I once wrote an article about being poor, and I started it out with a story about a friend who had spent some time explaining to my wife (who, at the time, was struggling to maintain a household of four on entry-level retail money) how hard up for funds they were, and how stressful it was. The zinger of the story, such as it was, was that the woman and her husband were both doctors. They weren’t bad people, but they came from a context where things like “being broke” had entirely different meanings.
Hi Y'all! I'm very glad to have you. Greetings, HN readers good to see you again.
I apologize for being a bad host; I usually respond to all or nearly all comments, and I will do so here as well. But it's going to take me a little bit - I'm trying to keep priorities straight on the most important religious day of my religion's calendar, which means ignoring you for a bit.
Post any questions, comments or complaints and I promise I'll respond within the next day or so.
I’m sort of embarrassed how cheesy this sounds: I grew up pretty well off, but once I turned 14 my parents made it a requirement that I started working. I painted fences, was a barista, did golf course grounds work, and then concrete.
Over a decade of comfy software engineering later I still think back to those jobs. A little overtime is nothing compared to shifts that start at 4:00am. An annoying manager is way better than grumpy women wanting lattes. All my problems of the past decade combined don’t come close to a single day doing concrete in July. Holy shit is concrete hard.
I’m so lucky to be doing what I do. Great post.
You hit it out of the ballpark with this one, RC
My impression is that shitty jobs tend to be unskilled jobs or jobs where the supply of workers greatly outstrips the demand. (Or where there's oligopoly/monopoly power.) Because if you're unskilled/common you're interchangeable and you're reliant on your boss being a nice person. If you're skilled and rare, even in a relatively poorly paid skill, then you're difficult enough to replace that your boss will have trouble replacing you and so will go further to make your working conditions decent.
For example, I once met a woodworker/joiner who was making maybe $40-60k a year. Not wealthy by anyone's imagination. But he was a really skilled worker. He worked in a woodshop under a boss because he liked not having to do anything other than work wood. And if he didn't he would have quit and taken a combination of construction and artistic jobs. I'd guess a guy like that is probably going to have less shitty jobs than someone right out of even a high end university who's just another new journalist or first year law associate or whatever.
But like you say, it seems like the culture norm gets set around the median employee as measured by productivity. So if you imagine a pareto 80-20 rule around the 30% percentile employee. (Low confidence on it being this specific point.)
I once met a woman who was a secretary at a tech company. We chatted and she mentioned she'd been working at some awful job (I forget). She then went on about how great the benefits were here and how people respected her and all that. (Apparently the previous place had a bad culture of sexual harassment.) Now, realistically, the tech company could have replaced her in a minute. They could have treated her terribly and she'd have had few options that paid as well. But if the company did that to its engineers then the entire engineering team would have walked out the door laughing and the company would have collapsed. And that set the cultural norm.
I guess tl;dr:
-Culture matters more than individual bargaining power. But the overall culture is set by the group who has the most bargaining power.
-It's not necessarily a high skill, low skill thing but instead the ability of people to be in a good bargaining position. Plenty of highly paid or prestigious jobs are shitty because people are still replaceable.
-As a side point, you can maintain infinite cultures in a company. What you can't maintain is multiple cultures in an office in my experience.
And actually I think that second to last point might be something you're missing. Yes, having a shitty job that pays $100k is better than one that pays $30k. But there's INCREDIBLY shitty jobs that pay well and are prestigious. I've seen bosses screaming at and hitting their employees who were earning six figures and that was just the culture. Anecdotally, these highly paid but shitty jobs tend to be in extremely consolidated industries. Like Hollywood, journalism, or politics. Places that are small and coordinated enough that pissing off your boss can end your career. But also high productivity enough they pay well.
I got stuck working low wage "shitty" jobs for my first 6-7 years out of college due to a combination of poor planning and bad luck. Even now, after being in a full time engineering job for almost 5 years, it's hard to let go of the mindset I had in those lower paying jobs. It's like pulling teeth to get me to spend money on my health, because I'm not used to having extra income for that. For a while I also felt guilty spending money on food, though my husband finally talked me out of that. Even now, I put up with more stress and abuse from managers than I probably should. Years of being broke and desperately needing a paycheck taught me that the only acceptable reason for leaving a job (or doing anything that puts me at risk of getting fired, such as telling a manager that I can't handle a specific job duty) is if the job makes me want to kill myself on a daily basis.
