Hats off to the slackers! The false virtue of hard work‏

My dad worked damn hard his whole working life. He had to, to raise us as a family. He often had three jobs at a time to make ends meet and worked 7 days a week for months on end. As far back as I can remember he’d say things like “there’s no work in him” when talking about a colleague who was taking it easy on the job. And “I’ve never had a day off ill in my life” was his most-heralded badge of honour.

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It rubbed off on all of us – his values, his attitude to work and money, his fear of being laid off and penniless with no safety net in the bank with which to keep the family fed and watered.

I’ve always been very committed to the employers I’ve worked for, largely through that same fear of not having a future paycheque come through the proverbial door, to the point of exhaustion and near-breakdown on two occasions. My sister too. She’s worked tirelessly in a range of jobs, sacrificing her health many a time for the success of the company she worked for, and she continues to do so.

Time after time

In my current job, I see the same proud drive in some of my colleagues. They make a point of emailing late at night and early in the morning, showing they’re forever plugged into the corporate machine. They’ll say with fake indignation (and intended pride) they had to work all weekend on a report for the board or a new budget forecast for the MD.

It’s a false prophecy. The fake angel at play. I know most of the time there’s no need for them to work such hours, let alone do so without saying any of this to their boss, the one person who should be aware.

Then there are others who appear to be on easy-street. They roll up half an hour late, always leave on time, take a full hour for lunch, never work at home late into the night and have the carefree demeanour of a holidaygoer strolling along a deserted Caribbean beach.

I used to secretly sneer at these people. “No work in them” I’d say to my wife, echoing my dad’s often-used put-down from decades earlier. “Lazy sod. He can’t take the pace.”

Hats off

Not anymore. I admire these people. I’m fascinated to see how they’ve managed to cruise through on roughly the same career and salary trajectory, never getting stressed to the point of sickness or being cajoled into taking on more project work in a week than there are waking hours. They’re the smart ones!

And me? And my family?! What on earth have we been doing? We’ve been killing ourselves in the name of corporate gain. And for what? You don’t get more money at the end of it. In fact you get less. You end up reducing your hourly pay because your hours go up, for the same monetary reward. You end up saying “no” to nights out with friends and weekends away with your partner or family because you need to burn the midnight oil on a high-profile business pitch. You might get a nod of appreciation. But so what? Where’s the real value in a quick smile of thanks? Bugger that.

With my plans for financial independence now well and truly up and running, I’ve looked back and seen this work behaviour from a different perspective. I’ve been questioning this so-called ‘work ethic’ and the benefits it really delivers. And the answer is quite simply “none”.

 

 

Working while you’re working towards financial freedom

A few months ago, it dawned on me. I could actually retire early and live a financially free life, one that satisfied the soul. And not just in 10 years when I’ll be 52 but in like 4 years, maybe even 2 years at a push!

My immediate excitement was further fuelled by feverishly reading the famous US bloggers on this topic – Mr Money Mustache, Brave New Life and the many others who have already achieved this aim.

But after an initial two-week burst of light-headed glee, I quickly found working life much, much tougher day to day. I’d found the path to a better more fulfilled-existence and, with that realisation, it simply made my current routine feel all the more depressingly mundane and pointless. I wanted out. I wanted to rush headlong through the next few years and get to my goal. What was I to do in the mean time? What was going to inspire me, motivate me day to day, when I’d essentially damned my day-to-day living.

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Alarm call

Getting up for work was harder than ever. Sitting through boring, rambling meetings now made me plain angry. I was actually getting more stressed and upset than ever before. Dealing with work when marching towards financial freedom has become a real challenge for me.

I’ve had to jolt myself into reality that life is good, life is beautiful and it’s plain wrong and selfish to wish your life away like that. Having feelings of lethargy and sadness when you have everything you need in the world – and have just seen the light towards an even better future – is just stupid. I had a strong word with myself. “Buck up, pal!”

Happy while you work

I’ve been reading up on what other financially independent retirees (FI-ers) went through. But in truth, I couldn’t find anything on the usual blogs and forums that reflected my mood. Everyone else seemed very happy and calm in going through this transition.

For one, many FI-ers seem to actually really like work. I was surprised. I mean, I get that to a point. I enjoy working too, at times, but I always want it on my terms. I’m terrible for having a short-term buzz and no long-term vision. When I start a new job I’m enormously excited and passionate for the first 12 months but the enthusiasm wanes quickly as I seek out more variety.

I recently read about The Gervais Principle, which is a rather dour but engaging outlook on working life and how we fit into one (or more) of three roles – Sociopath, Clueless and Loser. It’s well worth a read.

