From a headhunter’s perspective, as someone who recruited multitudes of candidates from analyst level to Chief Executives, from one 9–5 job into their next, I have a pretty good sample size and inside peek into their psychology of why hoards of people choose to do this*.
*Passion aside. This article is simply stating why people choose the 9–5 construct. I’m not debating levels of passion because I’ve seen people who work with passion OR without, as an employee OR as an entrepreneur. Passion is not the problem (that would be off-topic).
Here are a few reasons why by order of frequency that these reasons arose:
#1. They have bills to pay. Recurring, non-stop, EXPENSIVE (relative to their lifestyle) bills coming in the front door every month, that they literally are bound by the feeding tube coming from a fixed corporate salary. Bills like: expensive/over-priced mortgage, expensive/over-priced tuition for their children, expensive/over-priced car, unnecessary vacations, see a pattern here? Most people live a life with abandon, little planning, hardly any financial planning.
They need to work to pay for their lifestyle. It’s the classic “house of cards” that will come crashing down the minute a breeze heavy enough to topple one card. Maybe it’s an illness, maybe it’s a sudden decrease in housing prices, maybe it’s a sudden loss of job, anything is a danger lurking because of this type of unsustainable lifestyle. Whether you make $10k or $1mil, if you spend it all, you don’t have any left.
#2. They’re scared of “risk”*. They’re so used to the guaranteed payout, that they’re willing to take less than what is possible in exchange for: ease of mind, comfort, relative perceived stability, and lack of ambition to make more money. Whether or not the ambition to make money died as a result of their resigned attitude towards life due to the lack of invigoration/laziness, we’ll never know. It’s like the chicken or the egg; who knows what comes first and who cares.
*Risk is relative. Many entrepreneurs feel 9–5’s are risky b/c you’re limited by lots of factors, opportunity cost consumed by unproductive time at a 9–5′s, impacted by various forces outside of your control unrelated to your performance level, etc.
Fact is, the jobs I recruited them for, the hourly rate as a full-time fixed salary employee is about 30–50% less than if they were to take a “risk” and work as an independent consultant, doing the same job, to the same clients, but in a different format with slightly more “uncertainty”.
Many contractors I tried to recruit to come back to work for 9–5 jobs, refused to, because they believed their contracting business was a much better way to do their job. But for people used to the 9–5 construct of working style, they couldn’t imagine leaving it for contracting! It was a very interesting phenomenon of 2 staunch camps, each believing their own version of doing the job was better. This proves that: habits matter and the longer you do something, the more likely you are to keep on believing in what you’re doing is the “right” way.
In fact, even at the CHIEF Executive level, they could have contracted their services by consulting with companies at $300–500/hr, but they chose to stay in a fixed Chief executive salary b/c they need the stability and can’t be bothered for whatever reason to take the risk of entrepreneurship. Which leads me to my next point:
#3. There is no road map if you’re not a 9–5 person. At the chief executive level, those candidates have the connections/potential to create entire consulting businesses, but again, that’s something where there’s totally no guarantee. In a 9–5, you’re guaranteed a payout whether or not the business succeeds. Look at the banking fiasco. Although their business failed, the executives still got paid. In the real world of entrepreneurship, you don’t have poor suckers who bought your stock just to see everything go down the tube, while you still make money. You’re a private owner of a business, no bailouts there!
Furthermore, you have to do everything. You can outsource/delegate, but you still have to come up with the plan! Besides delegating and outsourcing implies you have money to pay for those services as a entrepreneur, which leads to: how are you going to fund it? Angel investors? Bootstrapping? VC?
As a entrepreneur, YOU need to create systems and plans; YOU need to recruit people directly (no HR, overpaid headhunters to help you). There’s no yearly progression plan. There’s no set team to work off of and to manage. There are no stock options, and your equity isn’t worth a thing until YOU make it worth something. Business is a wild world, where planning is one thing, but real world results will tell you otherwise.
Therefore, it’s challenging to leave the 9–5 comfort to enter this wild west. Not everyone can do it sustainably, nor should they attempt to or be forced to! Everyone is different. Different constructs of work satisfy different types of people, there’s no need to force everyone into one method of doing things. It’s up to peoples’ preference with risk, time spent on work, and preference of what they enjoy doing.
It would be utopian and unreasonable to expect or demand everyone to be the same cookie-cutter entrepreneurial type. Besides! As a society, we need innovative people across the board, and 9–5 doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are doing extremely amazing things for society. At the end of the day, do what makes you happy; find what type of working construct works best for YOUR unique needs to achieve YOUR unique goals in the most enjoyable manner.
Dandan Zhu is a NYC-based entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of, headhunter-turned-career coach, feminist, and go-getter businesswoman.
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