- Business Insider spoke to more than a dozen people at different stages of their lives and careers, and surveyed 1,000 more, about what a “good job” means to them.
- We found good jobs in the US today are characterised by things as basic as health insurance and a retirement account – and as complex as personal fulfillment.
- Sometimes a good job can simply be one that pays enough to afford you the freedom not to think about money in your next job.
- As people age, they typically realise that prestige is less important – and company culture is more important – than they realised.
- But almost any job can be a good job if you put in the effort to mould it to your particular wants and needs.
Annafi Wahed left her job at a consulting firm in 2016, to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
When she approached her boss to give her two weeks’ notice, he thought she was joking.
“I was up for manager that year; I was making six figures,” Wahed, now 28 years old, told me. Her boss “couldn’t fathom” that she was giving it up to go “knock on doors,” and was suspicious that she was instead switching to another job in finance.
But as soon as she announced her departure, Wahed said, she knew she’d made the right decision. “It felt like the weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Wahed went on to discover that she had more than just a passing interest in politics. Even after the campaign was over, it excited her in a way that the financial world never really had. Today, Wahed is the founder of The Flip Side, a daily news digest that summarises political analysis from conservative and liberal media. On the side, she works as a data analyst for a nonprofit organisation.
Wahed and I scheduled a phone call for 9 a.m., and when she answered, she said she’d just woken up, having stayed up late working on a project for The Flip Side. But she wouldn’t trade her current lifestyle for something more traditional or less stressful, she said – this is her passion.
I spoke to Wahed (who went to my high school and was two years behind me), and more than a dozen other people at different stages of their lives and careers, as part of an investigation: What is a “good” job today? And while I didn’t come up with a definitive answer – that depends heavily on factors such as a person’s age and skill level, and whether they have kids – I did begin to see some unifying themes.
The definition of a good job has changed over time
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this exploration of what a good job means might have looked very different 50 years ago.
Rebecca Fraser-Thill, the director of faculty engagement in the Bates Center for Purposeful Work at Bates College and a career coach with the Pivot program (I was one of her coaching clients in 2017), said previous generations of workers wanted security and stability from their employers. Today’s workers don’t necessarily expect that – instead, they want a sense of personal fulfillment, whether that comes from one job, two jobs, or a job and a side hustle.
The declining prevalence of pensions has played a big role in shaping employees’ expectations from work: According to a 2014 report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the number of American workers with a defined benefit plan (i.e. a pension, which provides a specific amount of money in retirement) decreased from 62% in 1983 to 17% in 2013.
Results from a Business Insider survey of 1,000 in early December suggest that today’s young workers aren’t operating under any delusions about how much security their employers can provide them. Respondents ages 18 to 29 were 19 percentage points less likely than the average respondent to say a pension is essential to a good job. Respondents over 60, on the other hand, were 13 percentage points more likely.
And while it’s been a long time since pensions were standard practice, even a decade ago, this article might have turned out differently.
Brie Reynolds, a career coach and the career specialist at FlexJobs, told me that after the 2008 economic downturn, people realised their jobs might not last forever. As a result, Reynolds said, they started to think about how they wanted work to fit into their overall life. That is to say, work was no longer the biggest focus. Indeed, in the Business Insider survey, the third most popular choice for essential aspects of a a good job was work/life balance (74%).
Money and benefits are still a priority for many
The same Business Insider survey, which asked people for the factors they consider essential to a good job, highlighted three popular aspects: health insurance (87%), paid vacation (75%), and a 401(k) or other retirement account (73%).
Salary is especially important for today’s recent college grads, who are often saddled with massive student debt. The average student loan debt for Class of 2017 graduates who borrowed money was $US39,400, according to a report from Student Loan Hero.
Wahed readily admitted that her work at the consulting firm was “not what got me up in the morning. What really only got me up was paying off my student loans and making good money.” At the time, not having a full-time job and continuing to wallow in debt just didn’t seem like options.
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“I’m a first-generation immigrant,” she told me. She remembered moving to the US with her mother at eight years old, struggling through ESL classes in elementary school. “Part of me was definitely like, ‘I need a steady job. I can’t just go around bumming through life after college.'”
Wahed said she “absolutely would not have taken this step [joining the Clinton campaign] at 22,” when she’d just graduated from Bryn Mawr. “I had student loans to pay off; I had very little professional experience,” she said, outside of an internship she’d done at FDIC.
