Ask Emily: Should I chase my dreams, or live like a boss?

We can take our wages in personal fulfillment as well as hard cash.
We can take our wages in personal fulfillment as well as hard cash.
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Dear Emily,

I’m having trouble deciding between my head and my heart. I’m a writer in my late 20s, and I’ve been working at a job I love in alternative theater for several years. Now I have the chance to take a much more lucrative corporate job. I’m feeling torn. On one hand, the salary at the new gig would be almost twice what I’m making now, and I’d get the chance to move to a city with a lot of other good career opportunities. On the other hand, I worry that the work at the corporate job would be soul-crushing. Should I stay at my creatively fulfilling but low-paying job while I hold out for something better down the line, or take the plunge now and find out what it’s like to go on vacation and live without roommates? 

You’ve identified a common late-capitalist dilemma: the choice between a lower-paying, emotionally fulfilling job and a higher-paying but depressing one. How do we make the right decision?

Economics has some good news for you: No matter which job you choose, your true “wage” is what you’d be paid at the higher-paying job. If you choose a job that pays $35,000 over a job that pays $70,000, you must value the other things the lower-paying job has to offer (like-minded coworkers, a flexible schedule, the chance to express yourself artistically) by at least $35,000. So really, in either case you are being paid $70,000. It’s just that in one case, you’re receiving $35,000 in the form of job enjoyment. Sadly, this money cannot be used to pay rent. But it’s still real, in terms of economic utility.

This insight can help you choose between your two job options. Would you be willing to do less enjoyable work for the chance to double your bimonthly paycheck? This question isn’t necessarily easier to answer, but it is at least more specific.  

The fact that there are other job opportunities in the new city should come into play, as well. If some of those opportunities are jobs you know you would like, that may make it less risky to try out the new corporate option.

There’s no right answer here. People’s answers will vary widely depending on their age, family obligations, cost of living, financial support systems and personal priorities. But in your case, it seems you think it’s likely that you’d wake up in your fancy apartment every morning and slump your way to a soul-crushing job wishing you were doing something you loved. If that’s the case, you might be better off sticking with roommates–and taking your wages in personal fulfillment rather than money.

Dear Emily,

I’m a 23-year-old recent college graduate, and I have a pretty short attention span–so I’m afraid I’ll get bored if I sign on for a full-time office job. I’ve been thinking about alternatives. One that I came up with was taking two part-time office jobs in the same or related fields (which seems more secure than the freelancing life). Is that a recipe for a lifetime of being skipped over for promotions, or is there a way to make an arrangement like that work? 

Short answer: No, you cannot make this work.

The slightly longer answer is that most jobs contain some boring work. I would go so far as to say that all jobs contain some boring work. (For example, although academic economics may seem wildly exciting, I spent part of today formatting columns in my regression tables so they are exactly the same width.) You are lucky if there is some exciting stuff to go along with it.

In various aspects of life, we usually find that we receive “diminishing marginal utility” from a given activity. The first hour of teaching high-school English or working in a jewelery shop is pretty fun. The second hour, less so. By the tenth hour, we’re tired of it.

Your instinct, which is a good one, is to try to get the high-utility hours from each job and skip over the boring ones. But here are two problems with this approach.

First, you cannot guarantee that you’ll do the exciting parts of each job. It seems very likely, especially as a part-time employee, that you’ll end up with the boring hours of each job. (Managers are likely to assign the most mundane tasks to people who are not around all the time, since these also tend to require less training and background information.) Then, instead of having two fast-paced, exciting jobs, you’ll be stuck with the most boring parts of both jobs.

Second, although you may get less satisfaction out of a full-time job, your chances of being promoted–thereby getting a raise and, presumably, access to more interesting work–is likely to increase. People who work at a company for only part of the day tend not to move up. Full-time workers have at least some chance of doing so.

My advice is to find just one job that involves some work you like and embrace it–dull spreadsheets, pointless meetings and all. You will be bored some of the time, like the rest of us. But your future will be brighter.

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at Brown University and the author of “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know.


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