These labels are not quite as they seem in The Gervais Principle.

The Sociopath is someone at the top of the tree, a successful senior manager who has no qualms in hiring and firing people, making cut-throat decisions and has little awareness of the emotive issues in a business. The Clueless is in the middle, blindly following the ambitions and demands of the business that the Sociopaths dictate and working their hands to the bone in pursuit of a decent wage. The Losers are those who haven’t been dealt such a good hand financially at work; they are missing out on the financial rewards but have less relentless pressure from above, arguably.

I’ve been Clueless all my working life. Now I want to be a Loser. And I’m not ashamed to say it!

I’m a Loser, baby

I’ve started to edge into that Loser space. Taking on less, leaving work on time, looking at the bare minimum I need to get done each day, week and month. I’ve been cutting out activities that I think won’t eventually evolve into anything of significance. And I’ve been standing back, letting everyone else enthusiastically join in on email conversations or debates in meetings, only getting involved when directly asked to. The work that’s left feels so much more valuable and I can devote a realistic amount of time to doing a great job on the important stuff. It’s refreshing.

The Norwegians and their 6-hour working day really are on to something.

Breaking even

It’s all about balance. As usual.

I’m a stickler for bullet points and mantras that can help summarise my thoughts and focus my mind, so here are my top 5 on, what I’ll call, ‘How to enjoy work while you plan your escape from it’:

  1. You’re actually already free. So feel free. 

    Realise you don’t NEED this. You’ve figured it out. You have seen the light and carved out a beautiful path to financial freedom and a wonderful new life. You no longer face decades ahead of slaving and worrying over your status in the workplace. If you were to lose your job now, it might set you back a bit but you would be ok. You would find another job in time to see you over the finish line. Hell, you might even start your early retirement even earlier than planned, knowing you’ve got some dosh tucked away and you’ll figure out a way to earn the extra needed to plug any gap in time (if there indeed is one – you might have over-estimated your requirements).Don’t get bullied into running additional projects or go chomping after the new boss to ‘fit in’ and secure your place at the table. You’re better than that. Fuck the hierarchy. Don’t for goodness sake take it home with you, whether it’s physically so on your laptop or mentally – no more work dreams please!

  2. Use this time to learn. 

    See what you can do in the workplace that will develop your skills for later in life, when you leave the traditional office environment. If you can’t find anything within the remit of your job, then use your carefully crafted ‘downtime’ to read up on exciting new projects, learn new skills, or get your colleague to show you some software that might come in handy further down the line.

  3. Make new friends, see people for what they really are, and be kind – help others. 

    You’ve started to see the escape route and you no longer need to fight your corporate corner. You can now help those around you who haven’t yet had the fortune to plot their path to financial freedom. Pay extra care to those who are suffering under the weight of a heavy workload, anyone who gets pushed into doing the mountain of menial tasks that get little credit, and colleagues who are finding it difficult to get a balanced life outside of work.

  4. Cherry-pick – do the tasks that make you happy. 

    This is your time. So what if you’re not held up as the golden boy or girl of the department. You don’t need to kiss arse or you’re your way to the top. They’re not going to get rid of you. And if they do, that’s cool – you’ll find something else soon enough and have some savings to fall back on while you’re looking. So look for the fun bits of work, those jobs that give you the greatest emotional reward. And take your time getting through them.

  5. Be brave, be bold, change the landscape. 

    You are different. You are no longer on the treadmill to 65-year-old retirement. Your path is shorter and sweeter than that. Embrace your innovation, your spirit, your daring and project it in the workplace. Have no fear at asking the questions no one else will ask. Make wild suggestions that rock the foundations of your company’s safe, mundane, routine processes. You might just find the more leftfield your thinking, the better the ideas – and the more excited those around you become.

Good luck, peeps.

The importance of NOT looking at screens

My typical working day has gone off the rails a bit lately. I’m all too aware I’ve become addictively hooked in to the internet. There’s barely a minute of the waking day that I’m not in front of a screen. My employer isn’t complaining, but it’s not good for the soul.

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Of my waking life, I calculate that most days I spend 13-14 hours in front of a screen. That’s in the region of 80-90%!

Generally, I’ll wake up 7.20 to the sound of my phone alarm. Pick up phone, turn off alarm, stretch, yawn (groan if it’s in the dark months of winter) and check emails for 15 minutes, soak up the overnight news headlines and scan US sports results. Then it’s up, showered and dressed.

