Why do people stay in jobs they hate? #23
I’d just like to take a second to welcome the new subscribers. Since starting this newsletter the number of people who have signed up has slowly grown. I think most of you first saw me advertising this on LinkedIn, but if not please visit my profile to see that I am a fairly normal person.
And to the people who open this and read it every week - I am so grateful that you are here, and for sticking with me while I figure out my style and focus. I don’t see much from the metrics system, but what I see is enough to keep me doing it. But also, during the past 5+ months, I’ve had a few people reach out and say something positive - which is just so awesome.
The Original Plan
Anyways, today I had an idea for the newsletter, something along the lines of trying to discuss how we’re stuck in a system which essentially controls us. Kind of like the Matrix, but not the Matrix from the film, instead a social and economic system which places relatively comfortable invisible chains on us.
But it seemed too crazy, like a conspiracy theory of some kind. I wondered, what would people think of the madman talking about invisible chains?
And even then, this second thinking of my original idea might perhaps be an example of an invisible social control system.
The need to conform to societal norms.
Anyways, instead, let’s look at something we can all perhaps relate to…
Why do people stay in jobs they hate?
Risk scares them
I knew a bunch of teachers, all at the same school, and from the outside looking in - the whole setup looked toxic. A principal getting paid more than the UK Prime Minister yet teachers having to buy basic resources for their class out of their own money. Teachers working until 10 pm, sometimes 11 pm and beyond - marking books and planning lessons for the next day. Even sacrificing time with their own children in the service of other people’s children.
Why didn’t they leave? They were frightened that somewhere else would be worse!
There’s a saying “the grass is always greener (on the other side)”, which is the assumption that there are better things in other places. Apparently, even a poet in 1BC said “the harvest is always richer in another man’s field”.
But when I hear it, people often use it as a warning. They even change it slightly to “the grass is NOT always greener”. Just to get to the point quicker.
There’s another one - “better the devil you know (than the devil you don't know)”, a proverb meaning it's wiser to deal with an undesirable but familiar situation than to risk a change that might lead to an even worse situation.
It’s clear, fear is stopping people. It is limiting people.
Want to know something scarier than change? Not changing.
Imagine starting a job when you are 18 years old, within a couple of years you don’t like it and finally retire at the UK retirement age of 66. That’s 48 years doing something you hate, all because you were scared of forcing a change.
I’ve made lots of career changes in the past and it only worked out badly once (which I’ll talk about further down). All the other changes - amazing.
I’m sure everyone’s met someone who has chosen a change or been forced to change and they always say “it was the BEST thing I ever did”.
This is a common one I’ve seen. People live to their means, or slightly beyond.
In other words, people spend all their money on fancy stuff and even take out loans, or forms of credit to buy that fancy stuff.
This results in no financial wiggle room, and for example - 58% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. And in the UK - 18-34-year-olds have the highest non-mortgage debt at £10,400.
When I got offered my funded PhD I had to take a pay cut, maybe -20%. It was a simple decision, earn more money but work 40 hours per week OR earn less money, get fully flexible hours and work towards a PhD.
Obviously, I chose the latter.
But I could only choose the latter because I could absorb the financial loss. At the time my only form of loan was for a mortgage. I didn’t have a car loan, no credit cards, nothing - just a mortgage.
Everyone came to me and said “Wow I’d love to do that”, so I explained the process and instantly they replied, “I just can’t afford the drop in the money”.
One of those people liked to holiday abroad 3 to 4 times a year, it would mean giving that up.
Another had just brought a new car on credit.
Someone else had a huge 4-bedroom house for just themselves and their partner.
I lived in a modest house, I drove an old car and took the cheapest vacations I could find in the UK.
But I was also able to absorb the financial loss to do the PhD and had 3 years of fully flexible working.
The golden handcuffs. It sounds like a nice problem to have right?
Now if this term is new to you it means - financial incentives that are intended to encourage employees to remain with a company for a stipulated period of time.
Let’s look at the big tech sector as an example. They often don’t talk about salary, they talk about ‘total comp’ or ‘total compensation’.
