Nine to five: not great odds

I was somewhere between unemployed and underemployed for much of the late 1980s, and I’m pretty sure thoughts like these crossed my mind at the time:

During my sabbatical I tried to gain some clarity into what I might “want to do.” But I realized I’m doing it: relaxing, keeping up with the news, cooking, doing odd projects, reading, and fiddling with the stock market.

So I guess I’m just a person who is unmotivated and has no vision, but who needs income, and will have to posture and compromise to get something that pays.

And eventually, it was something that paid about 40 percent as much as I’d made earlier, simply because it was an improvement over zero.

I remember this blurb from a nearby cubicle: “People work for money. You want loyalty, buy a dog.”

I think this describes most workers. But for most people, satisfaction is achieved by buying houses and TV’s and clothes and trinkets. So for these people, the work/money contract is satisfactory.

The whole employment exercise affirms this: the emphasis is on trickery — how to dress, how to banter, the “right” questions to ask — basically how to manipulate everything you need to, in order to get an offer.

Many employers, too, seem to perversely demand conformity in interviews — they only want certain pat responses and questions. Which indicates they aren’t really interested in your answers, but rather your ability to conform and internalize routine.

I keep telling myself that I have enough house/TV’s/clothes/trinkets to last a lifetime, and maybe eventually I’ll believe it.

And I suspect I’m a disappointing interview subject, if one expects cut and dried answers: I’m more likely to tell you what I think I can do, not what I’ve already done. HR types looking for specific buzzwords and/or credentials will therefore presumably not be impressed. Further, HR types with no sense of humor will not be impressed with some of my responses to stock questions: more than once I have answered “Why did you leave your last position?” with “mutual illness.” Asked to explain this, I said: “I was sick of them, and they were sick of me.”


  1. Francis W. Porretto »

    1 February 2009 · 11:18 am

    “People work for money. You want loyalty, buy a dog.”

    According to the shrinks, the two indispensable supports of mental health are work and love. There’s a version of your quote on the former that applies to the latter:

    “You want sex? Go to a prostitute. You want love? Buy a dog.”

    Hmmm…could it be that there’s really only one indispensable support of mental health — and it sheds, drools, and has to be walked thrice each day?

    Perhaps Keiko, my Chow Chow, would know.

  2. The Director »

    1 February 2009 · 12:43 pm

    You didn’t catch Joel Spolsky’s column in Inc. Magazine, then, for why it’s foolish to give employees bonuses because they’re only in it for the intrinsic rewards anyway?

    I rebutted it here.

  3. CGHill »

    1 February 2009 · 1:08 pm

    Dolly Parton was there first:

    It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it
    And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet.

    I dunno what “intrinsic rewards” this guy is talking about: nothing I do at work addresses anything higher than Maslow’s bottom layer. There may be some folks out there who can define themselves in terms of their career choices, but I’m not one of them.

  4. fillyjonk »

    1 February 2009 · 4:52 pm

    (raises hand).

    Actually, there are dangers inherent in defining yourself too closely to your work; a bad week can make you question all sorts of things you probably should not question. I have still not learned how not to go home and cry after having a journal article manuscript rejected and I should be long past that.

    That said, tenure is a beautiful thing. Oh, I know lots of people hate on it because of those who abuse it – by either becoming deadwood or becoming hostile to both students and colleagues – but it is nice to know that your job is not going to be outsourced to India or something.

  5. CGHill »

    1 February 2009 · 5:17 pm

    The question, then, becomes this: How big a gap is there between what you are now and “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    My life is nothing like I anticipated, but this is hardly an unusual situation, and most of the unexpected turns were due to things I either did or failed to do, so it’s not like I can blame Cruel Fate or anything like that.

    And my job isn’t headed for Bangalore, or even Bangor: too much hands-on stuff and not enough turnaround time.

  6. fillyjonk »

    1 February 2009 · 7:19 pm

    That’s probably the crux of it. While what I do now is not what I wanted “when I grow up” when I was 5 or 8 or even 13, most of those choices (movie star? I really wanted to be a movie star?) were pretty unrealistic.

    This is the choice that came on the horizon when I was a junior or so in college, and gradually gelled throughout grad school; the other options were things like working for the Nature Conservancy (great jobs, but they pay $300 a month plus the use of a tent during the field season…)

    So yeah, I suppose my attachment to my job is directly related to the fact that it was what I planned for. I’m just grateful that it didn’t turn out to be a big disappointment; I could see some people winding up getting just the job they expected yet finding that it was still not really what they wanted. (Every single one of my cousins has made MAJOR – like, requiring an additional degree in another field, major – career changes in the past 10 years.)

  7. Tatyana »

    1 February 2009 · 10:07 pm

    I read the original post that started the discussion. I don’t know, it seems that it comes from a person who’s a bit…not immature exactly, but somebody who had not look at the hiring situation from employers POV.
    This is a “buyer’s” market. Meaning: the Company buys your services for a certain agreed sum per annum. You sell them. Right now, there are many – oh, so many – sellers, the competition to impress the buyer is high. Package is important. (dress code) Ability to flatter the buyer ‘s smartness is important (that they are getting something for…not so much). Also, employers want to get the job done – without problems coming from the new hire. Corporate employer usually mean, by “problems”, anything that make you to stand out on general background. I know, in elementary school you might have been praised for being special – and you might very well be a unique and interesting person – but nobody in this Co is interested in your Great Ideas, not right from the start at least. Unless they advertised for an open position of a Company’s Genius.

    It may sound harsh, and I did exaggerated a bit. Anyone, who’s been on his/her 3rd or 4th job, should be able to figure out the perfect balance – for them. Balance between tolerance for corporate PC, dress code, sly intrigues,pluses/minuses of corporate promotional ladder – and the satisfaction of the work itself, including material compensation. Same goes for business owners, I’m sure.
    It is a compromise.
    Worse if you don’t know what you want to do, even after 20 years of being in workforce. Or if the thing you want to most of all do pays $300 a month, as FJ said.

  8. Population Statistic »

    3 February 2009 · 8:48 am


    Leave it to Chaz to come up with a fitting euphonism for the end result of workplace fatigue:
    …Further, HR types with no sense of humor will not be impressed with some of my responses to stock questions: more than once I have answered “Why did …

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