All Commentary
Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Miserable in Your Job? Here’s Why

The unemployment rate masks underlying discontent

The unemployment rate today is at 5%, a statistical picture of bliss. The trend line suggests dancing in the streets.

Why are so few feeling it? These numbers tell us nothing about contentment, much less happiness. What if just having a job tells us very little about whether people are feeling secure and fulfilled?

In the end, professional work — which occupies the vast swath of our waking hours — isn’t just about getting a paycheck. It’s about feeling that you are valued and that your work matters. This isn’t the responsibility of the employer. It’s the responsibility of the worker to find a position that syncs up with his or her dreams — if such positions exist.

These days, that seems hardly to ever happen. It’s no surprise to hear from Gallup that only 1 in 3 workers report feeling enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. It’s worse among millennials, 75% of whom immediately start working in an industry outside their field of study.

Think of your friends, family, and neighbors. Think of all those you know (and this may include you) who have jobs but are constantly unhappy about what they are doing, who their boss is, the work they do, and their business associates. I can think of many: perhaps even most of the people I know.

There is also the matter of financial insecurity. They have a job now but how long will it last? Fear of unemployment — which can happen in an instant — can keep a person up at night.

Over the last few days, I’ve had the occasion to interview a wide range of highly skilled employees for a professional position. It’s bad form to to use a job interview to drill down and discover their discontent with their present job, but I can read between the lines. They are earning too little. They feel undervalued. Their boss is an idiot. They find no real meaning in their work. They can’t make a difference. They feel trapped and they want out.

Of course my sample is biased. I was talking to the entrepreneurially minded people who are taking affirmative steps to seek out a better life. They have jobs now but are ready for something more fulfilling, or at least to end their present misery. But what about those who are clinging to their jobs for dear life and don’t feel brave enough to put themselves on the market? Maybe they don’t think they have the wherewithal to do it.

Something Is Not Right

Does it have to be this way? Surely not.

Think of the employment contract as a market exchange. You give labor services. You get money that you can spend how you like. In economic terms, it’s an exchange like any other, same as when you buy a burger at the fast-food window or go to a movie. Both parties should benefit more because of the exchange than they would in its absence.

The relationship between employer and employee should be purely voluntary, mutually beneficial, and ultimately satisfying for everyone. Ludwig von Mises in 1927 described the position of labor under free enterprise in the following way:

In a private enterprise, the hiring of labor is not the conferring of a favor, but a business transaction from which both parties, employer and employee, benefit…. Since employment is not a favor, but a business transaction, the employee does not need to fear that he may be discharged if he falls into personal disfavor. For the entrepreneur who discharges, for reasons of personal bias, a useful employee who is worth his pay harms only himself and not the worker, who can find a similar position elsewhere.

That sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? Even crazy given what we are used to.

It describes ever fewer people under current conditions. Even when Mises was writing, he noted the growing bureaucratization of private enterprise as a result of various government interventions. Every tax, mandate, and regulation imposes costs, distorts market signalling, blocks people from professions, traps people in jobs they don’t like, subsidizes bigness over creativity, and reduces labor mobility.

Look how much worse things have become in 90 years. These compromises of market freedom add up over time and take a huge human toll. In practice, these interventions have robbed the individual employee of a sense of controlling volition. If you don’t really face a range of employment options, if you are stuck and don’t know how to get out, if you cling to a job just because it pays the bills even though you are otherwise miserable, something is seriously wrong.

This is not how a market is supposed to work. Markets encourage happiness on all parties to the exchange. It is now a power relationship but a cooperative one.

Job Lock

The problem of workers feeling trapped has recently been described as job lock. If people believe that the right of exit is too expensive or too risky, they will put up with a terrible job for far too long rather than walking away. Instead of thinking of the labor contract as an exchange, they are just happy to be employed at all.

Recently economist Alex Tabarrok has been writing about one aspect of employee discontent: people no longer move to find better work. Labor force mobility has been falling since the 1980s. This is because housing costs in highly productive areas of the country make those areas forbidding for lower-productivity employees. And why is housing so expensive in such areas? Tabarrok blames land use restrictions for the shortage in housing supply.

And let’s look at another example. Why is starting a job-creating business so difficult? Among a million artificial costs, there are minimum wages, which the big-box stores can afford to pay but start-ups cannot. Minimum wages and expensive employee mandates end up subsidizing big business bureaucracy over nimble start ups that could otherwise be competing for labor resources. And this is precisely why big business pushes for minimum wages and even employer mandates. They can withstand them whereas their competition cannot.

This gives unhappy workers fewer options.

The Obamacare Disaster

There is another huge factor today: Obamacare. If anything, its terrible consequences on people’s sense of well being has been underestimated.

Ask anyone who hates their job why they don’t leave. The answer usually comes down to two words: health care. All the mandates meant to empower the working classes have done exactly the opposite.

Against all principles of basic human rationality, the Affordable Care Act forbids insurers from charging different premiums for the healthy and unhealthy. Just as absurdly, it required that all insurers provide a minimum set of services to those who buy in.

What this meant in practice were huge increases in premiums for those who would otherwise be paying far less. And it meant that people began paying vast sums for health care they would not use or, given soaring deductibles, could not actually afford to use.

But think what this meant for the problem of job lock. Those with health care through an existing employer tend to cling to it for dear life, even if they hate their job, hate their boss, and feel zero satisfaction in their work. It has made the employee more dependent, more vulnerable to employer abuse, and less mobile than ever.

After all, within perhaps thirty days of being fired, the company’s benefits run out. Then what? You quickly run short of money, so you are looking for the best deal. But there is no more “best deal.” There are no more catastrophic-care plans that only cover big emergencies. There are limited exceptions for people under 30, but even these plans are loaded with benefits the young don’t need or want.

So then you have to go to the government exchanges, or else pay a fee. What do you buy as an unemployed, independent contractor? You pay a high price for a policy that you cannot afford to use because the deductibles are so high. And the high deductibles might be ok if the care were affordable, but it is not. It is ridiculously expensive. It turns out to be cheaper to pay the fee actually.

Misery and Fear

Remarkable, isn’t it? The Affordable Care Act produced unaffordable health care. Functional plans are ever less available for anyone seeking to buy outside employer mandates. So, fearing the loss of health care and the Hobbesian world outside the protective shell of full-time employment, workers stay at their jobs even though they hate them. It has vastly worsened public discontent.

Miserable American workers are inclined to blame their bosses. They should be blaming their political leaders who have done so much to disempower workers in the name of helping them.

What do we do with the fear and misery that comes with a terrible job? Don’t give into them. Most people in most times and places underestimate the control that they in fact do retain over their lives. If you are in a bad job relationship, it’s time to walk away.

Beef up that LinkedIn profile. Get networking. Start looking. Start marketing yourself and your services to other buyers. Maybe your ideal employer is yourself. Try your hand at entrepreneurship and start that business you’ve always dreamed of.

You are more valuable than you think. Unlike in the past, we have the tools and the networks that enable you to live a better life.

The freedom to walk away is one of the few freedoms we have left. Exercising that, and embracing a new life, could be the greatest decision you ever made.