Singapore is a very numerate society. We’re good at comparing all sorts of numbers, from salaries to PSLE scores. Unfortunately, focusing on the raw numbers often causes us to lose sight of things that aren’t as convenient to quantify—like the fact that you’re working twice as many hours to earn just a bit more than your peers.
If you really love your job and are voluntarily putting in all those hours at the office for a good cause, good on you. But for the typical Singaporean worker for whom work functions mainly as insurance against starvation, simply picking the job with the highest salary may not be the optimal solution.
You see, merely going for the job with the highest salary without considering the time commitment required of you suggests that you are unable to place a value on your time.
Trading time for money
Singaporeans often look enviously at professionals like lawyers and accountants and imagine them partying on yachts every weekend and using ten dollar bills as coasters.
What most don’t realise is that the money comes at a price. Let’s look at the typical junior lawyer. In fact, we shall use one of my friends, let’s call him Nigel. Nigel is 28 and a shipping lawyer with two years of experience.
On average, Nigel works about 13 hours a day. On a typical day, he works from 8.30am to 9.30pm. Maybe once every 2 weeks, he gets to knock off at 6pm. But he also often ends up working on Saturdays, sometimes even Sundays. He spends about 24 hours a month working on weekends
Nigel earns $6,500 a month. Altogether, he works around 260 hours a month on weekdays, + an extra 24 hours on weekends, making it a total of 284 hours worked a month. That means he is paid about $22.88 an hour.
To put things in perspective, my friend Marissa used to work from 9am to 5pm five days a week (ie. a 160 hour month) at the same rate of about $22.88 an hour, working out to a salary of roughly $3,660 a month. Not a bad wage, but surely one that most Singaporeans wouldn’t be particularly impressed by.
But can you say that Nigel is really a higher earner that Marissa? He might earn more, but only because he puts in more hours at work, and not because his time is valued more highly than hers.
And when you consider that Nigel only gets to use about 5 days of his leave each year, while Marissa can use all 25 days allotted to her, Nigel’s $6,500 salary suddenly doesn’t look so hot.
How much is your time really worth?
I’m not saying we should all aim to get jobs with the shortest possible working hours. But what I am saying is that we need to stop looking at certain jobs or professions as being cash cows without considering the real time costs of working in them.
In addition, the less time you have to yourself, the more precious a single hour is to you.
If you’re working 100 hours a week, any additional hours will mean a lot more to you than someone who only works 20 hours a week.
And while some people don’t think they’re making any lifestyle sacrifices by working 60 hours a week, others, whether because they have kids, health issues or time consuming hobbies, may prefer shorter weeks.
The trick is to know where your equilibrium lies, and then aim to offer as much value, and earn as much as possible, during the hours you do spend working.
For some people, this might mean working extra hard during office hours so as not to have to do any overtime. If you waste time at the office, you’re sending out the message that your time isn’t worth much.
For others, it could mean going freelance in order to control the number of hours they work. A tuition teacher who charges $50 an hour might not be earning as much per month as a lawyer, but there’s also a good chance he or she has a lot more free time.
Besides, as the amount of time you spend outside of work falls, your spending increases as you try to buy convenience. Spending $600 a month on childcare, $200 on taxi fare to rush from place to place and $300 eating out because you’re too busy to cook at home eats into those dollars you work extra hours just to earn.
A more holistic view of work
Singaporeans’ unhappiness at work is old news. But is it really that surprising? If salary is the only factor taken into consideration when evaluating a potential job, don’t be surprised when you feel overworked and like you have no control over your life.
If you’re working desperately just to meet ends meet, I sympathise with you. But if you’re one of those people who’s miserable at work but just can’t imagine earning “less”, it might be time to determine whether you really are a high earner or just overworked.
Do you think you’re a high earner or just overworked? Let us know in the comments!
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