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Why Do So Many People Remain in Unfulfilling Jobs?

"I hate my job." As a career coach, these crushing words will easily launch me into a sympathetic series of rapid-fire questions, with the answers providing the foundation for what I hope will be a creative problem-solving discussion. You're not alone if you feel you are toiling in an unfulfilling job now, with the only hope of someday retiring to start living a more-fulfilling life. The assumption on which the concept of retirement is based—that we need to defer our life's happiness until we reach our senior years—is unfortunate and growing increasingly more illogical under the new psychological contract. Why do you feel the need to defer your happiness? Given the change in the psychological contract, without promises for the future return, this delayed-fulfillment approach seems even more absurd. Yet, I have learned, there are reasons why people stay in jobs they hate.

Discussing creative solutions to career fulfillment produces responses on the following continuum: At one extreme, there are the life-is-too-short-to-be-unhappy-at-work folks. They want to approach their careers with fresh eyes. Many (but certainly not all) of them are young adults and those reentering the workforce. The conversation with people at this end of the continuum is always enjoyable, creative, and solution focused. These folks have minimal career-related baggage and want to be happy with whatever they opt to do for a living. They are optimistic and willing to explore possibilities for their careers.

At the other extreme, there are the yes-I-hate-my-job-but-that-is-why-they-call-it-work folks. They want to get out of the rut they are in, but have convinced themselves that this is where they need to remain. Many (but not all) of them are experienced and well-trained mid-career or late-career folks. They tend to be bound to an outdated employment scenario that no longer exists. They carry career-related baggage and are pessimistic about exploring options, often not even giving themselves the luxury of daydreaming about other career possibilities.

The latter end of the continuum has taught me much about why people remain in unfulfilling jobs. The five most common reasons are as follows:

  • Financial responsibility—"I cannot change jobs now; I make too much money and it would be too difficult to find something at my level. I have too many expenses to ever take the financial risk." You immediately conjure up the image of an investment banker who is joining the Peace Corps, don't you? The truth is that job changes do not need to be a financial step back, but they might require some planning and preparation so you do not jump before you are ready. When I hear this comment, it tends to be the case that the person is overextended financially and they need their steady current income to pay bills. Any thought of giving that up (even with a new job lined up) becomes an overly daunting financial risk. If you find yourself in this position, try to work on two things concurrently: One, try to get your personal finances under control so you can mentally give yourself license to make career-related choices that are both financially rewarding and fulfilling. Two, develop a budget for the action plan necessary for changing your career.
  • Retention incentives—"I only have two more years before I am fully vested in the pension program. I can suffer through anything for a few more years." The human resources practices designed to encourage retention often work. This is great news for companies hoping to lower their costs to train new workers. This is also great news for those who make it to the goal line with the company and can reap the financial reward in retirement. This is a personal decision regarding whether it is worth it—your call. I'd highly recommend beginning a side career while you, literally, finish "doing your time." If you hate your current job that much, you might feel out of control, and starting a new career act can be both financially rewarding when you make it to the corporate finish line and will be emotionally satisfying, putting you back in control of your career and your future.
  • Fear of change and the unknown—"I wouldn't know what to do if I left this job. This is what I know how to do." Some people truly fear change. Minimally, as humans, we tend not to like it very much. The most successful people I know fear settling more than they fear change. They dislike complacency more than they dislike ambiguity. We all vary with respect to our comfort level with change and ambiguity. As an individual difference, it really is not fair for me to offer pithy suggestions in the hopes of turning the most cautious into a career bungee jumper. If you really hate your job (slightly more than you hate change), I would suggest not changing a thing in your current work situation—but, rather, add a small additional career act, rooted in something you love. You can then control when and how (and if ever) your job will change by dedicating more time to this additional career act. When you feel comfortable and the change no longer produces anxiety, you'll make the leap.
  • Escalation of commitment (or misplaced loyalty)—"I have worked in this profession for 15 years; I am not about to give up the years I have put in to start over." "I have given a lot of myself to this organization." These are such retro comments. Sorry for the repetition, but it does warrant repeating. The psychological contract between employers and employees has clearly changed. Employers have no long-term commitment to their employees and employees should feel no sense of long-term commitment to their employers. Your employer owns jobs; you do not. There are no guarantees that "your" job will be there in the future, just as there is no expectation that you will stay with the organization if there is a better opportunity for you elsewhere. There are no gold stars for attendance in this stage of your life. Please move on if you are truly unhappy. There are bound to be better opportunities elsewhere, especially ones you create for yourself.
  • Pessimism—"It is naïve to think you can like what you do." "I do not believe there are any fulfilling jobs—work is work." I feel sorry for those who really believe this is true. If you are not a natural pessimist, the underlying sentiment is usually related to a lack of creativity for your options. This book should help with that and, if you fall into this pessimistic category, I'd suggest you start talking to people who genuinely seem to enjoy what they do for a living. They are out there—but don't take my naïve word for it.

Being fulfilled in your income-generating career activities is critical for your emotional and physical well-being. Life is far too short to spend time in a job you hate, and your happiness does not need to be deferred to your senior years. It is time for you to get a life, not a job.

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