Why we stay in jobs we hate - Part One: Golden Handcuffs

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This is the first article in a 3-part series on why people don’t pursue their dream jobs and stay in ones that are a horrible fit. It could be you. It definitely was me.

In this first blog posting, I look at the cultural rewards built into our workplaces for staying where we are. I begin with my story.

The server placed our drinks on one side of the table. We reached over for our own. It was that bar. The kind where the servers are street tough and the windows are covered with dark paper so no light would enter.  It was shortly after 11 am.

Four of us had come together from our midnight shift at the factory, worn out and exhausted but doing what many do after their work – head out for a brew. Except of course this was morning.

 We all shared one thing – nothing about our jobs intrigued us.

 In fact, we were bored. Everything I learned when I first started the job several months before I learned in the first 15 minutes.  There was nothing I looked forward to except the machine breaking down. Something to break the monotony.

 How did I land there?

When I first moved to the city I was 18, no experience and no one willing to hire me to get the experience. My aunt, who had worked at the factory for over 40 years, vouched for me under the condition that I not quit because she was doing me a favour.

The midnight shift looked more interesting than the evening shift where I first started. Everyone who worked during the day seemed to take it a bit too seriously. My transfer was immediately approved. No one wanted the night shift.

Mostly I worked alone or with one other person. Our middle-of-the-night lunch hour is where I met my buddies, guys who liked to have fun, exactly what an 18-year-old was seeking. 

We had this attitude: “We get the work done.” So if we took extra time at lunch or during the breaks, well, we worked hard to get it done. If that meant during our breaks we added a little vodka to our thermos, well, that was on our time.

To say that we needed to leave our jobs was an understatement. I was the new kid on the block. A couple of those guys had been there for decades. That their off-work coping strategies spilled over into their work time became more and more justifiable, as their spirits withered.

Quit?

It was inconceivable. They had worked a long time and were getting pretty high wages. Even I was getting well over minimum wage. Some had come straight out of high school and had done nothing else. Where else was there to go? Another factory? Start over?

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Later I heard the term “golden handcuffs,” a phrase that encapsulates those high-paying, low-stimulating jobs that people work hard to acquire and are loathe to quit because of the pension plan, benefits, more paid time off and the pay.

Why would you quit such a job?

The fact is the work world rewards its workers for putting in the time. Whether it is pay raises or the freedom promise that comes with a pension plan, there is plenty in our culture to keep us tied to staying in a job.

In the midst of the inner turmoil of an imagined life and how it is really playing out, any glimpse of freedom is a beacon of hope. Vacation time is packed with adventure, or as much as can be mustered given how worn out a person is from the demands of their job. Weekends become a recovery and preparation for the next onslaught.

Or as me and my buddies were demonstrating, sometimes waiting for the weekend isn’t enough.

One of those fellows, a very likable and engaging guy, was a well-managed alcoholic though one might question his ability to contain it. When he talked about electronics, that’s where I saw the spark.

Misplaced

I could imagine, even then when I was young and hadn’t many ideas of what a person could do with their life, that he was somehow misplaced. Like a Star Trek transporter, there was a malfunction that placed him where he did not belong and he had no idea about how to get to the right place.

There was a whole lot keeping him where he was, in that tedious factory job where he was using a fraction of his abilities. The older he got, the longer was his list of responsibilities. Mortgage. Family. Children going to university. All of it was tied to him keeping the wage he was earning. He felt like he had no choices.

And no encouragement to change his circumstances. My comment to him, “Why the hell are you staying here?” I wouldn’t classify as support; it certainly wasn’t the first time he heard that from others and it reinforced an idea that he was incapable of doing something different. And he also felt shitty about why he wasn’t leaving.

According to work studies, 70% of people are not engaged with their work.

When I think of my other co-workers at the factory, I would have said it was a higher percentage.

Everyone was in the same boat.

Which is both compelling and horrifying.  What we have is a cultural norm. Staying in a shitty job. We hardly notice when people complain about their jobs. We commiserate.

The problem feels so big and beyond our ability to solve that we shelve it for future consideration with a dash of hope that along the way something will happen that will eject us out of our limited life into the big life we were meant to live.

But it is all okay because the same thing is happening to our next door neighbour, our co-worker and our friend. We are soothed by the idea that we are not the only ones experiencing a void of meaning in our work lives.

We are part of the herd.

When we stray from the herd, the new territory feels unfamiliar. The people who we used to commiserate with, we suddenly have one less thing in common. Complaining on a Friday night doesn’t have the gusto it did when you were all talking about what you hated. Straying from the herd can be a lonely venture.

That is how I ended up being in a seedy bar at 11 am. With my herd.