It's a 'lousy' job but I get to do it

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 28, 2013

A few days ago, there was a news report ranking the lousiest careers of 2013 and I saw that my job - newspaper reporter - was the worst of 200 listed.

My first reaction was one of perverse pride, a sense of vindication, the kind a hypochondriac feels when, after years of badgering, doctors give him an X-ray and find a hideous growth inside him. Being right, in my opinion, outweighs everything, including hideous growths.

The study ranking the best and worst jobs was published in The Wall Street Journal, among others. It makes me wonder what goes through a journalist's mind as she painstakingly interviews for and writes an article rubbishing the profession for which she has trained so hard and to which she has devoted years of her life.

It must really feel like being ordered to get out your tools to build your own execution scaffolding. My guess is her fingers did not dance over the keyboard with joy.

The language used in the source report is interesting. Career website, the source of the study, says it lists "best" and "worst" careers based on United States government statistics and on a set of factors including stress, physical hardship, salary and industry outlook.

The report does all it can to dance around the idea of a correlation between employee satisfaction and the ranking of the job, but, tellingly, stops short of saying that the two are directly related.

Because that would be silly. In the US, where this study is most relevant, there are many who freely choose to hold jobs listed as among the worst. With the 200th position taken by the worst job - newspaper reporter - other yucky jobs include soldier (198), actor (197), dairy farmer (195), flight attendant (191), photographer (172).

Mind you, there are low-paid, physically demanding blue-collar jobs listed among the least desirable: waitress (185), dishwasher (187), maid (181). But nothing is holding the dairy farmer back from selling every cow and getting a diploma in financial planning (a top-notch gig with a ranking of 5), or restraining the photographer from converting the studio into a chiropractic centre (a back-soothing 11).

What keeps people stuck in jobs with no future and high stress is the same here as it is in the US. It's a combination of factors I call Supermasochisticeverythingelselooksatrocious. For me, it starts with at first tolerating the negative parts of the job, then developing a fetishistic desire for pain. After a few years, the stress starts to feel good and holidays become emotional voids. Also, all other job pathways look worse from where I am.

It must be the same for American worst-job holders. In spite of the pain, people cling on to jobs in tax preparation (186), roofing (192), looking after prisoners (189) and fashion designing (182). It must be because they can't picture themselves doing anything else, and after a while, the things that drive them up the wall start to become enjoyable. Misery loves company, and co-workers become close friends.

That is human nature. In a survey, we tend to report how miserable we think we ought to be given the circumstances, not how miserable we truly are.

And it's not as if young people do not already know what jobs are horrible. It is why few young people, if they had a choice, want to drive a bus (157), wash dishes, or serve food in Singapore. The same lack of incentive applies in other countries.

It is also why the police (166), firefighters (167) and the military have to spend so much time and money in recruiting.

Looking at the ranking from a further perspective, it is apparent that the bottom-rung jobs are also mainly blue-collar ones. In the bottom 50, only about a third can be considered white-collar, fewer still if you subtract the ones who do not work in an office (actor, photographer, disc jockey).

The top 50 careers, on the other hand, are exclusively white-collar, starting with actuary (1) and ending with physician assistant (50), and taking in computer systems analyst (10) and historian (25).

In Singapore, we've felt the effects of people running away from bottom-ranked jobs for some time, long before this survey came out. It is the source of much of our angry tea-time chit-chat about poor service. In America, as it is in Singapore, this flight of workers to higher income and job security reflects a side of meritocracy we do not talk about much.

If you are a childcare worker (137) or elementary school teacher (93), your merit got you there.

If you equate job ranks with how much the economy values a worker, then Americans value marketing information 43 job ranks above that of a good elementary education, and 97 job ranks above their childcare needs. Who adds more to our lives - the marketing analyst or the childcare worker? The web developer (24) or the teacher? What does merit have to say in this equation?

So while surveys like this say almost nothing useful about where we find our career happiness, they do point to how economies value a calling in relation with others.

And by the way, the griping by newspaper reporters needs to be tempered with the knowledge that reporters are professional pessimists.

It's an occupational hazard. We under-report happiness and over-report misery. Have you seen the front page?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 28, 2013 

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