The incalculable value of finding a job you love

Artikel van Robert Frank, economics professor at Cornell University, in New York Times, juli 2016. Jobs that offer more attractive working conditions — greater autonomy, for example, or better opportunities for learning, or enhanced workplace safety — also tend to pay less.

The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love

Social scientists have been trying to identify the conditions most likely to promote satisfying human lives. Their findings give some important clues about choosing a career: Money matters, but as the economist Richard Easterlin and others have demonstrated, not always in the ways you may think.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose you had to choose between two parallel worlds that were alike except that people in one had significantly higher incomes. If you occupied the same position in the income distribution in both — say, as a median earner — there would be compelling reasons for choosing the richer world. After all, societies with higher incomes tend also to enjoy cleaner air and water, better schools, less noisy environments, safer working conditions, longer life expectancy and many other obvious benefits.

But context also matters. If you faced a choice between being a relatively low earner in a high-income society or being near the top in a society in which your income was lower in absolute terms, the answer would be less clear.

If the income difference was very small, being a top earner in the poorer world would probably be more satisfying. Your house would be smaller in absolute terms, but because it would be bigger than most other people’s, you would be more likely to regard it as adequate.

For sufficiently large income differences, however, that conclusion could easily flip. This time you would confront a different kind of difficulty. Although your house in the wealthier world would be larger in absolute terms, its relatively small size in that universe would mean that your children would be more likely to attend schools regarded there as substandard.

It’s not just that more money doesn’t provide a straightforward increase in happiness. Social science research also underscores the importance of focusing carefully on the many ways in which jobs differ along dimensions other than pay. As economists have long known, jobs that offer more attractive working conditions — greater autonomy, for example, or better opportunities for learning, or enhanced workplace safety — also tend to pay less.

One of the most important dimensions of job satisfaction is how you feel about your employer’s mission. Suppose you’re weighing two offers for jobs writing advertising copy: One is for an American Cancer Society campaign to discourage teenage smoking, the other for a tobacco industry campaign to encourage it.

If pay and other working conditions were identical, which job would you choose? I once posed this question to Cornell seniors about to enter the job market, and almost 90 percent said they would pick the American Cancer Society position. And when I asked them how much more the pro-tobacco job would have to pay before they would change their minds, they demanded an average salary premium of more than 80 percent.

These magnitudes make sense. When most people leave work each evening, they feel better if they have made the world better in some way, or at least haven’t made it worse.

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