The concept of 'selling out' is rarely seen as a positive. It suggests you have no integrity and no backbone. It suggests that you care only about money, that your ideals don’t matter and you’re happy to crush the small guy with a bulldozer. But what if we live in a world where the vast majority of young people have no choice BUT to sell out?
It hasn’t always been this way. At least, I think. Imagine, if you will, the days when squatting in London was possible; when Camden was cool and grungy musicians could thrash out original sounds before eating an authentic 'struggling creative' meal of cold baked beans and a loaf of bread. In the musical Rent, when actress Maureen considers getting an agent, she’s told by her girlfriend that that would be 'selling out'. Oh, ok then.
When we leave school, some of us are equipped with hopes and dreams. Some decide that their dream is accounting or working in an office, and so they start a life that suits them. They like the stability of a 9-5 and the regularity of a working week. Perhaps it frees them up to pursue their real hobbies outside the working day. For others, their hobby is their career, and they can think of nothing else they’d prefer to do, day or night.
These people spend years doing unpaid internships, work shadowing and slaving away in newsrooms/fashion houses/TV studios/theatres with minimum pay. By the law of success, few succeed but for most, working and living in a creative environment is worth every single second.
To keep going as a creative, whether your passion is web design, floristry or singing opera, you need to live somewhere with cheap living costs. Where, if you have one down month and three successful ones, you can still stay afloat. That’s why selling out absolutely has to be ok, or we’ll all end up disillusioned and frustrated. Unless you’re already financially secure, or are lucky enough to have family who live in central London, funding yourself for a year with no income can be bank-breaking. Expect to pay around £12,000 in rent, bills and general travel costs. That’s a lot for a struggling creative.
In our mid-to-late 20s, the things that allowed us to thrive as young creatives become less attractive. We don’t want to couch-surf our way around London, or live in a tent and commute in by bike. And so, after years designing book covers for aspiring authors, or writing poetry and performing at late-night comedy clubs, you realise that your skills might need to be put to corporate use. And that’s ok.
It’s ok because, for the most part, no matter how hard you work or how many hours you put in, creative industries rarely pay well. Your friends will understand and, hell, even you will come to accept it, even if it’s a tough cookie to bite at first.
“Two decades ago, 'selling out' was just about the worst thing you could do. But in recent years we’ve seen a generational shift away from the idea. For millennials who came of age during the recession, wanting to take home a decent salary isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s just practical. After all, there’s rent to pay and student debt to consider,” says Grace Donnelly, from Reed Recruitment.
'Selling out' has such negative connotations but for many, especially women, it can seem like the only option. Whether or not we know if we want kids, by our late 20s there’s a stabbing sense of pre-maternal guilt that our freelance career does not have sick pay, or pay overtime.
Your future baby – the one you definitely don’t want for at least 10 years – doesn’t need a mother who can play the banjo and goes backpacking around Ecuador; it needs somebody who can provide a roof and food. If you’re honest, your six-bed house-share in zone four probably isn’t great for raising a family.
After years designing book covers for aspiring authors, or writing poetry and performing at late-night comedy clubs, you realise that your skills might need to be put to corporate use. And that’s ok.
Donnelly adds: “It’s also worth remembering that women still haven’t achieved equal representation at senior levels within the corporate world. It’s important that no woman who aspires to make a difference at boardroom level is made to feel she’s 'selling out' by pursuing a well-paid role within any company – children or not.”
There should be no guilt associated with the expression 'selling out' and in fact, we should stop using it altogether. Freya*, 27, from London, gave up teaching disadvantaged children to work in corporate law. “It wasn’t on a whim. I trained evenings and weekends, and knew that although the idealist in me was screaming ‘What are you doing?’ I was fed up with having to say no to drinks with friends, going on holiday, and only eating food from the reduced section. Yes, it’s all about money, and I think I’m happier for it.”
Leaving your dreams behind needn’t be as absolutist as it sounds. Think about the skills you use every day in your creative role – leadership, communication, analysis – and then think about ways you can apply them to a corporate role.
“It’s true that as women get older they have different demands in terms of income, so they need stability, but this doesn’t have to mean giving up what they’re naturally good at to take a corporate desk job. There are many transferable skills involved in the creative industries, and women shouldn’t pigeonhole themselves into the role of performer, artist, musician or whatever their profession is,” recommends Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts.
If you’re not ready to give up on your dreams of becoming a celebrated author or world-renowned artist but you still crave stability, then consider a portfolio career. Donnelly describes the 'side hustle' as a way to keep your dreams alive while being realistic about your day-to-day needs, like rent. Granted, this won’t work if you have kids, but it’s a way to stay creative. “You don’t need to give up on your dreams, you need to find ways to pursue them alongside your day-to-day job.”
Selling out and going to work in the corporate world is never a good idea if it leaves you feeling grubby and bitter, says John Lees, a career coach. But it’s important to spend time researching what path you want to follow: “If what you’re looking for is better pay, spend time researching the best fit – somewhere where you can make a difference, be valued, and in a culture which is relatively benign.”
After spending three years DJing in Berlin, becoming a trader at JP Morgan probably isn’t feasible (or what you’d want to do). Consider carefully why you’re deciding to change careers, and focus on the positive. If you keep thinking you’re selling out, then you’ll start to doubt your previous skills: 'Maybe I couldn’t hack it? Perhaps I wasn’t good enough to be a writer.'
A corporate job should never be seen as the second best option, or you won’t last long at all. See it as a positive move, and only do so if you really want a new challenge.
Dani worked as a freelance graphic designer for eight years before realising she didn’t have a pension or a house, and was starting to become depressed about her potential.
“Now, I go to work every morning at the same time, meet clients, and get hundreds of job perks. Essentially, I’m still doing the same job as I was when I was freelance, but just for a bigger organisation. I don’t like to use the words 'selling out'. I haven’t. Instead, I’ve been realistic about living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on a graphic designer’s salary.
"I design for an advertising agency, and it’s a lot of fun, full of people with similar backgrounds. It was the right choice.”