Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why are some jobs better than others?

Time to read this post: 4 minutes.
When I was eighteen I spent a year volunteering as a teacher at a high school in rural Zimbabwe. I taught English, Mathematics and helped coach the school volleyball team. The kids were terrific & eager to learn, the workload was manageable and every day presented itself with a new challenge. But there was just one problem. I simply didn’t like being a teacher. I would awake each morning with dread trying to think of ways to avoid the classroom. So was puzzled when I read that teachers are happier than everyone else in the workplace. I decided to investigate what we know about job satisfaction, who is happy with their career and why?

First stop: the Gallup well-being index. This suggests that teaching is a route to a happy career. 180,000 interviews across 12 professions gave teachers double the life evaluation score of manufacturing & production workers. Gallup’s research is thorough and thoughtful. However they only compare twelve types of job which was less helpful so I kept looking.

Next up I came across a University of Chicago study, "Job Satisfaction in the United States" which sounded promising. From surveys of ~27,000 people across ~200 occupations it calculated which jobs hold the most satisfaction and conversely the most misery. The vicars & priests top the charts by a margin with firefighters and teachers also making the list. Here are the top seven jobs:

What should we make of this? Being a priest would seem alright – helping your flock get into heaven – pretty fulfilling for an afternoon’s work. Now fighting fires gives you excellent bragging rights in a nightclub. Then authors get to stay home and procrastinate while watching hours of bad daytime TV and then sitting in nice cafes trying to overcome their writer’s block. Painters and sculptors? Well that one surprised me. Most artists I know are lonely, broke and not getting the recognition they secretly crave. So how about at the other end of the scale? Well here are the seven jobs with the lowest job satisfaction:

Some of these make sense. Carrying heavy roofing materials up ladders in the rain doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Waiters are mostly unhappy because their acting talents remain overlooked. Laboring, hand-packing and freight handling were also not jobs I had discussed much with my university career advisor. And that’s precisely the problem with these lists. Where are the investment banking analysts? Where are the Advertising account managers? Where are the supermarket produce buyers? Where are the management consultants, the non-profit lawyers, the web 2.0 entrepreneurs, the corporate communications writers, the consumer packaged goods brand managers? Where are all the professions that people I know are struggling to decide between?

These are all self-report questionnaires. You can’t tell whether happier people self-select into certain professions. You can’t see why a profession scores higher or lower. Is it the people in the job or the structure of the job itself?

Well this is exactly what the third study tackled. Andrew Oswald is an Economics professor from the University of Warwick in UK. He went beyond job satisfaction and asked what else it could be about the people in the jobs or the jobs themselves. His extensive statistical analysis of over 16,000 people showed that most people do enjoy their work: ~80% of people rate themselves as 5, 6 or 7 out of 7 on a scale of job satisfaction. A number of his insights surprised even him. Happiness in the workplace is U-shaped. People enter the workforce bright-eyed and enthusiastic, they hit a trough in their mid-30s and then gradually morale improves until retirement. This might be because “life tames one’s wilder expectations, and that this process hurts but works”. This is a theory of acceptance.

Oswald found women are consistently happier than the men. Researchers are still squabbling about why this might be so (e.g. are men just hard to please?). Work somewhere that feels small – avoid impersonal large organizations where you become an anonymous cog in the machinery. Ensure that your boss doesn’t control the pace of your work, let it be driven by you, your colleagues or your customers. This one really is critical. One option is to be self-employed. Next, says Oswald, make sure you don’t become overqualified – having more education is negatively correlated with job satisfaction. Avoid working in big cities where you have a nightmare commute – moving to the suburbs to get a larger house and outdoor grill is an alluring but bad trade-off.

Oswald also reminds us that it’s not just about what you think of the job, but what do others think about you? Does you job and title carry the necessary “wow factor”. Occupational prestige, as it’s called, is immensely important to our self-esteem and something I will tackle next week.

So after reading all this I considered whether we should all quit our jobs and become priests. I spoke to a friend who went into the Catholic Church after university. He was a highly successful priest. Did he have high job satisfaction? Yes indeed, he told me, but it wasn’t everything he wanted so in his early thirties he changed career. He became an investment banker at Merrill Lynch…

Tough questions
1. Who controls the pace of your work? How can you get more control?
2. How socially connected are you at work? How could you enjoy your colleagues time more?