Yael Rosenstock was similarly motivated to pay off her student loans before she explored her passions and interests. After she graduated college, Rosenstock, also 28, took a job teaching in Argentina; she was offered a full-time teaching position there, but declined and returned to New York City instead.
“My student loans were really high and [New York] was the only place I could think of where I could make enough money to actually pay them,” she told me. Rosenstock moved in with her parents and started taking odd gigs – babysitting, organising homes – before she landed a job in programming at a university center (she’s since been promoted to associate director). Within two years, she had paid off her student loans in full.
Rosenstock is heading to a PhD program in health behaviour, with a specialty in sex education, next year, and she said she’s somewhat worried about giving up the comfortable salary and benefits she received at the university. But she’s committed to pursuing her own business; on the side, she’s been running Kaleidoscope Vibrations, LLC, which focuses on adult sex education and body positivity. And now that she’s in a more financially stable place, Rosenstock feels ready to take the leap into academia. Her ultimate goal is to run her own business and teach on the side.
Sometimes a good job is one that pays enough so money isn’t your top priority in the next job
But two-thirds of Americans aren’t college graduates, and only a sliver are working for global consulting firms.
I spoke with Fred Goff, the CEO of Jobcase, or “LinkedIn for blue collar workers,” and he told me that many people in the US just need a job and a paycheck. It’s not that they don’t want the same things out of work as their better-educated or higher-skilled peers, like prestige and personal fulfillment. It’s more that they don’t necessarily have the luxury to wait for those things to materialise.
Still, over the course of my reporting, I noticed some important similarities among people at all income, education, and skill levels. Namely, sometimes a good job is one that pays enough now for you to prioritise something other than a paycheck in your next job.
Wahed and Rosenstock felt they had to pay off their student loans – and get some experience on their resume – before they could realise their dreams. Meanwhile, many Jobcase members see a good job as one that pays enough so they can start thinking about factors such as company culture and the ability to make an impact on society.
Goff summarized it this way: If your current job isn’t ideal, you can use it as a launching point for getting one that is, for example by getting a reference from your manager or gaining in-demand skills. “Even if this is just, ‘I need a paycheck right now,'” Goff said, “you also should just pause and say, ‘But is this also something I can leverage into something better?”
Since speaking with Goff, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether this mindset might contribute to some amount of unhappiness: You’re always looking toward the next best thing, the job that’s “great” as opposed to just “good.” Or might this mindset instead make a certain type of lifestyle more palatable, because you know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel? Or both?
Sometimes, the “leveraging” Goff cited only happens in hindsight. A few people I spoke with said they wouldn’t be on the career path they’re on now if not for a less favourable job in their past.
Less than a year ago, Alysa Ain, in her early 30s, was working at a New York City law firm, feeling unfulfilled and unable to keep up with the extreme demands on her time and energy. Ain recently applied to graduate programs in clinical social work: Her goal is to help professionals who are stressed and unhappy. Thinking about this future career helps her “not regret” her time in corporate law, she said.
Similarly, Bernadette Bielitz, a volunteer with AARP, said that in her next role, she wants to do something around community engagement, helping employees address caregiving issues. This desire stems directly from her own difficult experience taking care of her elderly parents while working full-time.
Company culture is typically more important than people realise at first
Over the summer, Dane Holmes, Goldman Sachs’ HR head, told a group of Goldman interns that the people you work with matter even more than the specific job you’re doing. It’s something to keep in mind, Holmes said, when you’re choosing your next job.
Goff, for his part, places the people you work with at the top of the “hierarchy” of professional needs. That is to say, it matters most to your satisfaction, but you need to have the luxury to choose a job where you like your coworkers.
Sometimes, a positive company culture can simply mean honest management, which Goff labelled the No. 1 thing everyone, regardless of skill level, wants out of work. In other words, managers should state upfront what the job, compensation, and upward mobility look like. If it’s a minimum wage job for 20 hours a week, fine – but your employer shouldn’t change that on you a few months down the line.
And more than half of respondents in the Business Insider survey said flexibility is essential to a good job, with women 13 percentage points more likely to do so.
In some cases, flexibility is offered to an almost comical extent: Earlier this year, I profiled Hubspot, which is one of the best tech companies to work for, according to Glassdoor. One woman I spoke to got permission from her manager to work “remotely,” while she followed Justin Timberlake around on his US tour.
