The 9-to-5 job: Challenging how we earn a living

(This is Part III in a series about challenging traditional measures of financial success. Part I was The “Ivory Tower”: Reconsidering the college investment. Part II was Challenging traditional measures of financial success: Homeownership.)

It was the first semester of my first year of college. My friend and I were driving around our small town, looking for something to eat. But we didn’t have much money, so our options were limited. Chili’s sounded good, but neither of us could really afford it.

“It’s weird to think one day we won’t have to worry about this,” my friend said. “In a few years, we’ll graduate, and we’ll have jobs that pay us like, $30,000 a year and we can go to Chili’s whenever we want.”

This was 2001, so it wasn’t just a crazy dream.

I imagined working 9 to 5, in an office, where I had a desk and salary with benefits, and at the end of the day, I went home and did whatever the hell I wanted with my life. At 19, that seemed almost too good to be true. I was really attached to the idea that, someday, I would earn tens of thousands of dollars a year and be able to more or less spend money the way I wanted.

My point is that was the idea back then: Go to college and get a steady, 9-to-5 job.

Years later, I’m starting to question this paradigm — and I’m not alone. We already talked about the way college is changing, but the workforce has been changing a lot too.

Questioning the Stats

We read that jobs are being created and unemployment rates are decreasing. For example, the Labor Department recently released data showing that 209,000 jobs have been created in the past six months. But while the unemployment rate has increased slightly from 6.1 percent to 6.2 percent, overall, it’s been on a steady decline.

The GDP has been significantly and steadily growing since the recession, but unemployment remains a lingering problem. You’ve probably heard the argument before — Huffington Post contributor Mark Gongloff explains it well:

“Technically speaking, unemployment is the percentage of people in the ‘labor force’ who don’t have a job. To be counted in the labor force, you have to be looking for a job. One reason unemployment has fallen so quickly in recent years, from a peak of 10 percent back in 2009, is that a lot of people stopped looking for work. They took themselves out of the labor force. Once they stopped looking for work, they stopped being counted as ‘unemployed.’ Voila, the unemployment rate goes down.”

Gongloff argues that the small increase in unemployment is actually a good thing — it might indicate that more people are returning to the workforce but they’re just not immediately finding work. But the good news is, they are returning. Even if you argue that his assertion is questionable, it is still possible.

It will take time to truly see how employment has changed. But for now, it seems we’re a country in transition.

The Rise of Self-Employment

When I was laid off last year, I considered going back to a full-time, 9-to-5job. But after being a freelancer for so long, and especially after losing one big client, I liked the idea of having multiple baskets in which to put my eggs. That was my biggest concern — if I accepted a full-time job, could I still freelance? I wanted to make sure I had a backup plan.

This way of thinking, explains Forbes’ Kate Taylor, might be the norm for people my age. She writes:

“Millennials entered the job market in the wake of the recession … Millennials are conditioned to expect economic disruption, and have thus become risk adverse … job turn over and exploration of more flexible labor sources reveal Millennials’ fear of putting all their (career) eggs in one basket.”

Not only that, but I couldn’t even find a 9-to-5 job. Most jobs I interviewed for were part-time freelance gigs. And, sure, that probably comes with my industry — writing gigs are easier to get than writing jobs. But on the whole, freelance/self-employment seems to be increasingly popular lately.

A few years after the recession, the rate of self-employed workers significantly increased. According to Economic Modeling Specialists International, the number of self-employed workers increased from 1.3 million since 2001 to 10.6 million in 2012.

Yes, those numbers have since dropped. But experts say it might be less that people are returning to the traditional 9-to-5 job and more that they’re working part-time jobs and then supplementing income on the side. So they’re not exactly self-employed, but they’re not working full-time either. Maybe it’s not as easy as it seems to gauge the way people are changing how they work.

The “Grey Economy”

And then there’s the “grey economy,” the idea that unemployment rates are dropping because many people simply work under the table and off the books. Nik Theodore, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois, recently told the Los Angeles Times:

“This segment of the labor market is a barometer for the economy as a whole. As employment insecurity spreads across the economy, more and more workers are being forced to turn to the street, to odd jobs, to becoming on-call workers. The question is whether this is a cyclical change, a blip or a signal of something much more fundamental.”

Technology is another important factor to consider. We’ve been talking about this for years, technology replacing jobs. But it may become a more pressing concern in the near future. At a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Bill Gates said:

“Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

Between the economy, the post-recession mind-set and the role of technology, the traditional 9-to-5 model of earning a living is being challenged. In short, we’re adapting. But where will we go from here?

When I started writing this series of posts on challenging traditional models of financial well-being, it started off as one post. I just wanted to write about how we’re in transition — how college and homeownership and the workforce are changing.

But there was a lot of information and points of discussion in each of those areas — and so much of it is debatable. Unemployment is a complex issue; and while I feel like self-employment is the way of the future, not everyone agrees with this. Some think unemployment is on the mend and people will return to the paradigm.

What do you think: Will we return to the traditional model of earning income from one steady source or will we adapt to the point that full-time jobs are no longer the norm?

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