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Semi-Retirement for the Under Twenties: Part 1

The Vast Majority of Full-time Career Jobs are Dull and Unrewarding

Look at the job description in an advert for a career job: many claim that the job is ‘exciting’, ‘rewarding’, ‘fulfilling’ or something similar. It won’t be. Such claims seemed doubtful when I first read those adverts, and I now have plenty of evidence that this is false.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives his necessary criteria for a satisfying job: autonomy, in that you decide the tasks you perform and when you perform them; complexity, in that the work is not dull and routine; and a sense of reward for a job done.

It is the last, the sense of reward, that modern careers pretend to provide but do not. This is a big loss. Many (though not all) well-paid career jobs provide autonomy: an account executive who develops new mobile phone contrtacts will decide who she does business with and when and where her meetings are held; and career jobs almost always provide complexity: gambling on the futures markets in the City is more complex and intellectually stimulating than the corking of wine bottles on a production line. But the sense of reward for a job done is seldom provided for.

Companies provide one kind of reward: the payment of a salary. But this is only a substitute reward – it is not the same as a genuine reward for the job done. To feel the kind of reward  that makes a job satisfying you must be able to view the end product of your work as something in which you are proud. Are you going to feel genuinely proud of working as a teller in a bank, of balancing the accounts for a multinational corporation, or being a producer’s assistant on a reality TV programme?

The reason that the answer to this is ‘not really’ is because the end products of these jobs did not arise from your own ideas. You did not set out with these goals for your job, they were handed to you by someone else, by your boss. You spend thirty-seven and more hours a week under pressure to complete tasks which you do not care about. (There are of course jobs, such as a doctor, where there is reward in the job done. More about these jobs in Part 2.)

But, you say, is there not still enough satisfaction to be had in completing goals in a career job, even if they are set by an employer? They are still goals. No. You become vaguely aware of this months after starting work, and it becomes clearer as the years go by. Goals set by other people cannot truly satisfy, because deciding these goals yourself is an important part of the sense of reward. Right now do you really count building a website to sell insurance products, or even writing policy advice for a government department amongst your goals in life? Are these activities which use your genuine capabilities and in which you are truly interested? You may have little idea of the nature of your genuine capabilities at the moment. But do you imagine that they coincide with those of any company?

Companies substitute for this lack of genuine reward by trying to make you feel part of a company ‘family’, and by trying to convince you that the company’s goals are your goals. They send you on away-days with these family members that are labelled ‘team-building’, which sound like their primary purpose is to forge stronger relationships at work. But a company does not care about genuine relationships. Team-building exercises try to create stronger bonds between work colleagues, but only in order that you feel celebrated by your colleagues if you achieve for the company, and that you are letting them down if you don’t: a slave driver’s whip of emotional guilt. Team-building days feel awkward and false because they come from false motives – they try to form ‘friendships’ between people who would not naturally be friends.

Your goals are not the company’s goals. A company’s only goal is to make money, for themselves.

Ask people you know who have full-time career jobs how much they like them, how much they find them fulfilling. Watch carefully as they answer: judge whether you think they are giving a truthful answer. Many who answer ‘yes’ or ‘it’s okay’ are lying to themselves. It is a necessary survival trait to convince yourself, above anyone else, that your job fulfills you. Why else would you be spending thirty-seven-plus hours of your waking week working at it?

What then, you already ask, are the goals that you should instead pursue for a satisfying life?

Work satisfaction comes less from pursuing particular goals than from experiencing the pleasure of creative ideas. Ideas connected to your genuine capabilities, not to an employer’s demands. And although anything described as ‘creative’ is usually understood to be found in activities labelled ‘art’, the word ‘creative’ covers a much wider range of activities. We’ll return to this in a later part.

But already, you object: all the career jobs described so far, they are not professions I would choose anyway. I want to be a doctor, or work for a charity, or be a zookeeper, a job where I might make a difference to the lives of others, and, as a consequence, receive a non-monetary sense of reward. Rewarding career jobs do exist, of course. But the demand for them is high, and this brings its own problems.

next: Part 2 – Rewarding Jobs Are So Highly Prized They Are Unrewarding