Large businesses like to ramble on about culture and transparency. But to them, you are just another corporate slave. Dressing it up won’t change the fact.
There is no point in playing the blame game, though.
The fault is not with “them.” The fault is with ourselves. Out of fear, we opted for the well-trodden career path. And now we are suffering the consequences.
Learn about the 18 signs you have become a corporate slave, why it’s an easy trap to fall into, and how you can quit the system.
18 Signs You Have Become a Corporate Slave
Here are 18 telltale signs you have become a corporate slave.
1. You Dread Going to Work
Every morning, when your alarm rings, you think to yourself, “Not this again.”
2. You Are Underpaid
You are getting paid little money relative to the economic value you produce for the company.
3. You Never Speak Up
Your superiors have no idea how truly unhappy you are at your job.
4. You Are Dependent on Stimulants
You rely on coffee and carbs to get you through the day.
5. You Live at the Office
In the morning, you’re the first one at the office. In the evening, you leave after the cleaners.
6. You Don’t Like To Talk About Work
What you do for a living embarrasses you, hence why you avoid the subject.
7. You’re Constantly Worried What Your Boss Thinks
You exist by the grace of your boss. If they are happy, life is good. If they are unhappy, life is hell.
8. You Have No Other Options
Climbing the corporate ladder seems like the only way to advance your life.
9. You Obey
It never crosses your mind to question a directive from above.
10. Every Day Is the Same
In the words of Trent Reznor: “I believe I can see the future, ’cause I repeat the same routine […] Every day is exactly the same.”
11. Your Work Feels Pointless
Your work has no impact on the world. It would make no difference if your job ceased to exist tomorrow.
12. You Have No Autonomy
There is no leeway, everything is decided for you.
13. You Are Living for the Weekend
From Monday to Thursday, all you think about is Friday.
14. You Are Living From Vacation to Vacation
The sad highlight of your year is two drunk weeks at a resort hotel in Cancún.
15. You’re Looking Forward to Sick Days
Even lying in bed with a fever, coughing your lungs out, is preferable to coming into work.
16. You Are a Nobody
To the higher-ups, you don’t matter. They don’t know who you are or what you do.
17. You Are Not Feeling Appreciated
You can’t remember the last time your boss praised you for doing something well.
18. You Have Nothing Else Going On
The little time you get off is solely for decompressing. Nothing else interesting happens in your life.
What Is a Corporate Slave?
A corporate slave is someone who sells their time to a large corporation. For the length of their workday, they belong to “the man.”
It means …
- … obeying nonsensical orders, against your better judgment
- … engaging in meaningless work
- … pretending to be thankful to the corporate overlords
- … putting up with little pay
The term implies that slavery never got abolished. It’s just called “employment” now.
That might seem like an extreme comparison. After all, corporate slavery does not make use of physical punishment.
But that is the ingenuity of it. They don’t need to. If you refuse to play along, you will go broke, homeless, and ostracized. That is just as effective.
Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include everyone.Unknown
Corporate slaves make up the majority of the workforce. Like infantries in a war, they are the cannon fodder for the industrial complex.
They don’t need much in terms of qualifications. It’s their numbers that make the difference. The individual corporate slave can easily be replaced.
Why You Need To Act
Being a corporate slave is a recipe for unhappiness.
In 2014, a Deloitte study found that “Up to 87.7 percent of America’s workforce is not able to contribute to their full potential because they don’t have passion for their work.”
In plain English — almost 90 percent of us hate our jobs.
Also, the workload for corporate slaves keeps increasing. Especially in the US, employees are systematically exploited:
- Unlike most countries, the US has no laws setting the maximum length of a work week.
- Per year, Americans work 442 more hours than the Germans, 294 more hours than the Brits, and 184 more hours than the Japanese (as per OECD stats).
- In most other Western countries, workers are guaranteed at least four to six weeks of paid vacation time. In the States — no such thing.
Then there are the disastrous effects on your health:
- Lack of movement
- Postural dysfunctions
- Elevated cortisol levels
Various fatal diseases, like heart disease and cancer, also correlate with being overworked. Being a corporate slave can literally kill you.
