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Why People End Up in Dead-End Jobs

A study out of Duke University sheds light on the thought process that leads people to make career decisions that will make them miserable.
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No one sets out to do mindless, repetitive work that's unfulfilling and offers no room for growth, but a sad percentage of people find themselves in just that sort of job. Why is that?

For some, it’s harsh economics and lack of options, of course. If unemployment in your area is sky-high and your skills are limited, you’re going to have to take whatever gig will put food on the table. But for many folks who end up in dead-end jobs, there are options. They may dream of starting their own business or tackling a challenging but rewarding new role or career path--but when push comes to shove, they take a lackluster position.

Are they crazy? Are they scared?

Not according to research by Peter Ubel of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and David Comerford of Stirling University. The pair of professors performed a series of experiments testing the real-life decisions volunteers made when presented with two work options, one mindless and low effort and the other more challenging and more fun. This sounds like one of those ultra-obvious, groan-worthy studies that cause non-academics to wonder why professors would get paid to undertake them, but the results here were surprising.

Fairness Trumps Boredom

It may seem head-slappingly obvious that given a boring gig and a better one at equal pay, you should take the better one--but that’s not what the study subjects actually chose. Even if a volunteer indicated they preferred job A over job B on a questionnaire, when he or she was told the two jobs would have equal pay despite the fact that the interesting one was moderately more effortful (for example, doing crosswords versus watching people do crosswords), they opted for the easy but mind-numbing gig.

Why? Certainly not hard economics--the rewards are the same after all, so it seems logical that you should do the more engaging task. Instead, the choice came down to fairness.

"Ask someone which of two jobs they like better, and they will often pick the more interesting job, even if it requires more mental or physical effort," Comerford explains. "But ask them how much the two jobs should pay, and now that their mind is focused on wages, they often conclude that all that extra effort ought to be rewarded, otherwise they will take the boring job."

Restate that in everyday terms and the answer is pride.

The study subjects, without thinking too deeply about the matter, would rather be miserable than feel that they’re being underpaid. "If you put the issue of wages in front of people, all of a sudden that becomes a primary concern. They are focusing on what they perceive as fair compensation, rather than nonmonetary aspects of the job, such as social value or even whether the job is interesting," Ubel says.

Re-evaluating Priorities

What’s the ultimate takeaway here? No one is saying you should take a wildly underpaid gig, but an excessive focus on compensation and undervaluing of the non-monetary rewards of a career path causes many people to choose the wrong jobs. In the end, that results in a lot of needless human misery. Or as Comerford puts it: "The lesson I take from these studies is that that reaction risks leaving you bored and unhappy."

So next time you’re pondering a career move, spare a moment to remember this study and evaluate whether you’re properly weighting the different elements of the job. Fairness is important, but is it as important as your happiness? Do you really want to stand on principle if the result is going to be soul-crushing boredom at the office?

 

Last updated: Mar 21, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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