How Do You Define A “REAL JOB?”

I was sitting with my wife and we were discussing a mutual friend. More specifically we were discussing their challenges as it relates to their work and life. And then it happened, I said something I never thought would come out of my mouth. I heard myself saying “They just need to get a real job.”

I guess for most people that’s a fairly innocuous statement. It’s not for me considering I just wrote a book where a significant chunk of the narrative criticizes the concept of a “real job”. In my writing I focus on how a broad swath of college educated Americans are challenged to find the type of employment they were promised. In the book I point out that the promise was defined as a “real job” by my grandparents generation and others of influence in my childhood. As they defined it a “Real Job” included benefits like a good retirement plan, paid time off and healthcare. It offered long term stability, strong wages, a comfortable working environment, upward mobility and various other benefits. We see these options less and less in modern jobs as compared to the standards of 40 or 50 years ago. For many, a real job, as defined when I was preparing to enter the workforce, just doesn’t exist anymore. Therefore by my own admonition I really shouldn’t be using that phrase.

I’m not really mad at myself for making the statement. I think that’s just human nature, to fall back on a verbal or behavioral pattern that one has experienced many times in their life. One benefit of my slip up was that it did get me thinking. If I were to use that phrase today, what exactly does it mean? It certainly doesn’t mean the same things that it did in the past. The world has changed and jobs aren’t the same. I quickly came to the conclusion that because of the more complex nature of our world, having a “real job” really does mean different things based upon different situations. I figured the best way to explore the modern version of a “real job”, is to take the different aspects of what used to define a real job and look at them. See what they mean today, and how they can be used as a descriptor of a good job.

Retirement

Employer provided retirement used to mean: pension. Today it means a 401k match if the employer even provides access to the 401K. Even the best 401K matches still don’t meet the retirement needs of the population. There is no question that modern retirement infrastructure is an abject failure by any historical measure. It’s gotten so bad that the term ‘retirement crisis’ has become a part of the political dialog of the day. It’s because of this maco trend that I simply can’t say that a job that doesn’t include a 401K with a match isn’t a real job. I like to think of retirement as an indicator. It’s probably a BS job if there isn’t retirement but it’s not absolute. It’s also probably a “real job” if there is a 401K with a match but again, it’s not an absolute. I can think of at least one non-profit I’m involved with that provided everything that one would think of as a real job but the organization never offered a retirement plan of any type.

PTO

Paid time off is in anachronism of the past. Yes, many, if not most, organizations that provide regular full-time work, provide some version of PTO. The problem is there’s no equity growth in PTO, meaning the longer you stay at a company, you don’t continually receive higher levels of annual PTO over time. In old school manufacturers and union shops, this was one of the perks of sticking around for the majority of a career. Today most organizations cap PTO at two or three weeks. Assuming continued growth of the gig economy, the concept of PTO will eventually be abolished. With gigs, you work and get paid, and that’s it. There is nothing else associated with the employer / employee transaction. I don’t think I could look at somebody who only gets two weeks a year and never gets to go beyond that and say they don’t have a real job, especially if the job in question is strong in other areas such as income and stability.

Job Stability

Stability is another interesting case where there has been great change. Stability used to be defined as a job that would last many years or decades, even including up to an individual’s entire career. We now live in an age where the median tenure at a company is down to about 4 years and a large percentage of the population keeps jobs for months or a couple of years at best. Without going into the reasons for this transition, the concept of stability has changed. Instead of stability meaning tenure, I think a stable job, a real job can, in part, be described as a job where the transition time between jobs is minimal. Engineers, nurses, or nearly anyone with a career that requires licensure, such as licensed special education teachers, all fall into this category.

Wages

This is probably the simplest concept and the only one that has stayed mostly constant. Monetary compensation is an absolute necessity for people to live. If there has been a change it’s that there are less jobs paying in the middle ranges. The hollowing out of the middle class has been well documented. There are too many employers today who want armies of workers and are only willing to pay a few dollars over minimum wage.

Another point needed for a modern job to qualify as a good job would be consistency in wages. With the move to the gig economy, there is a growing part of the population which can make good wages, but only in short blocks. Yes, Uber and Lyft are the poster children for this trend, but it exists everywhere in the economy and at every skill level. If a consultant makes five grand in a weekend, and then doesn’t have work for another three months, it’s hard to call the consultancy a real job.

So not only do you have to have strong wages, there has to be a certain consistency to them. I would even be fine with seasonality. For example, I know jewelers who work in tourist destinations with highly defined seasons. For nearly half the year they have great jobs with good compensation. By most measures, it’s a real job. The challenge comes with the other six months where there is no income because there is no work to do.

This is definitely a gray area and much of it is dependent upon the employee. If the worker has structured their life so that they work for 6 months and live for the other 6 months off of the income from the first half of the year, then it can easily be considered a real job with extreme seasonality. If the employee is living month to month to month, and then his penniless for 6 months if they don’t find something to fill their time, then it’s hard to call the position a real job.