Despite these facts, we still downplay the situation. After all, everybody around us is a corporate slave. Who are you to question the status quo?
But give into that kind of defeatist thinking and you will end up in a world of pain. Misery shared is still misery.
You must free yourself from corporate slavery now.
Why Political Activism Is Not the Answer
Most people who revolt against corporate slavery do so from a socialist point of view. They argue that if we redistributed all wealth justly, these corporate hierarchies would go away. Everybody could quit their job and do what they want.
This can never work (and historically, it never has).
That is due to differences in competency. We all exist on a spectrum — from strong to weak, from smart to dumb.
The more competent will always come to dominate the less competent, no matter what rules you put in place. Even in so-called socialist societies, the more driven always end up in power.
Nature, by endowing individuals with extremely unequal physical attributes and mental capacities, has introduced injustices against which there is no remedy.Sigmund Freud
And it’s not just the power-hungry who are to blame. More than anything, it’s the corporate slaves themselves who contribute to their own predicament.
The masses don’t want to take responsibility for themselves. They would much rather have someone tell them what to do. They crave authority figures, aka slave drivers. Stability over freedom.
No political movement will ever alter these laws of human nature. The only way to become free is to look to the individual. You must transform yourself.
You Are the Solution
The first step to overcoming corporate slavery is to do away with the victim mentality.
Yes, there are people out there who want to exploit your workforce. But they are only getting away with it because you are playing along. No one is stopping you from exploring other options.
The real problem is fear. We are afraid to deviate from the norm. If I opted for a less conventional way of life — what would my parents and friends say? Wouldn’t they think me a weirdo, a loser? So, you go on doing what you’ve always done.
We also suffer from inertia. Right now, your 9-to-5 life has a steady, predictable rhythm. You just have to go along. Breaking out of that rhythm would actually require initiative. That sounds like a lot of work.
There is a third factor at play here — the denial of our own mortality.
We all act like we have all the time in the world. Intellectually, we might know differently; but emotionally, we assume we will go on living forever.
That’s why we continue to endure corporate slavery, even though it’s hell. We keep telling ourselves, “I’ll fix this later.”
But later never comes. Life is over before you know it. Only then do you come to realize your delusions.
You must become aware of these dynamics. Stop blaming others. Acknowledge your fear. Recognize your inertia. Admit that you have less time than you think.
And then make a choice.
The 4 Choices You Have
Are you ready to rebel? That means making a choice. Here are the four options you have, from least radical to most radical:
- Haggle with your current slave driver, aka improve your current job
- Find a slightly better slave driver, aka change jobs
- Become a slave driver yourself, aka start your own business
- Quit the system altogether, aka stop working
Let’s look at these options in detail.
Option 1: Improve Your Current Job
The least radical option is to try to improve your current job. Don’t expect too much from it; you are only treating the symptoms. Still, these strategies are your best bet.
a) Set Boundaries
To prevent people at work from walking all over you, you must set boundaries. Define to yourself in writing what you won’t do. It might look something like this:
- “I will refuse unpaid overtime.”
- “I won’t come into the office on the weekends.”
- “I won’t reply to messages after hours.”
- “I will not choose sides in office politics.”
The tricky part is to communicate these new boundaries. People at work are used to you giving way. Now, suddenly, you are standing up for yourself. Of course, that will create friction.
Therefore, be patient. Explain to your boss and colleagues why you are setting these boundaries. Don’t do so by pointing fingers. Say that you are unhappy about certain things, but realize it’s your responsibility to change these things.
But then, also, unapologetically stick to your new rules.
If people try to ignore them — and they will — friendly remind them of what you said earlier. If that doesn’t do the trick, confront them. Put up a fight, every time. Eventually, they will grow tired of coming to you and find an easier victim.
Hang in there. Reconditioning the people around you takes time, and most likely a few run-ins.
b) Practice Social Judo
Setting boundaries is the adult thing to do and you should try it out first. If you are dealing with halfway reasonable people at work — which, occasionally, can be the case — you will feel better and they will feel better.
But oftentimes, that is not an option.
