Corporate Job Staples
So what is it about the so-called framework of employment that is inherently unlikable? Quite a few things, as it happens. Let’s take a look.
#1 The Intrusion of Business on Your Function
The profit motive of corporations demands that whatever you are doing is going to make money.
It follows that you must produce a lot of it in order to justify your compensation package. Your employer then turns around and sells what you produce, either directly or indirectly.
Very few of us genuinely enjoy sales. Even if you aren’t in the sales division directly, you’re expected to care deeply about your company’s ability to continually grow. But cheerleading gets old, fast. I personally grew exhausted from expectations to fully participate in rah-rah-go-team-go events of any and all kinds.
And yet it’s very difficult to avoid this aspect of any position — its flavor is baked into practically every job out there, like artificial sweeteners into a food product.
If it’s not sales, then it’s other traits of business: meetings, and politics, and schedules, and project plans and documentation, and time tracking/effort reporting, to say nothing of the ever-present hovering of your manager over your day-to-day work: No one can escape the injection of business into their core job function.
#2 The Question of Quantity
Engaging in an activity that brings you genuine satisfaction and pleasure for ten or twenty hours a week is terrific.
By the time you hit thirty, though, you’re tired.
At forty, it’s not fun at all.
Upwards of 50 and I don’t care how much you like your core function — you’re going to be sick of doing it.
It’s like this: I like tootsie rolls but I don’t want to eat two hundred of them a week, every week, until I kick the bucket.
Efficiency demands specialization. Ford built his auto-industry on this fact. One person rivets doors, another installs the seats, and someone else lays and seals the windshield glass.
Corporations utilizing knowledge workers are no different. You will be expected to repeat a defined set of tasks over and over again. Even jobs allowing some intellectual freedom are tightly constrained by specific requirements of the role.
From the corporation’s perspective, this is fantastic. Employees become incredibly good at a small set of activities, performing them with care, speed, and attention to detail. But from the point of view of the worker, this is terrible. In short order, you’ll be both bored (because you’re no longer learning anything new or interesting) while also stressed (because the constant pressure to produce never abates.) The equation thus reads:
(Boredom + Stress) = Unhappy Worker
Food Analogy Alert
Imagine you’re a short order cook at the very fine International House of Pancakes (IHOP). You probably know how to make all sorts of awesome food, because you’re a goddamned cook — ribs and quiche and banana flambe and ten million other things.
But what are you making at IHOP? Pancakes, waffles, eggs, sausage, and bacon. Over and over and over again.
Want to try something new or different? Tough. What, do you think you’re Emeril Lagasse or something? You’ll stick to the corporate recipes, if you know what’s good for you.
And while you’re at it, make that food faster. Much, Much faster. Our fine customers are waiting.
Lucky you: You’re now both bored and stressed at the same time. Awesome.
Relentlessness is distinct from quantity.
Quantity is having too much to do every day.
Relentlessness is doing that same amount of work for X days in a row, comprising X weeks in a row, comprising X months in a row, comprising X years in a row, and so on.
Relentlessness is repeating the same week for 50 out of 52 weeks a year.
Relentlessness is knowing that even after you’ve got that grueling year under your belt that there are decades more of them to follow.
Relentlessness is looking out into the future and seeing the current still life photo of your existence copied and pasted over and over again, fading into a horizon that ends with your tombstone in the distance.
You have seven days a week. Five of them are donated to your company. The sixth is devoted to life-maintenance — grocery shopping, home cleaning and upkeep, errands and odds and ends. Most likely the seventh is consumed by family gatherings. Then, on Monday, you’re ejected back into work, and the cycle repeats again.
Business demands nothing less. You must be a reliable, consistently producing worker, or your employer will jettison you from their list of salaried employees and find someone else.
I’ve recently learned that many companies in Europe are open to the idea of extended unpaid leave — perhaps a 1-year sabbatical — with the position kept open upon return. I wish more US employers adopted these allowances. If I could do this, say, one out of five years, it would make the prospect of living out a full adult life in the States much more bearable. As it is, if I asked for a year of unpaid leave, I would be laughed out of my manager’s office, and my crappy outlook would be noted on my review, no doubt.
<livingafi> is showing signs of unrest and does not want to work any more. Needs an attitude adjustment, posthaste!
That’s how we roll here in the the US of A.
#5 Rigid Schedules
Let’s say you’re doing what you love. Idealistically, part of this is working when you want to work.
In the real world, this is not possible. Your employer wants you on the clock during certain times of the day, on certain days of the week, and there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. For most people this is 9-5, but for others, it might be 8-6, or even (7-10 then 12-5 then 7-9) all in the same day. (Folks in engineering and software that have to cover multiple timezones will know instantly understand that third schedule.)
Now you’re locked into working during set periods. Even during intervals where you have nothing to do you will be expected to be plugged into the systems and available (i.e. checking email and able to respond within a couple of minutes to any incoming requests.) You still loving that job?
Look, I absolutely recognize that most gigs must have rigid schedules for organizational purposes. I’m not saying that employers should change this. (It’s hard enough to find someone at Home Depot to help you locate <obscure_item> as it is…) Instead, I’m simply pointing out that this feature of employment is a major PITA for the worker.