But even beyond the consistency question there’s one other element to wages that I believe is critical above all others when it comes to defining if a job can be considered a real job. The compensation, no matter if it is from 6 months of working and 6 months off, or if it’s a regular wage, the real job today requires that the person doing the job earn enough to be independent of the support of others. If you can’t eat, have a roof over your head, and take care of other basic life needs, then it’s really hard to consider whatever that line of work is as a real job. This is true even with a modest income and lifestyle. There is definitely some flexibility when considering compensation here as some places are much more expensive to live in than others. You’d probably need $60,000 a year or more in New York City to achieve this level of minimum income for independence where you probably need $15,000 a year to achieve the same modest, but independent, quality of life in Siler City North Carolina.

On this topic, I do believe earning enough to be independent has a very positive effect on the psyche of the individual. Even if someone chooses to have a roommate to better their quality of life, just knowing that they could be independent with their income will have a very positive effect on their emotional disposition.

Working Environment

Back in the day, thinking of my grandparents, they wouldn’t have used the term “a comfortable working environment.”. They would have said go get an office job, don’t break your back for pennies like we did. Yet, because of the imbalance in supply and demand of trades, and the ascendance of technology into the trades, the better jobs today are not the old desk jobs. The specialized maintenance technician makes a lot more than the master’s degree holding office manager. Additionally, the modern version of an office, i.e. the shared cubicle in an open office floor plan, can be a bit more unpleasant than a climate-controlled manufacturing facility.

I think, today, the best possible working environment, at least for office workers, is the home office. This is true if it’s a dedicated workspace in or near the home like a converted garage apartment. The home office offers flexibility to get the life things done more efficiently. Maybe a bit less so if the telecommuter has to sit at the kitchen table on a laptop but even that is better than having to go into the office every day. It only takes a minute to do the laundry during a work break. It’s much easier to get work done from home and take care of a sick child if telecommuting. I think back to hygiene factors with this one. Hygiene factors, to over simplify, are things in your environment that you miss if they’re not there but you take for granted if they are. Privacy, flexibility, and convenience are things that are missing from much of today’s office environments. Regardless if telecommuting or working on a production floor or in a traditional office, a real job is a job where you’re not unhappy in your work environment, This isn’t a complete veto either. You can work in the shared cubicle or in the open office like the old secretarial pools of the 1920’s and still be comfortable based upon a bunch of different factors.

Upward mobility

I honestly don’t know that many organizations which identify young talent and try to sculpt them in any formal way. In most cases in the modern era it is nearly 100% up to the individual to manage their own career progression. The old school union seniority and/or apprenticeship model was exactly the opposite. The organization identified talent and gave them a structured pipeline to senior status. Part of this elimination of structured career advancement is because organizations are simply becoming more flat. The more you get rid of middle management, the less there is a need for people to fill those middle rolls. Realistically, today, a job without upward mobility cannot be discounted as a real job.

Healthcare

This was another major checklist item for my grandparents and I think it still mostly stands today. If the job doesn’t offer healthcare then it’s not a real job. One area where the watters have been muddied is when you have part time employers offering healthcare. Specifically I’m thinking of Starbucks. You may get healthcare working 20 hours a week for Starbucks, but if you can’t pay your rent, can it be considered a “Real Job?” This means that Real Job = Healthcare but Healthcare alone ≠ Real Job.

I see this changing in the future but I think it’s still mostly true today. Part of the reason for my belief that it will change in the future is the national dialog on healthcare that’s been going on for decades. The other part, the bigger part I think, is that it’s become too expensive for most organizations not selling $7 cups of coffee at scale. Our society is set up to get our healthcare from employers but employers don’t want to pay for it anymore. They are paying only because they have to, not because they want to. At this point in my life I feel like we are on a collision course to a single payer system but today healthcare, at least as far as employers are concerned, is quite a bit like healthcare from forty years ago.

Conclusions

So what makes a real job today? I think there are only two true indicators; lifestyle sustainability and healthcare. If your not earning enough to be independent and stable, and it’s your full time or primary income, then it’s not a real job in the traditional sense. The more traditional aspects of working full time have become simply partial indicators, but they are not absolute determinators as they were in the past. The strongest of these traditional requirements of a job being a “real job” are the benefits of employer retirement, and PTO. Because of the increased workplace complexity, these benefits are not make or break like they were when I entered the workforce. They are still very important and definitely something that solidifies a job being considered a “real job” by myself and many others who have also uttered the phrase. Going back to my friend, this dovetails nicely with their situation. My friend’s biggest challenge isn’t the lack of a 401K or PTO, as her jobs didn’t include any of those. The biggest challenge she has is that her jobs don’t let her be independent. That was the genesis of my comment. I believe there is much negative emotional fallout from someone who is working their tail off but can’t live independently if they wanted to. I also believe the opposite is true. My comment was based on the challenges, real and perceived, in my friends life and for my desire for her to overcome them. I do believe the “Real Job” would help with that. But considering how challenging many “real jobs” are today, it’s not surprising that if someone doesn’t need one, they would avoid them like the plague, even with the benefits that outweigh the negatives of them. It’s almost like someone should write a book about the challenges of working “real jobs”. I wonder if it’d sell well?

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