Some bosses will simply not care about your boundaries. If anything, they will feel amused by them. To them, being pushy towards employees is a seal of quality.
The way to deal with this is to practice social judo. The harder your superiors come onto you, the more you evade them and diffuse their attack. Here are some ideas:
- Don’t be around. If they can’t catch you in person, it’s harder to make you do stuff. Wander around the building. Have long smoke breaks. Really take your time in the bathroom.
- Be slow to respond. Take your sweet time with responding to emails. When you do, give some lackluster reason why it took you so long. Keep it up, and they will eventually seek out someone more cooperative.
- Always have a canned excuse ready. If they ask you to stay longer tonight, say you must pick up your child. If they complain about you not taking calls on the weekends, say you were at a hut in the mountains.
- Be mediocre. The reward for good work is more work. Therefore, make a point to be mediocre. Drag out the process. Mess stuff up. Miscommunicate. Your boss will think twice before they give you another project.
This approach is also referred to as “quiet quitting.” You do only what your job description requires of you. Not a thing more.
A Gallup study estimates that about 50 percent of the US workforce is currently engaged in quiet quitting. Corporate slaves all over America are resorting to passive resistance.
c) Find a Cause
Another thing you can do is to find yourself a cause. Your job might be meaningless, but that doesn’t mean you can’t infuse it with meaning.
Some ideas include:
- Learn a new skill. If you work in marketing, but all you have ever done is paid advertising, branch out into a new skill like SEO. As long as the new skill is somewhat related to your original area, most employers won’t object.
- Do some good. If you enjoy making the world a better world, go with that. For example, organize a charity run for underprivileged children in your town. Since this means positive PR, your employer will probably let you do it.
- Find yourself an interesting research project. For example, you might research how your company conducted itself during racial segregation. Most employers won’t oppose “hot” topics like that, for fear of media retribution.
d) Build a Community
Life as a corporate slave becomes somewhat more bearable if you get a group dynamic going.
A good starting point is to set up a weekly after-work thing. Everybody likes to get drunk and bond over complaining about work.
Next, take it a step further and organize the occasional outing. Go to a roller-skates disco together or organize a rafting trip. Get your boss to pay for it by packaging it as a teambuilding event.
Another option is to organize events at work. For example, invite the occasional motivational speaker. Sell it to your boss as an important training measure. Your fellow corporate slaves will appreciate it for the break that it really is.
e) Go Part-Time
For some people, going part-time might be the solution. You’ll have more time to spend on things you actually enjoy.
Of course, you’ll have to deal with the pay cut. That might require some lifestyle changes — less consumption, more frugality.
But the real issue is social expectations. Going part-time feels like giving up on your career (it kinda is). We don’t want to look like a failure to our peers.
To make this easier on you, negotiate a test period.
Tell your boss that you would like to try out working part-time for a period of four weeks. If you enjoy it, make it a permanent thing. If not, go back to things as they were. No harm done.
f) Overcome Your Fear of Getting Fired
Many corporate employees are irrationally afraid of getting fired.
You need to get over this.
For this, you’ll have to learn how to woo future employers. On a regular basis, go to job interviews, even if you have no intention of switching jobs.
There are three benefits to this.
First, you will become an expert at selling yourself. If push comes to shove, you’ll easily find a new job. This will give you the confidence to stand up for yourself at your current job.
Second, it will open up your horizon. There are a lot more things that you could do for a living than you had previously assumed.
Third, you will eventually come across a job that is better than your current job — and you will take it. But without your interview habit, this would never have happened.
g) Maximize Your Free Time
Counterbalancing your annoying job with an enriching private life is another strategy to make corporate slavery more bearable.
There are two aspects to this.
First, you must leave work at work. If you cannot zoom out from your job, even the most inspiring hobby is not going to bring you much joy.
Think of work as a kindergarten. Being an adult, you wouldn’t get upset about a three-year-old trying to boss you around. You would laugh it off.
Apply the same mindset to your job. Confrontations with your boss, office politics — none of it matters. It’s all just child’s play.
The second part is to find an activity you love. Maybe it’s practicing yoga for two hours a day. Maybe it’s collecting rare comic books or building model airplanes.