And while work/life balance is traditionally seen as an issue relevant to parents of young kids (or to mothers, as the case may be), in reality it affects a broader swath of the working population. Before Bielitz’s parents passed away a few years ago, she was caring for them while holding down a full-time job. Bielitz told me she was reluctant to talk to her managers about the tumult in her personal life, out of fear that she would lose her job.
“I remember taking calls from my bosses in hospital rooms. I look back and my mother’s dying,” Bielitz said. “I shouldn’t have been taking any calls.”
Prestige may become less appealing as you get older
A common theme I noticed among the people I interviewed was that prestige can become less attractive over the course of a career. That might be simply because you can always say, “I worked at Google,” or “I worked at Goldman,” and benefit from the company’s reputation, even if you’re no longer employed there. But it might also be the case that people quickly become disillusioned about how glamorous big-name companies really are.
Ain, the lawyer transitioning to social work, told me that she initially applied to law school because she felt like her parents expected her to have a professional career. And when she got into Harvard, she was excited by the idea of doing something prestigious.
Once she’d graduated and joined a top law firm, Ain was disheartened by the lack of fulfillment she felt and by the all-consuming nature of work. She signed up for career coaching with Fraser-Thill and realised that the “relationship aspect” of work – i.e. having meaningful interactions with other people – was important to her. Not long after, she decided to pursue a degree in social work.
“Prestige is definitely not important to me anymore,” Ain told me. ‘I’ve just seen how empty it is.” When she was younger, Ain said, she was interested in proving to other people that she was smart and capable. Now, however, “prestige is last on the list of things that are important about a job.”
Even salary has taken on less importance in her mind. Ain said she’s mostly concerned with living comfortably and not feeling anxious about money, as opposed to living extravagantly.
Josh Druce, 35 years old, had a similar experience. Druce worked for a series of big banks before realising the role wasn’t for him. Today he’s the sole employee for private credit fund Loan Ranger LP. It’s the “least glamorous organisation” he’s ever worked for, but also the “happiest I’ve ever been,” Druce said.
He admitted that working for a small business seemed risky at first – so risky that he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have done it if he’d had kids. But having made the change, Druce said, “I now have so much more control over my fate, my compensation, and what impact I have on the world.”
Prestige might be something different for individual positions, too. The Business Insider survey found that 65% of respondents see “opportunity for advancement” as essential to a good job. But that doesn’t necessarily mean climbing the corporate ladder, advancing from individual contributor to people manager to top executive. If you’ve read any books or articles on management lately, you’re likely familiar with the idea that the traditional career path is all but dead.
Libby Leffler, for example, a former Googler and Facebook executive, previously told me that a linear career trajectory doesn’t really exist anymore. Instead, she and other Facebook employees talk about the idea of a “jungle gym,” where you hop from one role or industry to the next instead of climbing the corporate career ladder. Leffler said that, in her own career, she’s always taken roles where she can learn something new – even if that meant making a lateral move.
Almost any job can be a good job if you ‘craft’ it to be
Career experts like to talk about the importance of “job crafting,” a term coined by Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale professor who has spent years studying how people make meaning out of their work. One of Wrzesniewski’s early papers on the topic described some members of a cleaning crew at a hospital who crafted their job to be more meaningful by doing things that weren’t listed in their job descriptions, like spending time with patients who seemed upset.
Fraser-Thill mentioned it during our interview, and said that most people who are fulfilled by their work have stayed in a particular role or field for a while and “melded it to fit the various elements of what they need.”
Still, she said, job crafting is harder – and less common – than it sounds. “It’s easier in some ways to be like, ‘I’m just going to leave this job and go find another one’ than it is to sit down with your supervisor and say, ‘Hey, I really need or want these particular elements. Is there anything we can do about that?'”
To be sure, Fraser-Thill added, your boss won’t be inclined to help meet your needs unless you’re a high-performing employee and an asset to the organisation. That is to say, a good job doesn’t always come easy. It often takes a lot of, well, work. But that effort can pay off big, not solely by making your job more personally fulfilling. It can also empower you to feel like you – not your manager, not your bank account, not The Man – are in control of your career.
SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weight its sample based on race or income. Total 1,037 respondents, margin of error plus or minus 3.11 percentage points with 95% confidence level.