Workplace dilemmas: I’m caught in the money trap

Each month, our resident agony uncle responds to your workplace difficulties. This time: how to live your dreams, while continuing to pay your mortgage

Dear Tim,

I’m a successful business man, and enjoy a high-profile role as head of corporate affairs for a large company. I have a great relationship with my boss, and have a good degree of influence over the company’s strategic direction. I feel as if my voice is heard, and my opinions seem to carry weight among colleagues.

Indeed, there’s talk of me being promoted to the Board of Directors in the coming months, which will bring an increase in salary and pension, as well as a high degree of professional recognition and the chance of a posher company car. I may even get that Jaguar I’ve always dreamed about!

I know that I should be really pleased by this prospect. My wife is certainly excited at the thought of my elevated status in the workplace. And I have to say that I’m not concerned about the additional responsibility. My employer takes work-life balance very seriously, so I’m rarely required to stay in the office beyond 6pm, don’t start until 8.30am, and can generally work at least one day a week from home. My weekends are more or less my own, and the pace of work is eminently manageable.

So, what’s not to like? I earn a very good salary, have a wonderful quality of life and manage to do a stimulating job that doesn’t run me ragged.

Well. Here’s the problem. I’m not living my dream. I suspect I’m not being stretched enough intellectually. I have a master’s degree from Oxford, and was offered funding for a PhD before I entered the corporate world. Now, I think I’d like to become a teacher, where I feel as if I could really make a difference to the world and help shape the lives of young people.  

But you and I both know that teachers don’t earn as much as senior business people, and that’s not even to consider the cost of training. I have a big mortgage predicated upon my generous salary. I wouldn’t want to move, because my wife and kids are very settled in our beautiful house, and I just feel trapped, almost by my own success.

I’m now in my forties, and feel that if I don’t do something soon I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting not being true to myself. But I have to think about more than just my own interests, so I’m really uncertain about how best to proceed. If you’ve any wisdom to share, I’d be delighted to hear it!

- A frustrated business man

Answer: First things first, let me congratulate you on your success. It’s easy to take career advancement for granted when it’s your own career that’s being advanced. But no one gets to the top of the corporate tree without a lot of hard work and no small amount of ability. The fact you’re being considered for a position on the Board is a sign of your value to your employer, and I wouldn’t want you to lose sight of the significant contribution you clearly make in that context.

That said, it can be hard to feel as if you’re not living your dreams. Such feelings become more acute as you enter middle age, and you realise that you don’t have an infinite amount of time to pursue your ambitions.

For some people, the urge to change career doesn’t have an altruistic element, as your call to teaching seems to. It’s just a matter of personal fulfilment, or change for change’s sake – a way of getting through the challenging mid-life period.

For you, it seems as if something deeper is at stake, and I want to honour that. Teaching is a noble profession; one that greatly benefits from people who have a genuine sense of vocation to it. That said, you clearly also have a vocation to be a dutiful father and husband, and there is a conflict here that you’re struggling to deal with.

So here’s my advice. If you’re confident in your value to your employer, and it sounds like you have every reason to be, tell them about your frustrated ambition to teach. It may be that you could reduce or rearrange your working hours and pick up some voluntary work in a local school. Lots of primary and secondary schools welcome volunteers who can listen to pupils reading or help with extra-curricular activities, and such a role may give you a taste of school life. You could even volunteer as a school governor, to get a sense of the workings of the education system from the inside.

With this under your belt, you may find that your vocational yearnings are satisfied, at the same time as keeping your mortgage paid. Or you may discover that teaching’s not for you, and throw yourself into corporate life with renewed enthusiasm.

Alternatively, you may find that teaching really is what you want to do. If that’s the case, you can then explore how to make it happen. Most lenders offer mortgage holidays for career changers who need to retrain, or you may find that you can restructure your loan to reduce the monthly repayments. You’re young enough that you could still have a mortgage for 25 years – and remember that teachers’ pensions are fairly generous, so you should have a relatively comfortable retirement.

Moreover, while teachers’ salaries start at around £23,000, the average wage for a teacher in England and Wales is £37,400, with further rewards available if you take on additional responsibility. Good teachers progress quickly, so you could earn decent money within just a few years of qualifying. You’re right that you probably won’t earn as much as you can in the corporate world, unless you get right to the top of the profession and become a head or deputy head teacher. But you may well find that you earn enough to get by, with just a few lifestyle changes. And anyway, who needs a Jaguar if they’re professionally fulfilled?

It seems as if it’s decision time for you. If you’re serious about teaching for a living, it’s time to explore the profession so as to make an informed decision about your future. But you may find that dipping your toe in the world of education is sufficient, and that your heart lies in the boardroom after all. Good luck!

Posted on Monday Oct 30