As I make a tea for me and the missus I’ll check the weather for the day on my laptop, scroll through a few Facebook updates, make sure my downloads are running ok, then switch on the TV to BBC1’s Breakfast show. 10 more minutes glued to the TV screen and I’m off out the door, walking to the train station, checking more emails on my phone as I go.

On the train, the laptop comes out. I’ll generally spend the hour-long journey in to London bashing out some words for an article, a presentation or a robust email response to an over-heating work debate.

As soon as I arrive at the office I plug the laptop in and make a tea. I’m generally wired up to my laptop with headphones on for the next nine hours, bar the occasional toilet break and 30 minutes to grab some lunch, which is frequently in the canteen where I’ll unknowingly be magnetised to Sky News churning away on the TV in the corner.

On my way back home I check emails constantly on my phone to make sure there are no loose ends that need urgently clearing up and nothing new that’s come in from one of the senior managers that demands working on overnight.

Assuming that’s not the case, I’ll arrive home around 7pm and afford myself a luxurious 30-45 minutes away from any screen or communications device, other than the oldest one of all – simply talking. Shock, horror! I’ll discuss the day’s events with Mrs Money Giraffe as we muck about in the kitchen with the cats, open a bottle of wine and cook some food.

By 8pm we’re sitting down to eat – in front of the TV. We’ll watch an hour or two as we chomp and drink then for me it’s normally back on to the laptop to browse news, read some alt geek ideas on a random blog or place some sports bets.

We retire around midnight with laptop by my side. More of the same – web browsing, write a few more hundred words or so for work, catch up with friends via online chat. Then it’s a final check of emails on the phone before I set the alarm, turn the lights out and away we go to dreamland, all set to start another turn on the wheel of screen-addiction.

As I said, most days I spend 13-14 hours in front of a screen – in the region of 80-90% of my waking life. But why is this so bad? After all, I actually like many of these activities. I love reading blogs and staying in touch with the world, writing and learning. I could do with less time devoted to work duties, but that aside, I rely on screens for many of the things I genuinely enjoy. But still, I know it’s bad. I know it’s bad because it cuts me off from other ways of living, breathing, experiencing. I know this all too well.

The more time you spend with a screen, the less time you spend with people. It prevents you from relishing other wonderful facets of life that I know are there to be tasted every day – simple things like running up hills, listening to birds and trains, drunk-hugging a friend, lying in the garden or jumping around to a live band.

So as I (inevitably) sit and type the remainder of this article on the train on my way home I will resolve to NOT look at another screen tonight. And reduce my ridiculous screen consumption down to 60% a day on work days and 20% on weekends. There is a wonderful life beyond the screen. I need to go find it again.

Thinking about work and money and everything but

It occurred to me that I have been in some jobs that required 30 or so hours of effort per week, tops. Others have been a more routine 40 with the occasional late night finish bumping it up to 45-50. And some have been pretty much 24/7, all because my brain could never quite escape the to-do lists, the reports that needed doing, the team member who needed motivating, the budgets that needed slashing, and so on. It doesn’t matter if you’re not physically there, in the office, if your mind is on the job, so are you.

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All of a sudden that £50,000 salary doesn’t seem so generous. Sure, on a 40 hour week it works out around £25 per hour. Factor in holidays and it rises to £27. And if you’re lucky enough to be on easy street and clocking in no more than 30 hours a week – and all praise to you for that! – then it works out a tidy £32 per hour.

But if you are all consumed by work, rarely managing to free your brain from it’s gnawing clutches and even dreaming about work then your taking in a paltry £12 per hour.

Cash drain

I also spend a lot of time thinking about money. When we think about money, it’s often in a negative way: the gas bill is going to be huge this month, I shouldn’t have spent so much going out last weekend, I’ve got three birthdays and a wedding coming up, should I look for another job where I can earn more money? All very anxiety-driven stuff.

So I’ve started an experiment where I attempt to reverse my psychological approach to all things wok and money. I try to look more to the future and the things I want to achieve in life and how I could save enough to get there. Now when my mind wanders and lands on the topic of money, I don’t swish it away towards another train of thought, I embrace it. But I push it down the track of life, towards a bright, optimistic financial future. It gets me thinking about some wonderful opportunities, like moving to the coast or the hills, running a little local business, relaxing in the sun, or doodling in a nice little restaurant over a long coffee. Our thoughts define us. They shape our identity. It’s important to control them, else they will control us.

So far so good. The experiment is working well. I see a vast array of opportunities ahead.

