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Why Do People Stay in Dead-End Jobs?

Aug 17, 2007
So you've been working at the same job for awhile. You haven't been promoted or transferred. You're doing the same thing you did when you started. You haven't gotten a raise despite several favorable reviews. Worst of all, you can tell work is getting to you. You're more anxious somehow. Maybe you're even developing a bit of a temper.

Basically, you're in a dead-end job. The problem is this: you know you're in a dead-end job and yet you feel powerless to do anything about it. But why? Why not quit? Why not find something more meaningful? The purpose of this article is to examine some of the possible answers to these questions and to investigate how people like you can escape the mire of a dead-end job.

One of the most common reasons that people stick with dead-end jobs is precisely that they don't recognize them as such. Maybe they think a promotion or a raise is just around the corner. Maybe they're convinced that if they endure just a little longer, it will all be worth it. Frankly, this attitude is the same kind of wishful ignorance that accompanies most of the slot machines in Las Vegas, only in this instance they're gambling more than just money - they're wasting their professional lives, one quarter at a time.

Another variety of ignorance is the belief that there aren't any better jobs out there. This kind of ignorance is based on the assumption that dead-end jobs are the rule and not the exception. (Sure, you're in a dead-end job but so is everybody else, right?) People who think like this tend to be anxious and pessimistic - two characteristics which, not coincidentally, also happen to be symptoms of being stuck in a dead-end job.

As strange as it sounds, some people stay in dead-end jobs because they're actually content - not with their work but rather with their compensation. These people value comfort and routine, and they love the consistency of a regular paycheck. As such, the prospect of venturing into the unknown or taking a temporary pay cut in order to pursue a new opportunity is unacceptable. Or, at least, it's less acceptable than staying in a dead-end job.

On the surface, the symptoms of apathy may seem similar to those of contentedness. The difference lies in the motivation: whereas contented workers remain in dead-end jobs because they value routine or because they feel adequately compensated, apathetic workers stay with jobs because they simply don't care. Apathy is an absence of all feeling - for good or for ill - and as such, apathetic workers don't have strong feelings of any kind toward their job or toward work generally. They simply exist in a gray twilight that stretches from nine to five.

Though ignorance, contentedness, and apathy share some of the blame, it is certain that the single most common reason for people staying in dead-end jobs is fear. One reason for its prominence is the shear of number of fears available - fear of the unknown, fear of risk, and fear of failure, to name but a few. People fear being under-qualified or under-educated for better jobs; they fear being unable to meet financial obligations; most of all, they fear ending up worse off than they were before. Is it any wonder that Henry David Thoreau declared that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them"?

So how do you escape this "life of quiet desperation" embodied in the notion of a dead-end job? How do you overcome ignorance, apathy, and fear? How do you learn to take risks when you're predisposed to comfort and security? Alas, the answers to these questions, which are fundamental to the reasons why people stick with dead-end jobs, elude simple explanations. They are as complex and as varied as each individual. And yet, this is precisely the purpose of this forum - to pursue these questions and to identify strategies that will allow each individual to make educated decisions.

The key, of course, is knowledge. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to make choices about a potential career change or about furthering your education. The good news is that there's hope. Figuring out that you're in dead-end job is just the first step. Once you realize that you're in a dead-end job and, more importantly, why you're staying, then you can take steps to combat ignorance, fear, and even apathy and get out of that dead-end job once and for all.

At this point, your tendency might be to resist. Maybe you think your job really isn't dead-end (ignorance) or that you really do like your job (contentedness). Maybe you're not motivated (apathy) or maybe you're feeling anxious (fear). If so, perhaps you should consider this final, telling question: if you're really not stuck in a dead-end job, or if you really didn't want to do something about it, then why are you reading this in the first place?
About the Author
Benjamin Welch has been a college instructor in writing and composition for nearly six years. When he's not teaching or playing golf, he offers advice for students seeking information about online education and online degrees.
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