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‘Are All Jobs... Bad?’

When so many bosses, workplaces, and entire industries suck, it's easy to feel like looking for a new job is a pointless endeavor.
June 16, 2021, 11:00am
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

Are all jobs... bad? Because right now I’m looking around and feeling very hopeless about the idea of having a job that checks all the boxes: 1) pays well (or just a living wage), 2) isn't totally toxic and/or managed by total clowns, 3) allows you to have decent work-life balance, and 4) isn’t totally racist and/or isn’t actively making the world a worse place. 

Our prospects just feel… bleak. A few examples of what I’m seeing personally, and hearing from friends: 

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Tech: pays well, but is morally bankrupt

Startups: often managed by people who purport to have high-minded visions or progressive values, but then it inevitably comes out that they are abusing their employees and are run by a low-key cult leader

Media: under the influence of self-important clowns, is basically crumbling (these things are related, I think) 

Law: pays well, but the hours seem truly miserable

Non-profits: often chaotic and not necessarily good to employees, despite the fact that they are supposed to be good??? 

And the thing is, even if you find a good role, or manager, or company, it kind of feels like you’ve got, at best, 2–3 years before a re-org or shareholder meeting upends the whole thing and you’re either taking a pay cut, getting laid off, or being managed by someone who probably should not be a manager. And even if another job might be marginally better in one way, it’s hard to want to make the leap to something new after you’ve been burned so many times. In those cases, it often feels like the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. 

As you can probably tell, my peers and I are feeling very pessimistic about the state of things, especially after the events of 2020 exposed just how messed up and fragile our systems in the U.S. are, and how many businesses are willing to throw their employees under the bus for the sake of profits. So: Are there any good jobs? Or are we simply doomed? 

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Well, first: You’re not wrong to feel this way. The system we’re in—where in order to feed and house yourself and access health care, you have to do work you might hate or that feels like a moral compromise—can be soul-crushing. You have a lot of company in feeling that way.

That said, there are good jobs. There are rarely perfect jobs, but there are good jobs.

Part of the problem, though, is that in order to get to those good jobs, you often have to climb up a ladder of bad jobs (to get the experience that makes you attractive to the better jobs).

And it can be hard to identify good jobs from the outside! A job that looks like interesting work with a supportive boss can end up being something else entirely once you’re working there. The opposite is also true: A job that looks like nothing special when you’re applying can turn out to be a place you happily stay for years.

And of course, how one person defines a good job can be different from how someone else defines it. For example, I spent years in nonprofits and, despite encountering a ton of dysfunction, I loved most of the jobs because I felt like my work was making the world a better place—and at the time, that was enough for me. (I’m not sure it still would be enough for me now; our definitions of “good” change as we change.)

But you’re right that there aren’t loads of good jobs just out there waiting for people. Lots of jobs have some or all of the problems you described, and it can take some luck to avoid those. Doing rigorous due diligence before accepting a job can help—especially talking to people who have worked there and can give you the inside scoop—but it’s not foolproof; you still might end up unhappy with the job, possibly because the people you talked to cared more or less about some things than you do, or a new manager comes in right after you start, or so forth.

Often the best thing to do is to figure out what you, personally, can live with. Maybe you can tolerate a bit of management dysfunction if the work is interesting and your co-workers are decent people, as long as the organization isn’t actively doing harm in the world. Maybe you’ve learned that management dysfunction gets under your skin in a way you can’t ignore, but you’re OK with somewhat boring work in exchange for competent leadership and stability. Maybe you don’t care about any of that and just want a decent commute, reasonable pay, and no calls on your off hours. All those combinations exist; you just need to be frank with yourself about what trade-offs you’re willing to live with.

But also, so much of this is wrapped up in ideas about what role work should play in our lives. Many of us were taught to identify ourselves with our careers, hit specific professional goals on specific timelines, seek specific kinds of rewards from our employers, and find emotional fulfillment from all of that—as well as to feel we’ve failed if it doesn’t play out that way.

Sometimes the answer is to drop those expectations entirely and let work just be work—just the place you go to get a paycheck. That’s what work is for much of the world. It feels contradictory to say that you can find happiness at work by dropping any expectation of happiness there, but sometimes separating yourself emotionally from your job can increase your quality of life pretty dramatically. 

That said... this is all about making do in a system that frankly sucks. It sucks that so many people need to put up with abuse or moral compromises or plain old crappy working conditions in order to support themselves. It sucks that who gets to run organizations and decide how they’ll operate is tied up in deep-rooted issues of power and privilege. It sucks that we live in a culture that equates working long hours with virtue, and where jobs that are harmful to other people often pay higher wages. You’re not wrong to see it for what it is. In fact, there can be liberation in seeing it for what it is, if that helps you be more clear-eyed about what trade-offs you’re willing to make.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.