Mission impossible: How to be happy in work – always and forever, until you die

In the UK, the average person spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. In the US, 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs and couples in which one partner spends 10 or more hours above the average at work divorce at twice the normal rate. And in Japan, 10,000 workers a year drop dead at their desks as a result of 60- to 70-hour working weeks inflicted upon them. The phenomenon is known as ‘karoshi’.

There’s no doubt that finding peace with your career and a way to embrace the daily grind is the key to life itself.

At the age of 42 I’m currently pretty happy in my working life. I have a decent job in a good, young financial services start-up. It’s fun and engaging but not overly stressful or pressured. But it hasn’t always been like that. Far from it. There have been times when I was barely sleeping with worry and stress, forgetting to eat for days on end and snapping at anyone who dared cross my path. I’ve had the unenviable ‘pleasure’, like many London workers in this day and age, of going through a couple of redundancies. And to steer myself from such times in the future, or at least minimise the potential damage and upset, is pretty high up my priority list.

Having a plan is essential. So I’ve been thinking of dream jobs for my semi-retirement years, or businesses I’d like to run, and have drawn up a list of 12.

  1. Sandwich shop owner
  2. Cheese-maker
  3. Cattery owner
  4. Driver
  5. Publican
  6. Postman
  7. Painter (decorative, not artistic)
  8. Furniture retailer
  9. Running shop owner
  10. Publican
  11. Marketing consultant
  12. T-shirt printer

There are different stages of life and you need a new way to synchronise your mojo to each one. We rattle or stroll through life at our own individual pace, so the following age ranges are representative only…

In your 20s

Don’t stress. Earn enough to get by and work hard at a wide range of things. You’re gaining experience, not defining your career. You might not earn loads but that’s ok. That’s actually as good thing. Don’t make job choices based primarily on salary, as tempting as it might be. Enjoy living on the edge and being wilful.

Try (nearly) everything. Be confident. Tell your boss in a charming way of your many wonderful ideas. Work for free. Blog about it. Increase your network. You’ll never be this liberated with work ever again. So embrace it.

In your 30s

You know some stuff. Or at least you think you do. It’s time to make a beeline for a job or company that needs your youthful spirit yet insightful and innovative insight. Demand big bucks for your expertise. Don’t be afraid of the big dogs. Many of them will be scared of your verve and secretly dying on their arse. They can’t match you for diligence, speed, honesty, fresh-thinking, agility, passion or inspiration.

Start to make provisions for your financial future. You’ll need it. Don’t be so cocky to think you won’t. Save hard, invest smart.

In your 40s

Ok, by now you’ve really learned a thing or two. Probably dodged a few curve-balls along the way but had some hard knocks too. Maybe gone through a couple of redundancy situations. No doubt had a bastard of a boss. It’s time to use all of this to your advantage. Hang back a bit. Play the game, play the field. Exude experience yet freshness.

Remind your employer you still go to the gym three times a week and skip over any mention of family duties in case it’s perceived as diminishing your ability to put in the extra hours out of office. Plan a long-term game. You’re not jumping in and out of jobs any more. Your earning potential will never be this good again. The same goes for your saving potential. Smarm up to start-ups. They need your talent.

In you’re 50s

Plan your exit strategy from the cut-and-thrust of regular working life and while doing so take every penny you can. Lay the foundations for consultancy work. Pile high your ISAs and pensions. Take a bit of extra time out for strategy meetings and turn your one-year strategy plans into five-year plans – and make sure you have to be around to deliver them!

Plot an avenue to a lucrative golden-shake. And draw up your own list of 12 semi-retirement dream jobs. You’re not going to quit working at 55. Or are you?

And beyond

The world is your oyster. Your career path has laid a playground of opportunity. You have a gold-plated CV, bundles of amazing contacts and the finances to carve out a wonderful working end to your life. If you still need to earn, marry your passions with making money. Do it on your terms. Die happy.

“A latte a day!?” – Does every little REALLY help on minimum wage?

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I recently overheard a conversation in a grumpy Tesco checkout queue in south London. It was on a bitterly cold mid-winter evening and it ran a little something like this…

“I’m done, mate. We’re going to have to leave London. We just can’t afford to stay here any more.”
“But you’re working loads of hours. I don’t get it. I know minimum wage ain’t great but it must be enough on two jobs?”
It’s not.”
“But isn’t it going up? The minimum wage, I mean?”
“Well, yeah. I hear it’s going up 3%. So what? What does that equate to, really? Like, 20p an hour, something like that.”
“It’s better than nothing.”
“It’s pathetic, that’s what it is. £1.60 a day on an 8-hour shift. A bag of chips on my way home. Or a fucking latte. If I was a wanker.”
“Fair enough.”

