Why midlife women are turning their backs on permanent employment

The growth of self-employment

I’ve been self employed for five years. Before 2014 I hadn’t noticed all the midlifers working for themselves, tapping away at laptops in cafes or working from home. Now that I am one, I see them everywhere.

At the beginning of 2016, the self-employed accounted for 15% of the UK population, that’s 4.6 million people. Research out this month, shows that number has risen to nearly 5 million. During the last three months, self-employment figures have far outstripped the growth in employment overall.

I have had so many conversations with women at a crossroads in their careers, thinking about making the leap into independence. Many of my friends are on their second (or third) careers like me and it’s a growing phenomenon. Our fifth decade seems to be a tipping point in our professional lives.

Why is that? What is it that happens to women that makes them run from the security of employment, to the potential insecurity of going it alone?

The need for more control and flexibility

The change often comes after women have children, but anecdotal evidence would suggest childcare isn’t the main motivation for women leaving their jobs. Many return to work straight after their maternity leave, like me, determined to slot right back into corporate life, just as ambitious to succeed as before. After a couple of years, the desire to fit in, or to reach the boardroom starts to dwindle.

I didn’t leave my job until my eldest son was eight.

It wasn’t just about work/life balance, although that did play a part. It was more a need for control. I wanted to decide who I worked with, when I worked, and to be rewarded fairly for my efforts.

I resented the control someone else had over my diary.

There are also wider social issues at work.

The gender opportunity gap

Two executives – one male, one female – started their jobs with the same company at around the same time. They were given the same opportunities and responsibilities for several years and both thrived. Until the woman announced she was pregnant. At that point the woman was taken off the leadership development programme because, as the CEO said, she was ‘leaving the business for a while’.

That happened to me. The CEO was a woman. Some bosses beat the ambition out of us.

The gender pay gap

Despite best efforts by Government and the brighter media spotlight on the difference in pay between men and women, the gender pay gap has slightly widened in the last year. According to the Financial Times, the median pay gap this year was 11.9 per cent, compared to 11.8 per cent last year. 

There are still no sectors in the UK economy where women are paid the same as men.

Every set of circumstances is different, but it's not a coincidence that women in their 40s are turning to self-employment in record numbers.

The gender chore gap

Women carry out an average of 60 per cent more cooking, housework and childcare than men. That’s not 60 per cent OF the chores: it’s 60 per cent MORE.

That’s a lot of women arriving home after a long day in the office to a pile of washing and hungry mouths to feed. I wonder how many men have woken up in the middle of the night panicking that the kids’ swimming kit needed for tomorrow is still wet from last week? (Or is that just me?)

I know several women who work for international companies and are expected to dial into conference calls with their counterparts in Melbourne and New York at 11pm, and turn up to work bright and breezy at 8am the next day. That timetable isn’t sustainable when one child is teething and the other is waking with night terrors.

Never did my family commitments interfere with my corporate job. I worked four days a week and was the top biller in the company. But there was this constant nagging feeling that I wasn’t giving 100% to either work or family. The move towards equality (because we’re not there yet) means that we have a lot on our plates and not enough time.

Self-employment hasn’t given me more time, but it has given me more control over it. I can put a wash on while I’m talking to a client. I can go to sports day or take The Teen to his tennis lesson and get back to work after dinner.

Every set of circumstances is different, but it's not a coincidence that women in their 40s are turning to self-employment in record numbers.

The Free Range Human

The internet has brought so many new opportunities for all sorts of one-woman businesses. A whole category of enterprises only exist because of the internet – such as web designers, bloggers, virtual assistants; while others are able to expand their businesses or shops through web-based marketing and sales. Have a read of Be A Free Range Human by Marianne Cantwell for some inspiration.

Start-ups don’t need huge investment to get going. In the case of our recruitment business, we already owned laptops, had a well-established network to tap into and just needed to buy a software package and mobile phones.

Self-employment allows women to take back some time and freedom and create a life that includes work, rather than trying to fit a life around it.

My fifth decade has brought with it a confidence to make scary decisions. I wish I had made the move away from employment in my 30s but I wasn’t mentally ready for it then. The self-employed women I know are confident. They are leaders. They just don’t want to lead in the confines of a corporate hierarchy.


I recognise that self-employment doesn’t suit everyone. It’s unpredictable, sometimes insecure and a bit wild. I cover that in various posts, which you can read here, here and here.

It’s difficult, if not impossible to leave a permanent job if you don’t have savings, are in debt, or have other financial issues keeping you in your current situation. I was able to put money away before I resigned and my husband is in a secure job which gave me the security to go for it.

I would love to hear from you if you’ve moved from permanent employment to self-employment and what your experiences have been. Or if you’re thinking of making the move, what’s stopping you? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Much love, Vx

[Disclosure: nothing to declare here.]