Allow yourself to obsess about this. The more invested you get in your hobby, the easier you will be able to suffer through work. You now have something to look forward to each day.
Option 2: Changing Jobs
Most people have the wrong idea about changing jobs.
They assume that only their current job sucks. But if they’d be were working somewhere else, it’d be great. It’s the classic, “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
Yet, about 6–12 months in, once the novelty has worn off, you realize that your new job is just as bad as your old job. It’s just bad in a different way.
It doesn’t matter what job you take — corporate slavery is inherently flawed.
What you can do is make the novelty effect work for you. So, every 6–12 months, you apply for a new position. Then you enjoy what there is to enjoy. But at the slightest sign of discomfort, you start applying again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
By constantly changing jobs, you keep corporate slavery fresh. You don’t allow the soul-numbing routine to set in.
Instead, you’re constantly faced with a new environment, new skills to master, and new colleagues to get to know.
There are two caveats to this.
First, for this to work, you have to be in an urban area, preferably in a metropolis like New York or Los Angeles. Otherwise, you will quickly run out of positions to apply for.
Second, it messes up your CV. If you truthfully chronicle all your different gigs, any HR person with half a brain will understand that you won’t stay long. They might be reluctant to hire you or use that to negotiate your salary down.
One way around this is to lie. Hardly anyone checks in with previous employers. If you leave out a few of your previous gigs, in all likelihood, nobody will notice.
Option 3: Start Your Own Business
In my opinion, this is the best option to break away from corporate slavery. Instead of being the puppet, you become the puppet master.
It is also the most difficult option to pull off. Building a business, especially during the first three to five years, is hard work. At several points, you will feel like giving up.
But if you stick it out, you will eventually enjoy a level of freedom that you can never have as a corporate slave.
Here are three strategies to make that happen.
a) Find the Middle Ground
When you start a business, you need to weigh two factors — passion vs. market fit.
Both of these are necessary. If you lack passion for what you do, you will come to hate your business.
But if you lack market fit, you won’t make money. You might feel happy doing the obscure thing you love, but you won’t be able to pay your bills.
Therefore, you need to find the middle ground.
This middle ground is going to look different for everybody. It’s a spectrum. Some people will lean towards the passion side of things, and be okay with making less money. Other people will lean towards the profit side of things, and compromise in terms of personal fulfillment.
The best way to understand where you fit in is to try it out.
If you think you would be happy being a professional BMX rider but making little money, give it a try. If your hypothesis turns out to be right, great.
If not, shift gears. Start a company building BMX bikes. Still somewhat passion-driven, but more market-facing. Now you will earn more.
There is no right or wrong here. You must find the mix which works for you.
b) Deal With the Initial Loss
To become self-employed, you will have to deal with an initial loss of money and status.
Where you were previously making $80,000 a year in your corporate job, you might now be making $20,000 — if that.
Similarly, with social status. In your corporate job, you had a fancy title. Your parents and your friends were nodding approvingly when you spoke about your career.
As a founder, this social status goes poof. People now look at you as if you were crazy. “Why did Dave throw it all away? He had it so good!”
These losses are something that every budding entrepreneur has to deal with. But if you stick it out, you will be rewarded tenfold.
As an entrepreneur, you don’t max out at $150,000 for a management position. You could potentially be making millions a year while doing something you enjoy.
You will also excel at dinner parties (if that is your goal). The entrepreneur, once he has proven successful, will always outshine the conventional corporate slave. We admire them for the audacity we lack.
It is a question of short-term versus long-term thinking. Do you want to be rewarded now, by giving in to your social programming?
Or can you endure a period of uncomfortableness to reap much greater rewards later?
That is the choice you will have to make.
c) Improve Your Skills
As an employee, nobody really cares about your skills. As long as you show up every morning, you are good.
This changes dramatically once you become self-employed.
As a freelancer or a business owner, you are selling results. If you’re not able to deliver, you will quickly run out of clients. They will switch to a competitor that is more effective.
Your skills will make or break you. Therefore, you must heavily invest in them.
