Seattle human capital data analysis company PayScale has released the findings of a survey called “The Most and Least Meaningful Jobs” in which they quizzed over two million workers across 24 job categories and over 500 unique job titles to ask them “if their work makes the world a better place.”
The survey gets very philosophical fairly quickly as it interrogates the meanings of the words essential to even formulating the question, particularly words like “meaning” and “better” or “worse”, which becomes complicated owing to the fact that money has become a shorthand method for defining success and satisfaction in both work and life.
In a nutshell, you’re either drinking to celebrate or to forget.
It’s also likely that delusion at least partly plays an essential role in instilling a sense of meaning, as it’s the glue that binds all of our collective agreements together, conferring a particular value to specific external markers of success and stability.
The highest overall level for both job meaning and satisfaction, according to the survey, is reported by members of the clergy, across all denominations, with 98% of them believing that their job makes the world a better place.
Wishful thinking probably also has an effect on several of the higher compensated jobs, and it’s strange that there’s no real category for entrepreneurs or start-up CEOs.
Whereas a start-up CEO tends to speak about his fixie bicycle ride-sharing platform or advertising malware delivery system as if it were changing society for the better, rather than only enriching himself and his friends, the people who receive mostly negative reinforcement in the form of low pay and social stigma are much more likely to assign a negative value to their work, even if the work that they do is objectively useful.
Given that reality, it’s not a big surprise that clergy rate themselves as highly as they do. As someone once said, religion is the heart of a heartless world.
Second place for job meaning is a tie, with surgeons ranking highest in terms of median salary, at $304,000 U.S., making them one of the relatively few groups with both high job satisfaction and hefty compensation, tied with Post Secondary English Language and Literature Teachers and Directors of Religious Activities and Education, both reporting 96% levels of feeling that they make the world a better place through their jobs.
It’s encouraging, perhaps, that Community and Social Service Workers, as well as Education, Training and Library workers rate their level of job meaning quite high, despite being fairly low on the pay scale.
Skipping to the bottom of the list, where the percentage of people answering affirmative to their job making the world a worse place increases, a full 25% of fast-food workers are convinced that feeding your and my appetite for greasy and cheap food is actively contributing to society’s downfall.
It can’t be easy, having a job that doles out shame in small doses to both workers and customers until the eventual weight of that shame becomes literally hazardous.
But the fact that fast food workers don’t think much of themselves seems completely tied up in the moral narrative that we’ve all built around food, which is that we tend to sneer at the people who take care of our basic needs as if it were the natural order of things, and also associate eating with shame, instead of treating food as a source of joy and health.
In Europe and Japan, by contrast, being a service worker is a higher calling, whether that’s a French waiter who thinks of his job as an actual career rather than the final refuge available to someone with few options and little hope, or a Japanese izakaya chef, who knows that his work fuels the beating heart of his community.
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The number two rated “makes the world a worse place” job is warehouse picker, which you’ve got to feel a little sympathy for in that it’s probably mind-numbingly boring and exhausting, while also being pretty useful.
It’s also the kind of job that no one would miss if it were replaced by robots, including the workers who are being replaced whose misery can’t be ended fast enough by the arrival of the robot revolution.
It is, however, a little disheartening to see garbage truck drivers and laundry attendants reporting that they believe their work is making the world a worse place, both at 14%.
As bad as those people feel for doing the work that they do, we all know deep down how much worse our lives would be if no one did our laundry or collected our trash.
It’s obvious that those are jobs that make all of our lives objectively better, but that we’ve somehow managed to figure out how to make those people feel bad about what they do while simultaneously making ourselves feel good that we’re not those people.
There are jobs, however, that rank low across cultures, and for which no excuses can be made.
No great surprise that 18% of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Specialists believe that their work makes the world a worse place.
Because it really definitely has made the world a much worse place than it used to be, and they should absolutely feel bad and ashamed about what they do.
SEM Specialists are tied, though, at the number four position on the least meaningful list, with valets and parking lot attendants, who earn less than half the median income of Search Engine Marketing Specialists, a fact that just reinforces the idea that there’s practically no justice in the world.
At least a valet parks other people’s cars. It isn’t literally nothing. Most valets would probably spend one day looking at the life of a Search Engine Marketing Specialist and come away thinking, “Oh, thank God. I was feeling pretty bad about myself, but at least I don’t do that. Parking cars isn’t so bad.”
One profession conspicuously absent from this internet list, though, is that of “list maker”. Those really do need to go way, to make the world a better place.