Getting a "better" job has also given me a bad case of imposter syndrome. In a lot of ways, my $70k engineering job is easier than my $10/hour restaurant and customer service jobs. The work itself is more technical, but that's never been the part I struggled with. In terms of downtime, they both have about the same amount: none. (The "shitty" jobs were always understaffed on purpose, and the management at my current job is bad at setting reasonable deadlines.) But I no longer get micro managed by my bosses, no longer have to deal with rude customers, no longer have to mask my autism for 6-12 hours per day (engineers are great at putting up with a little bit of weirdness). Honestly, sometimes I don't know why I'm getting paid $30 per hour with nice benefits instead of $8 per hour with no benefits. I'm frequently baffled when my employer does things like giving me bereavement leave, or giving me time off for an injury. If I didn't deserve this when busting my ass working "shitty" jobs, why in the world do I deserve it at my current job?
PS: most of my lower paying jobs were legitimately shitty in at least one way... except for working in the public library system. That was enjoyable and fulfilling enough that I would have been willing to do it long term, if only it had paid better. They capped most positions at $12-15k per year unless you had a masters in library science. Not possible to live on as a sole income, but it's a fantastic option for anyone looking for a part time job for some extra cash.
I had a great job one time that I enjoyed but a downside was that the boss was possibly too leniant. My coworkers got lazy and it started creating problems.
> "If you are a really hard-to-find talent who is working at a particular place because they lured you in with incredible benefits, feel good about that; you probably played a part in making sure someone less vital to the company’s plans got them as well."
I LOVE this thought. Could people share stories about observing this type of culture shift? (whether you were the recruited hard-to-find-talent, or in the shoes of a the recruiter-of-hard-to-find-talent, or just observing such a culture change from the sidelines!!)
I feel like as a renter (hilariously connecting to the other big article of yours) who's sometimes perceived as more of a "desirable tenant" than my neighbors, I have sometimes felt, "Hey! I can advocate for this improvement to... say, the crappiness of the the maintenance of the shared downstairs laundry room. And it can affect the quality of my neighbor's lifestyle!" (other times as a less-desirable tenant)
The idea that you can't really maintain two cultures in a company is ...actually kind of exciting. It makes me feel like "This is the kind of power for changing a culture that people need to know they have." (And it's really underrated!)
I've had shitty jobs all over the spectrum. I had a professional job pulling decent rates for the area (~$90k in Albuquerque) but working directly for someone like your sociopathic Grinning Woman. And she didn't have any more respect for me than yours had for you. Which was stressful enough that after I no longer had that unix systems administration job, I became a truck driver for several years. Which was also shitty, but in a completely different fashion. ;) And yes, also a fairly significant shift in fields.
Sorry for the question, but here is one that is relevant: Is this comparing how being a gentry working under an established firm is superior of being a high-skill laborer sandwiched between small business owners and low-level laborers? https://indiepf.com/michael-o-churchs-theory-of-3-class-ladders-in-america-archive/
Shit jobs, yeah. I confirm. 2 takes:
1. Covid brought me back to the student-job I loved: Man of the Nightwatch. id est: securitas. Was 8 DM/hr in 1995, is 12.5€ now. Triple! Even 1 day vacation per 2 weeks. Reading ACX and having walks. Sunset. Sunrise. The glory of it! Shit part: Now I have colleagues all night. One is PhD - the "foreman", loves to tell NO to your vacations dates. One other is .. beyond pale. Most others are surprisingly bearable. (The company boss is ... a former watchmen. I always nod when he talks to me. Not that hard.) - Had a meat-grinder experience between high-school and college: Dishwasher assembly line. Best paid student job in town. Hell. Well, purgatory. I could leave - the Turkish gastarbeiter felt: they could not. (not a single German worked all year on that line) . 3 weeks and I quit - then my hands formed into paws-of-pus from those lubricants I had worked with. Sure, they gave us gloves. Didn't survive half-a-shift. - But: Worst emotional experience was high-class/high paid for a state-funded NGO - Goethe-Institute - where the boss just loved to fire staff. First she gave the boot to my local assistant (and I was new!) - then to me. - Now I am applying to sell my soul as school-teacher - I actually respect drug-dealers more: their clients demand the wares. But as an M.A. in GaFL, not much choice. Or is it??
2. Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little (Epicure), platitude but true. I always lived in my means and in my needs. And my needs are very well covered with 1k a month. Which every legal idiot can do in my country, in any job - and without a job, too. All included - bed, eggs, shoes. Sure, I earned much more at times, and saved that surplus. That is how I have a family and a quarter-million in stocks. And if I lost it all - I do watchman again and have double of what I need. Not sure about "it is near the bone, where meat is sweetest" (Thoreau), but halving your expenses may get you far - at least far from "shit-jobs".
At one time in my life, I had a temp job that had started at $8/hour but where I had gotten a raise to $10.25/hour. (This was around 1997, if you want to adjust for inflation.) Although it was a physically and psychologically comfortable corporate office job, I had become miserably bored, to the point of not being able to make myself do most of the tasks. Yet I felt I couldn't quit because I had never dreamed of making $10.25/hour and I was sure I'd never make that much again. (I was fired and then made $12/hour at my next temp job.)
I happen to have a brain that is good at math and analytical skills, and it seems (based on other people's responses to me) that I have a pleasant and normal-seeming personality, so despite the fact that I'm a terrible employee in some ways (avoidant, ADD-brained, unmotivated, whiny), I've been able to make the medium-big bucks in jobs that are reasonably fun. My worst corporate bosses have been merely weaselly; I've never been abused in any way at work.
Back when I was working in downtown Houston (in my $10.25/hr days), I used to often pass another young woman who basically looked like me and would sit in front of the McDonald's panhandling and eating McDonald's ice cream cones. I always felt that very little needed to be different about me to put me in that exact position. A bit lower of an IQ or a bit less intellectually-inclined of a family and I don't know what would have become of me.
Canadian here. Good for you for naming names on Ricepoint. The assholey nature of that outfit is entirely consistent with the sleazy, distasteful business it is in; settlements are painful, zero-benefit for the payer affairs, have usually come after protracted legal battles and, well, what sorts of companies end up having to settle? You can guess. So the payers hate the fact that they have to pay anything at all. For the service provider, the profit is entirely in cost control. You and your colleagues were costs, costs to be controlled, and worse, you were _poor Americans._
Poor Americans are poorer and more pathetic than the poorest Canadians, and their biggest moral failing is not getting politically organized enough to change the system, see, so they deserve their situation, and so some Canadians love looking down upon them as much as they hate looking up to rich Americans, who are richer, certainly taken together, than the richest Canadians.
If I could change one thing about Canadians, it's our sad tendency to be smug hypocrites.
So I'm going to do something stereotypically Canadian here and say, on behalf of my fellow citizens who don't deserve it: Sorry. I'm truly sorry. You didn't deserve that treatment. And as for all the jerks at Ricepoint, who tortured you and your coworkers, I hope they all rot.
This piece brings back so many memories. I worked the very bottom end of construction and construction-adjacent jobs for several years, and got so fed up I went to college to get away from it.
Bizarre bosses--I worked about half of that time for one entrepreneurial builder/developer. He was willing to give me a ride to work (I didn't have a license) and was personally kind, but was crooked as a broken-backed snake, lied to people just to keep in practice, and had the deeply counter-productive idea that paying 80% of the market rate would save him money. So everyone he hired was someone no one else would hire, generally for a very good reason. Some of my memorable colleagues: the mason who drank a 12-pack of cheap beer every day, and laid brick very precisely, at the rate of about one every 5 minutes; the roofer who for reasons that I'm sure made sense to him decided to shoot up on the roof and then stumbled off the edge of the roof; the brilliant mason who laid a set of 2-ft high wall for a garage floor, and then realized that the space needed to be filled with dirt, so I spent a week shoveling about 50 tons of dirt into the space--it would have taken an hour if he'd have left a wall down so the truck could dump the dirt into the garage.
Hopped over here from ACX based a bit on your Old Granddad impression.
Some real fine writing here on interesting stuff.
Glad you found an escape from shitty jobs. I had my share of those. They suck in so many different ways don’t they?
File this under "crappy jobs are better if the mean boss has high status":
https://arnoldkling.substack.com/p/dc-and-la-419?s=r (CTRL+F "Volcker")
"I mentioned a scenario above where people were forced to choose between boring, rote work and significantly better pay. That’s not an easy decision to make!" I think you meant to say something different here, because choosing between boring work, on the one hand, and more pay (and presumably less-boring work), on the other, is an easy decision to make.