For example, I listen to a new marketing podcast every day for about an hour and take notes. As I have a marketing agency, this helps me to stay cutting edge in my industry.
I also have a guinea pig project (this blog) that I use to test out new SEO and email marketing techniques. I don’t just absorb the input; I apply it.
You must do the same for your industry. Find trusted sources of information — blogs, podcasts, seminars — and soak up the information. Then right away implement it.
Do this every day, and within 1–2 years, you will leave the vast majority of your competition behind.
Option 4: Don’t Work
This option comes in three versions:
- Quit the system early by saving up
- Semi-quit the system by spending little
- Completely quit the system by becoming self-sufficient
Version 1: Quit the System Early
The idea is to save up 50–70 percent of your monthly income, so you can retire early, e.g., at age 40. From that point on, you live off your savings. This model is known as FIRE — “financial independence, retire early.”
What’s interesting about this model is that you keep up appearances. You don’t quit your 9 to 5. You don’t embark on a risky journey of entrepreneurship. As far as anyone can tell, you are climbing the corporate ladder like everybody else.
But in secret, you are preparing your exit.
While everybody else is wasting their money on pointless stuff, you are as frugal as you can be. You buy your clothes secondhand; instead of Netflix you have a library card; and your home-grown vegetables taste much better than Olive Garden anyway.
As soon as you have enough savings, you quit. Now, you are free to live your life as you see fit.
The main advantage of FIRE is that you get half your lifetime back (assuming you retire at the age of 40 and die at the age of 80). That is a much better deal than most corporate slaves get. And at age 40, you will still be able to enjoy retirement.
The main disadvantage is that you have to put up with a job you hate for about 15–20 years. That is still a long time.
But it all depends on your needs and wishes. If starting a passion business seems too scary, the FIRE option can be a great alternative.
Also, some people prefer to keep things separate. They don’t want to “taint” their passion by making money from it. For them, too, FIRE can be the right option.
Version 2: Semi-Quit the System
This approach goes back to British writer and comedian Robert Wringham.
In his book “Escape Everything” he detailed how he cut his expenses to the bare minimum, around $700 per month.
With so few costs, he could enjoy unemployment for months. He would read for hours each day, take long walks, and spend plenty of time with friends and loved ones.
Whenever he was about to run out of money, he would take up a temporary position, usually working as a librarian, a job he found somewhat bearable.
But as soon as he had some savings again, he would quit.
The upside of this model is obvious — for long stretches of time, you are your own master. No boss can tell you when to show up in the morning, what to wear, what to work on, etc.
The downside is that you are still entangled with the system. You still have to pay for some necessities like food.
Also, you are forced to always choose the cheapest option — the cheapest apartment, the cheapest food, the cheapest clothes.
In essence, you are trading one type of freedom — freedom of time — for another type of freedom — financial freedom.
For some people, that can be a great deal. I have made myself in the past and enjoyed it tremendously. Just try it. If it doesn’t suit you, you will always find another corporate job.
Version 3: Completely Quit the System
A great example of this is blogger and escapist Daniel Suelo.
In the fall of 2000, Suelo made the decision to stop using money. He moved into a natural cave for shelter, near Moab, Utah. For food, he would gather wild plants or dumpster dive.
At one point, he also traversed the US on foot and by hitchhiking, getting as far as Alaska, where he lived off the land for a while.
His friend, writer Mark Sundeen, later chronicled Suelo’s adventures in his book, “The Man Who Quit Money,” which I highly recommend.
It is not just one eccentric living in a cave. Plenty of people have gone off the grid because they were tired of the rat race. It is a real option.
The appeal is that you become truly independent of the system. By becoming self-sufficient, the corporate world no longer holds any sway over you. You have cut yourself loose.
People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.Winnie-the-Pooh
The obvious downside is that most people are not willing to give up modern comforts. We value our comfy houses, electricity, running water, entertainment, and processed foods.
Don’t outright dismiss this option, though. It’s easy to call someone like Suelo a weirdo. Yet, we celebrate Henry David Thoreau in “Walden” as a visionary, if only much later. Maybe it’s time to not just glorify such experiments in retrospect but to actually try them.