Interesting story behind this post – I saw a link to it on my dashboard and thought “Hey, that sounds like a great article – I’ll go read that” only to discover it was the “Drafts” section of my dashboard. I wrote this two and a half years ago, and every word of it still rings true to me. So here it is!
I’d like to poke a stick at a rather sacred (grass-fed, heirloom breed) cow for a minute: the assumption that anyone who’s interested in growing food, living a low-energy lifestyle, and/or being a “citizen” rather than a “consumer” also secretly wants to escape the misery of their office job that sap their creativity, kills their souls, and pays a pittance when you take into account all the work clothes, makeup, lunches out, and commuting fees. We start to consider our profession our primary identity, and come home from the job each day brain-dead, unable or unwilling to interact with our families, and we turn on the TV for escape. and we never know when our job might simply evaporate. But what we all really want, the myth goes, is to be our own bosses, to raise all our own food, and thus to be “free.”
Honestly, that myth is -shall we say – material for my compost pile.
I’ve worked for others, and I’ve worked for myself. I went back to work for others because when my husband went to grad school, we needed a more reliable source of income. And I’ve stayed working for others* for a number of very good reasons.
- Job security. Sure, my day job might be terminated with little notice – but honestly, I am pretty sure I’ll get paid for the rest of this fiscal year, at least. When I worked for myself, I had a mix of project work and retainer work. A couple of my long-term clients paid me a discounted hourly rate for a set number of hours a month – usually about 5 – and those contracts were generally good for 6 months or a year. Projects usually lasted 2-6 weeks and paid 1/3 up front, 1/3 halfway through, and 1/3 upon completion. Then they were gone, and I had to find other work. Let me tell you – a year of job security looks really damn good compared to two weeks.
- Pay for 40 hours a week, no matter what. I confess, I am occasionally bored in my office job. Usually happens when I’m waiting for someone to get back to me so I can do the next step of whatever it is I’m doing. But you know what? I’m paid for those hours that I spend waiting – I just find something else to do, even if it’s reading trade journals or experimenting with a new technology. When you work for yourself, you get paid for exactly the hours you work. If you’re bored, you’re also incredibly stressed, because it means you might not be able to pay our own salary this month. And I’m not likely to lose a year’s income to a late frost, a freak hailstorm, or a plague of locusts.
- I get paid well. Working for myself, I charged $60-75/hr. Project work often amounted to much more than that – one project effectively paid $385/hr, because they paid a lump sum and I was able to finish the work quickly and well. Working for others, I am paid about a third of my old hourly rate…but I take home a whole lot more money in a year because I get paid 40 hours every week. Plus health insurance and retirement benefits. I have lived on as little as $12/hr, and I can do it. Not a lot of fun money to throw around, but certainly livable. But making more is definitely nicer. “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it sure can buy comfort, and relief from the stress of “how am I going to pay the bills this month?” or “what if I get sick and have to pay for a doctor?”
- I get to leave it at the office. I was actually pretty good about not letting my self-employment take over every waking moment, and I’m very good about working hard during my 40 hours so I only have to work 40 hours a week. And, since I get to leave the office and come home to a different environment and different set of activities, it’s easy to have multiple facets to my identity. I’m an instructional designer, yes, but I’m also a gardener, teacher, spouse, friend, and homebody. I don’t know that I’d like having my day job and my avocation overlap entirely – because then what would I do in my “off” time? More of the same thing I do at work?
- I’m doing work I like. I really like my field, and I really like the work tasks I do day-to-day. Working for myself, project work was the fun work – that’s where I got to be creative, do problem-solving, and make shiny new toys for appreciative people. But it was highly irregular. My dependable income – retainer work – was godawful dull.
- Collegiality. It’s hard to express how much I appreciate having colleagues to bounce ideas off of, or to share a project with. My colleagues are experts, and when we each work on the part of a project that suits our expertise, the end product is much better than anything I could do on my own.
- There’s always a new project. When I finish a project, all I have to do is say to my boss, “I’m done – what’s next?” and before long, there’s a new project to work on. Sometimes the projects are not super-interesting to me, but most of the time they are. Boredom is miserable for me. If I don’t have useful work to do, I start creating useless problems to solve.
- This is my craft. Each new project spurs me to be creative and to create solutions that are elegant, useful, practical, and sustainable. I take as much pride in my work as any farmer, woodworker, potter, or other artisan.
These are the reasons I keep working my job. Yes, I need to keep a good-paying job to pay my mortgage – but if you know me, you know that my home is the center of my life and the basis of my health, sanity, and joy. A wonderful home is worth a lot of money to me – and not because it “looks good to the Joneses.” Yes, I identify with my career. What’s so bad about that? It doesn’t hamper my ability to have relationships with people outside of work. I don’t feel like I’m being taken advantage of in terms of salary or what’s asked of me at work. And to be frank: I enjoy the money. I like being able to afford this house. I like having a grocery budget of $350/mo instead of $100/mo. I like being able to say, “Hey, we really need a good heavy-duty mat inside the front door” and just buying it instead of having to save up for two or three months (during which time the floors are getting damaged and dirt is being tracked all over the house).
I know not everybody has this kind of relationship with their work. I know some people do hate their day job and resent that they have to kowtow to an awful boss for just enough money to scrape by. But I’m tired of this presumed divide between “fat cats,” “wage slaves,” and “independent homesteaders” with no room for people who work, like it, and haven’t “sold out.” That message – that of course you want to be your own boss and grow all your own food – is about as useful as the ones that say I have to be 22, blonde, and 38-22-34 to be happy.
So for the record: my day job and my big garden, root cellar, and garden work together quite nicely. And should a time come when they don’t, I’ll change something. But in the meantime, quit trying to tell me that I’m deluded because I think I like my job.
* I have a master’s degree in education and I work for a university helping implement curriculum changes and educational technologies