Most humans don’t like it all that much.
I want to take a step back and explain a bit about why am I writing so much about these sorts of things. I mean, these posts are entitled “The Job Experience,” and yet I’m not directly talking about my own job.
In my search for a job that would fit me, I ended up thinking a lot about the state of employment and modern knowledge-worker existence. After analyzing my own experiences and the experiences of my friends out in the workforce, I felt obligated to conclude that the core problem of job unhappiness relates to the inherent structures of office life, plain and simple.
Let’s get back to that list of job traits that corporate websites pretend will make you an engaged, happy employee.
Good relationships with management and coworkers.
Opportunities for advancement and salary increases
Although these things absolutely make your job suck less — and certainly help you tough out the grind — they won’t change the unalterable core aspects of jobdom that result in fatigue, disillusionment, and chronic dissatisfaction with employment which we’ve already reviewed.
Put bluntly, the structure of office life is, in and of itself, fundamentally flawed and unlikable.
Final Painful Food Analogy: Spreading chocolate on a moldy slice of cake may make it taste better, but you’re still eating spoiled food. Eat enough of it, and your body will eventually purge, one disgusting way or another. The only long-term solution is to stop feeding yourself garbage.
A Note On People Who Say They Love Their Jobs
We’ve all run across them at one point. Heck, it’s possible you’re one yourself, and you’ve been shaking your head through this entire post.
How do these folks fit into the model? How do they get over the issues I’ve just mentioned? My observations on people who claim to be genuinely happy working.
- They’re very young or new to their field.
- People who have been in their industry for fewer than 5 years are much more likely to a) feel happy about their work because they’re still learning new stuff and/or the grind hasn’t yet chewed them up enough and b) not yet have kids, which means that job responsibilities are not yet conflicting with family concerns, i.e. work-life-balance is not yet a serious issue in their lives
- Intentionally or not, they’re practicing cognitive dissonance.
- This is when their actions are in conflict with their beliefs. I can tell you about quite a few co-workers who have told me directly to my face that they are happy with their job, but then when you look at their behavior, you can’t help but see the inconsistency. Taking lots of sick days, long lunch hours, producing low-quality work or constantly being behind on projects, never volunteering to take additional training or practice ‘sharpening the toolkit’ in any way. These people want to love their jobs and say they love their jobs but clearly don’t. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions say that they just don’t care.
- Maybe this is the genuine article: one of the 15% or so of people who really do love their work. I’ve been told they exist out there in the wild somewhere.
- Also a possibility: you’re examining a very high-ranking person in your organization’s hierarchy. They tend to be more satisfied professionally for reasons I won’t speculate on here.
I’m really loving this series. You have become one of my favorite bloggers up there with others on your blogroll. Keep up the great writing.
I really appreciate the comment, which is about as nice as they come. I don’t know what to say other than thanks(!) and I’ll keep the posts coming.
Where can I get that Clippy? Seriously though, I think changing jobs and locations has helped me tremendously. Sometimes you just need to shake everything up and see how it falls out. Tough to do ‘on purpose’, but necessary. I look forward to seeing where this is going…
Hey EV, nice to see you stop by! I totally agree, mixing it up by going to a new employer has helped every time except once (in year 11 I picked a real dud), and many of my friends and peers have similar comments — that it’s like hitting the reset button on job stress, at least once you’ve made the initial transition. On that subject, FinancialCompany turns out to be, like most jobs, good and bad, but mostly just different.
If this series were a book, I would have read it in one sitting. Keep up the great work, and I’ll do my best to patiently wait 🙂
Good call: given the insane length, it practically is a book. Thanks for sticking with me on this.
Hah. I love the fake enthusiasm you added to your resume…and the fact that it worked! I really love this series. I can really connect with the emotional roller coaster you seem to have gone through, although I think my burn-out rate is much faster (a year and a half).
Right, cover-letters really are effective for many places to try to differentiate your application from others. Of course my actual suck-up language was a little more tactful but that doesn’t change the nature of it all, which is gushing over your new company. Like you, I’m burnt at FinancialCompany after 1.5 years but I gutted it out a little longer anyway. I must like suffering 😉
This post is sooo good. Shared it with DW, because I think your analysis of corporate life-suck really nailed what she’s going through this year.
I’d buy the e-book of this 😉
Awesome! Hope you both got a couple of laughs.
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I’m one of those rare unicorns that actually did love my job… and you’re notes are spot on:
1) It was my first job so I loved learning about all the cool technology in the field
2) It was a startup company making a new product, so I had a ton of flexibility and creative input that made it into the product
3) I was just out of school with no family while living abroad, so putting in extra hours because I was enthusiastic didn’t create personal conflicts
However, after 5 years, things change. The industry takes a downturn and budgets get slashed/projects cancelled. Your boss changes. You’re asked to do tasks you don’t like on top of the ones you do. Customers relentlessly attack like angry goblins. The list goes on.
The state of loving your job is so fragile. Luckily I found FI or else I’d be the most depressed person on earth having seen how fun it can be only to then be stuck in a more typical situation.