Are you addicted to low-paying jobs?

(Image courtesy

(Image courtesy

Anne Kadet, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal (link here, via Yahoo! Finance), suggests that for some educated and capable people, the quest to earn a decent income may be frustrated by “a compulsive addiction to low-paying work.” For example:

“Jean” . . . has a typical story. She’s attractive, ridiculously articulate and has a master’s degree from Columbia. When she “hit bottom,” the 30-something writer was earning $10,000 a year doing freelance work and falling behind on the rent. Her solution? She applied for a job at Staples.

And for “Jean” and others like her (at least those in New York), there’s now a support group to help them out:

A tiny but growing fellowship of New Yorkers might suggest that the problem isn’t the economy. The problem is you. . . . . And they have a 12-step program to help you recover: Underearners Anonymous.

Kadet describes Underearners Anonymous as “an intensely practical program” designed to help members realize their earning potential. Peer counseling, workshops, and homework are among the pieces of the UA approach.

Uncomfortable topic…at least for me!

Is this wacky or what? A 12-step program for people who don’t want to earn more money?!

But wait a minute. I get this. Indeed, I confess that talking about money makes me uncomfortable. Part of it stems from growing up in a family that struggled financially at times. Another part of it is rooted in my knee-jerk belief that making too much money is morally wrong — while conceding that my definition of “too much” has risen with my own income.

Those attitudes have impacted some of my choices. During my last year of law school, I turned down an offer to join the large corporate law firm that I had interned with during the previous summer. Instead — with great delight and not a small amount of self-congratulations — I took a job as a Legal Aid lawyer starting at $20,000.

As my income has gone up, it has been accompanied by a greater sense of (1) security (phew, I can buy a condo and save some money!); (2) possibilities (it’s nice to be able to buy some toys); (3) insecurity (I could lose this all); and (4) guilt (by earning more, I am less virtuous than that young Legal Aid lawyer earning 20K in 1985).

So yes, I understand inner turmoil about money — and I agree that there is a genuine psychological component accompanying the moral, economic, and political questions about income and wealth.

The real problem is more systemic

But hold on for another minute. All the Underearners Anonymous sessions in the world won’t recreate the decent jobs that have disappeared during the Great Recession. Furthermore, there is ample reason to be alarmed about the distribution of wealth and income, especially here in America, where the gaps are among the highest in our history and the developed world.

We may disagree on the causes of, and solutions for, our current economic mess, but the fact remains that there simply aren’t enough good jobs to go around right now. And in the meantime, a very small number of people continue to rake in untold sums of money. So…when it comes to rescuing this economy, our main priorities must be to help the people hurt by it, create good jobs, and narrow the wealth gap.

But as a side focus, I think there’s something to what Underearners Anonymous is doing. True, coaching cohorts of income-resistant Ivy Leaguers shouldn’t be our highest therapeutic priority. However, more than a few talented people regardless of educational pedigree have very ambivalent feelings about money, and this may be preventing them from earning a better living for themselves and their families.

3 responses

  1. Nice Article and a real issue. I think too those of us with an inner-core of social justice have guilt about “selling-out.” I’ve struggled with that, but a corporate career and family responsibilities helped me to overcome (couldn’t help using that), but in hindsight I made some choices to sabatoge the growth in effort to be down to earth. I think those of us born prior to 1975 need to reevaluate the messages and viewpoint. The current generation of social aware young people who have not grown up in poverty and who aspire to be more Bill Gates (rich & purposeful) after experiencing the humilty lessons needed from this current economy are actually great models for bridging the worlds.

    • Thanks for your feedback and thoughts…much appreciated. I wasn’t sure whether to go with this post because I know there are some folks who read this blog who are looking for ANY work at all, and I don’t want to be insensitive to their situations. But I do think this is a legitimate issue and am glad you agree. Best, David

  2. My stepfather spent his life first making a fortune, then losing it through drink and bad investments and waste, yet trying to maintain the illusion of wealth until the end. I have always been ambivalent to money, to say the least. I wouldn’t mind having a lot of money, but I’m not willing to sacrifice time or energy for it. Maybe a lottery or large gambling win would be nice, but that does not happen in real life. Good jobs will not come back unless the people or institutions who create them are provided more respect by our elites and not viewed primarily as a host by different parasites.

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