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Pounds and pence

£1.60 a day may seem negligible, and when you view it as 20p per hour it appears even more modest, but a 3% increase on a low income – where you could reasonably argue every penny matters a lot more than as it does to those on £50k plus salaries – could actually make a huge difference to your overall spending capacity.

Such a rise could indeed get you a bag of chips or a latte from your provincial Costa-Bucks-latest-fairtrade-bean-magnate. But over a year that £1.60 amounts to around £400. With that, you could have a decent overseas holiday that you’d have otherwise been unable to afford. Or you could get a premium sky sports package for the year. Or a fancy new fridge / freezer. Or trade-in your car for a better model. You just need to ditch the bag of chips and the take-out coffee.

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The fake average

The average annual wage in the UK is around £26,500. There are of course some seriously big salaries that pull this average up and skew what’s really happening. The big dogs at the FTSE 100 companies average £4.3m a year for example. And there are plenty of regional differences to note too – London salaries are, as you’d expect, significantly higher than the rest of the country.

A nominal figure tells only half the story, too. I remember when I moved jobs – with the same company – from their regional office in Yorskhire to their HQ in London. My salary went up enormously, from £8,000 to £13,000. I was much better off in Yorkshire on the £8k!

Yorkshire Dales, Swaledale - The village of Gunnerside

I could afford to own a car there and had enough for a couple of pub outings a week, the odd takeaway and some decent clothes. On £13k in London I was hanging on like a thread for payday every month and a night out was an obscene luxury because all my money went on rent and travel.

Reality bites

The reality is that four in five new jobs are in sectors averaging under £16,640 for a 40-hour week. Working full-time on the £6.31 hourly minimum wage would gross just £13,124 in a year. And an explosion of part-time jobs shows that millions of workers can’t even earn that. So let’s not for one minute think that the majority of UK workers are on that £26k salary – that’s a complete nonsense.

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Wages set to go up in 2015

There has been a lot of evidence to suggest we’re going to see some healthy rises in salaries this year. The economic recovery is in full swing and major companies in the US and the UK are by and large starting to thrive. We are very likely to see real earnings increase above inflation for the first time since 2007 and some forecasts are picking a spurt of 4% in 2018.

But again, where does this money flow? It’s not going to be a fair and democratic river of cash, I assure you. You can be pretty sure that these big companies will be rewarding from the top down and handing out chunky bonuses to the senior managers who haven’t had one for a good few years. I’d be amazed if they started at the ground-up.

Meanwhile, small to medium sized businsses, where a lot of minimum wage workers are employed, are a completely different kettle of fish. They’re not going to be in a position to ramp up their staff pay any time soon. It could be years until they play catch up.

One-armed bandit

Stagnant salaries since the 2008 crash have had a huge impact on UK families and the minimum wage is one potentially very big lever that the government can pull to help them out. They need to do exactly that, right now. Pull it!

This begs the question: Is the minimum wage, as a concept, the right way to go? Is it working? Can it work? What are the alternatives? After all, plenty of small, independent firms are flouting the minimum wage rules already. They need to be dealt with, swifty and with full force.

I have been close to the protests in Brixton over the last 12 months surrounding the calls for a living wage at the south London cinema chain. It’s caused a lot of publicity and gained some high profile celebrity supporters but the issue still remains. There simply needs to be more clarity and enforcement of the rules upon these businesses.

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Take that!

A 3% rise is a very good proportionate increase. I think anyone on minimum wage should be pleased they’re getting it. But I still think the minimum wage is way too low and, aside from an annual increase linked to economic indicators, there needs to be a fundamental review of the tiers and the rules.

Whether you’re on minimum wage or not, and whoever your employer, my mantra on pay remains the same: Take what you’re given, but never settle for it. Ask for a rise and when you get one ask why you didn’t get more. Then ask what you need to do to get more and go and do it. Then go back to step 1 and repeat ad finitum.

Skewing the average: Some of the big-hitters

  • David Cameron £142,500
  • Tony Hall (BBC boss) £450,000
  • Mike Rees (Standard Chartered bank boss) £8,986,000
  • Wayne Rooney £15,600,000
  • Angela Ahrendts (Burberry boss) £16,900,000
  • Adele £27,540,000
  • The Queen £36,100,000
  • One Direction £59,330,000
  • Michael Jackson (deceased) £108,108,000
  • Crispin Odey (hedge fund speculator) £14,200,000
  • Carolyn McCall (easyJet boss) £6,430,000