This is often made up of 3 or 4 components:
[optional] Signing on bonus - they give you cash upfront but if you leave within a certain timeframe then you owe them money.
Salary - in some/most cases they pay at the upper end of the pay scale.
RSU’s/Equity - you get a bunch of (promised) stock which slowly gets vested (released) over time.
Bonus - paid yearly (for example).
Let’s take a senior person at Meta, because they release this info as part of the financial reports.
One exec was given $69 million to rejoin (likely in equity), plus an additional $4 million one-year anniversary of his return (again, assuming equity) [source]. Recently, it was reported that this person also gets ~$1m in salary, received ~$700k in bonus and another equity grant of $20 million.
So back to the golden handcuffs. If this person had left before his bonus was due he would have not got his bonus, even if he had worked 11 months of the year.
Now look at equity, and for ease let’s round up this person's equity to $100m which would likely vest over 4 years. That’s $25m per year. Now let’s say after 1 year this person doesn’t like his job, if they left they would forfeit $75m.
I don’t know many people who would quit in this scenario.
And this is the same for many others, even though with much smaller numbers.
For some, the golden handcuffs are the promise of a small bonus every year, for others, it might just be being paid a slightly higher salary than people in the local area.
They love the ‘title’
When I was studying for my teaching qualification the lecturer told us about another lecturer he knew, who sounded a little odd. That person loved being a lecturer, he felt it was prestigious and even a little superior to other people (based on their job title). Now the odd thing was, apparently he would carry a small card around with him with an ordered list of professions on it, and he would refer to it to assess your social standing in relation to his own.
Think about it, if someone introduced themselves as a doctor and the next person introduced themselves as a hairdresser, some people might be more impressed by the ‘doctor’ title.
I’ve met unhappy people who didn’t want to change jobs because it would mean them not having the ‘manager’ title anymore. I’ve met CEOs of companies that have zero employees and zero customers.
I remember a job title I had, it was ‘Group IT Manager’. Wow, that sounds impressive, not just an ‘IT Manager’ I was the ‘GROUP IT Manager”. I hated that job, I hated the company, I hated my boss, and I even hated my windowless office. I was laid off within 9 months, and overall it was the most painful experience I have ever had in my career.
After leaving, I had to get another job quickly and my next job title was ‘IT Support’. What a drop, from ‘Group IT Manager’ to ‘IT Support’, and worse yet - it was abbreviated to ‘IT’ - “get IT to look at it”.
The crazy thing - I got paid the same in both roles. And in the ‘IT Support’ role I actually had more interesting things to do, I liked the environment, I liked the people and I was in an office with windows.
So which is more important? A better job title or being happier?
People like to complain
I read a book once and it had a story in it to explain this issue, and it goes something like…
There was a guy, who wanted to be an author. He’d actually written the first draft of his book and was in the middle of revising it. The problem was, he had been revising it for years. Always finding new ways to improve it or some new reason why it wasn’t ready. Some reason to stop him from sending it to a publisher.
Because, once he sends it to a publisher he is committed. He is committed to the risk that he will fail, his book will fail.
While he is writing his book he still has the dream of becoming an author, even while writing the book he is an unpublished author. But once he sends the book out he risks failure.
I worked with a guy who complained a lot, every day. It made me complain a lot. Luckily I convinced myself that I should probably leave and I did. The guy stayed, for probably 10 more years, complaining every day. Nothing changed, not even the things he complained about.
People complain, it's what people do.
It’s easier to complain than to do something about it.
But it takes a hidden toll on the person.
So there we have it, 5 reasons why people stick with jobs they hate.
Now while we started with the idea of a Matrix-like social and economic system with invisible chains, perhaps the loose connection is…
There are invisible elements around us which stop us from doing things. We have invisible social elements like job titles, the need to complain, and the fear and perceived risk associated with change. But we also have those economic factors too, the promise of pay, bonuses and future equity, people living paycheck to paycheck and also the trappings of buying nice stuff on credit.
As with all things, take the bits which are relevant to you and simply discard the rest.
Hope you all have a great weekend.
Best wishes, John