don’t pick up that call or send that email at 10 pm.
Answering a few emails on your own time might not sound like much—and in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t, for most of us. But never having any true downtime from work can have a serious impact on your personal life, your relationships, and your mental health. A study published in the journal Industrial Health showed that psychological detachment from work is related to better mental health. In contrast, people who don’t get to switch off from work regularly are more likely to experience fatigue, chronic stress, low mood, and burnout.
Why is freelancing becoming more popular?
With the Internet, infinite project-based job sites, and tech that lets us do things like track time on our laptops and receive payments from anywhere in the world, it’s not surprising that more and more people are giving freelancing a go.
The 2019 FIA study found that freelance income in the US now amounts to nearly $1 trillion. That’s more than the construction and transportation industries right now. The average hourly rate for a freelancer providing a skilled service is $28, which is higher than 70% of workers in the US overall. And most freelancers are skilled professionals, with 45% working in IT, marketing, programming, and business consulting.
A Self Employment report by accounting service FreshBooks suggests that 27 million people could be ready to leave their companies and join the freelance market. One of the main reasons is control: people want to be able to direct their daily lives and their own career paths and make changes that work for them.
Basically, going freelance is a solution to some of the most important problems with 9 to 5 employment at the moment. Rigid employment structures hold us back, as do limited opportunities to progress and gain more decision-making power. On a day-to-day level, we’re aware that fixed working hours aren’t getting the best out of us; we get bored, get involved in workplace conflicts that don’t really interest us, and spend hours dreaming of actually doing the job we want to do.
Freelancers, on the whole, spend much more time actually doing their job. We rely on clients to pay us and have to build our schedules around those clients (and spend lots of time finding new clients). But if we’re more productive in the evening than in the morning, that’s fine—we can work in the evening. We don’t have to sit staring listlessly at the computer screen for hours on end when we have to look like we’re doing something but we know we’re not going to get anything done. We don’t have to sit in meetings every day talking about nothing-really-at-all; and if a relationship with a client isn’t working, we can end it without losing our jobs.
We can also fit working hours around the other things that matter to us — like family, friends, and things we like doing that don’t earn us any money (yes; you’re allowed to do things that aren’t strictly “productive” in your free time, honest!).
46% of the freelancers surveyed in the FIA study say that freelancing gives them the flexibility they really need, because their personal circumstances make it difficult, or impossible, for them to work for a traditional employer. This is definitely true for me. Which leads us to…
The daily grind and I: my personal history with 9 to 5
Of all the reasons why working 9 to 5 didn’t work for me, the biggest one was my health—the electrical malfunctions. I have epilepsy.
Specifically, I have “complex partial seizures”—different people experience this kind of seizure in different ways, but for me, it’s a bit like time travel. I feel a bit weird, the world goes a little wonky, and then suddenly some time has passed and I’m sitting or lying in a strange position on the floor. For anyone who happens to be near me, it looks equally odd; my right arm shakes, my eyes blink very fast, and sometimes I say weird things or act as though the ground is opening up to eat me.
I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 19. I was at university at the time and holding down a job alongside my studies, with some difficulty. Seizures became more frequent and things got more complicated. Medication has, so far, never completely stopped my seizures, so it’s very hard for me to be reliable every day. Sometimes a seizure is 30 seconds long and barely affects me at all—I snap right out of it and feel fine. But sometimes seizures last a few minutes, or I’ll have up to five in one day. When that happens I’m exhausted, irritable, confused, and want to sit on my own in the dark and cry until all the feels start to lift.
Most of the employers I’ve had have done their best to accommodate me, and a couple of them have been completely amazing. But even with the most understanding bosses, it was really hard to be open about how often I felt like shit. I didn’t want to be the person who was always off sick and couldn’t keep up with her workload. So I had a tendency to push through until I couldn’t keep pushing anymore.
The reality for me was that my health condition didn’t fit into the eight hour day standard. I needed to be able to sit in a dark room; needed to be able to get up and leave my desk for a few hours to give my brain a break. And for my mental health, I needed to not have seizures in front of my colleagues on a regular basis.
It’s not that I can’t manage a big workload. To my own surprise, I do more actual work as a freelance writer than I ever did working in an office. If I work for five hours in a day, I’m genuinely working for all of those five hours. I produce more work and don’t stare absently into space. The difference is that I can choose when those five hours are, and if I need to I can split them up into shorter blocks.
But I didn’t take the leap and go full-time freelance until after I had a baby. She was the final push (pun intended) because my partner and I wanted to find a way of working and being present with her. It wasn’t until I was doing it that I realized my brain would’ve been better if I’d been working like this all along.
Freelancing isn’t easy, though
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a freelance evangelist.
The 9 to 5 may not end at 5, but freelance life has no beginning and no end. Especially in the early days of working for yourself, there is a constant underlying hum of anxiety—you might not get enough clients, or good clients might leave, or you might lose your hands in a kitchen accident and not be able to type anymore (I know—voice dictation, it’ll be OK).
Stability builds little by little as the years go by and your reputation grows. But there’s no certainty that you’ll earn enough money to cover the bills next month. There’s no sick pay, and freelancers don’t have the same rights and entitlements as employed people.
For every benefit, there is a drawback. On balance, it works better for my needs, circumstances, and my personality. The challenges are all worth it for me. But being freelance might not work better than being employed for someone with different needs, different circumstances, or a different personality.
Could companies win us back?
Probably. I reckon lots of freelancers would rather have the security of a salaried job if they could work for a company that was able to give them the flexibility and fulfillment they need.
A growing number of businesses are taking note, and competing with the appeal of freelance life by offering other alternatives to working 9 to 5. Many companies are embracing the freedom and productivity gains that come with remote working or working from home — with 68% of companies in a survey by letting employees work from home when they need to.
Gradually, traditional employers are opening up to the possibility that the eight hour day might not be the only way. It comes down to the simple fact that we’re not all the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach to work doesn’t include everyone. We have different backgrounds; different physical needs; different mental health needs; family lives, commitments, aspirations, learning styles — and on and on. We don’t all fit into the same system in the same way; and as other options are more readily available than ever before (thank you Internet), a growing number of us are able to make different choices.
Whatever happens, nine to five is not the future. The more we learn about how humans work, the clearer this becomes.