Career Stereotypes and Their Costs

An email I received from a reader recently left me thinking. Be aware, this person describes some stereotypes that may be painful, and I’m going to talk about them below:

When I was growing up, the adults I knew made fun of lots of different career paths. My dad was a lawyer and my mom was a corporate vice president. They and their friends would make fun of factory workers by calling them unwashed and lazy people. Basically, if you weren’t a lawyer, a doctor, or a businessperson, you were pretty much an idiot with a lot of negative traits.

I went to law school mostly because of those stereotypes, but what i was really passionate about was working on car electronics. I was in a club in college where we built computer controlled solar cars and it was the most fun I think I’ve ever had. I didn’t tell my parents about it though.

I hated law school. I hated every second of it. I got through it, passed the bar, and started working at a large firm. A year in, I hated everything about my life, but especially my job.

I quit. I went back to school, got some more specialized training, and now I work at a car manufacturing plant. I actually troubleshoot a wide set of problems on the line. I make almost $70,000 a year doing this and I couldn’t be happier. Yet my parents still ridicule factory work.

I wish you’d write a post telling your readers to ignore the stereotypes that jobs have and just focus on what they want to do. Factory workers aren’t lazy and they aren’t idiots. Construction workers aren’t crude and fast food workers aren’t stupid. The conditions in these places at least in the United States aren’t terrible. My workplace is cleaner than my own home, in fact.

This reader, who we’ll call Adam, grew up in an environment where he was exposed to a lot of stereotypes, virtually all of which were either based on the past or were never true to begin with. Believe it or not, this kind of stereotyping actually has significant negative economic impact, as described in this article over at CNN.

For one, you should always strive to do something you at least enjoy. You might not be able to get a job that relates to your burning passion, but there is no doubt that some jobs are more enjoyable than others.

The thing is, the job that’s enjoyable to one person might be misery to someone else. I know that my father deeply enjoyed much of the work that he did throughout his life, but many of the jobs and side businesses he took on are things that I simply would not enjoy. On the other hand, he told me that there wasn’t enough money in the world to keep him in front of a computer writing code – something I once did.

Of course, Adam’s email left me with some introspection. What stereotypes about jobs did I hold? Was I passing along any of those stereotypes to my own children?

There is this innate desire for parents to want “only the best” for their children, but what does “only the best” really mean? Does it mean that I should steer my children away from some career paths and toward other career paths? Does it simply mean that I should support them in whatever career path they express interest in? I lean toward the latter.

Beyond that, what stereotypes and preconceived notions am I giving to my kids? I’d prefer that they make up their own mind about things, of course, but there is also a need to give them basic information with which to understand the world. Where’s that fine line?

I will say this: I’d rather my children have a positive impression of career paths and of work than a negative one. For example, I could easily create a negative stereotype of, say, a police officer, but what good does it do for anyone to create or perpetuate that stereotype. The vast majority of police officers are good, brave people who do a powerful public service that’s often thankless.

By doing this, perhaps my children will have respect for all types of careers – and thus feel much more free to choose a career path that makes them happy rather than one that they associate with a bunch of negative stereotypes.

What about career paths that I know I hold a negative stereotype about? I can think of one career path in particular that I’ve always had a poor impression of, one that I associate with lying and unethical behavior. The best way to fix a negative stereotype is with knowledge, so I’ve spent time studying the reality of that particular career and met some people involved.

As with almost all legitimate and legal career paths, it’s filled with good people doing good work.

The next time you think about passing on a negative impression of a career path, you might just be shaping more than you think. Most career paths aren’t the negative stereotypes that we often see passed along.

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46 thoughts on “Career Stereotypes and Their Costs

  1. Steven says:

    I had hopes for this article given the warning preceding it. I thought I was in for a treat. Maybe, just maybe, Trent was going to take on a tough subject. Boy, was I wrong.

    The topic of this article is great, but Trent failed to put any effort into writing about it. This article is lazy. It would have been much better if Trent actually had put some effort into it. What career is it that Trent holds negative beliefs about? Why does he feel this way?

    I’m disappointed that Trent doesn’t seem interested in writing a decent article. Instead he publishes another generic piece that lacks any sort of insight.

    It’s obvious he isn’t into this site anymore.

    (Sorry for the negativity, I just had hopes of something fresh and interesting.)

  2. Andrew says:

    Manufacturing is a large part of what made this country great through the 20th century. New high-end technology research and development is good (and that’s even that I work in), but without someone to machine and assemble our products, it would be merely a thought exercise — we would have nothing to sell!

  3. Anthony says:

    This is especially true of kids: adults can hear stereotypes or prejudices and filter them but kids have no other frame of reference yet, so they take what their parents or other authority figures say as gospel. For instance, my dad a problem with my left Achilles tendon would probably keep me out of the military (it doesn’t stretch as far as it should), so I never seriously considered that career. Much later, after talking with a Navy recruiter, I decided that probably wasn’t true, but by that point I was already oriented away from the military.

    I might not have considered that path anyway, but without meaning to, my dad pushed me away from that route. Thankfully it wasn’t as expensive as pushing me towards law school!

  4. Johanna says:

    Stereotypes? It sounds like straight-up class hatred to me. But anyway.

    It’s all well and good to say “just do what you like and don’t worry about what other people think,” but presumably this reader whom we’re calling Adam would still like to have a good relationship with his parents, despite their feelings about his career. When someone you care about disapproves of your career path (or something else about your life), what do you do?

  5. Jules says:

    @ Johanna: I’ll tell you what you do. You do what you want anyway, and let *them* deal with *their* issues.

    I had a similar experience. I went to medical school, and even got into an MD/PhD program. But I hated it. I’m not a people person, and I’m ambiguous about research, at best. My parents *flipped* when I walked out. I still don’t talk with my dad (we never did talk much, so that’s not really a loss for me). But I’m happy with my life, now–it took a while before I could get the kind of opportunity that I have now, but now that I have it, I’ll be taking advantage of it.

  6. Dot says:

    Adam says,”Factory workers aren’t lazy and they aren’t idiots. Construction workers aren’t crude and fast food workers aren’t stupid”
    Actually, there are probably a few that are lazy, crude and stupid. This would be a personality trait that has nothing to do with career choices, just like a lawyer and corporate vice president can be lazy, crude, stupid idiots.
    I commend you for choosing a career you love and taking pride in it but more importantly seeing the pride of your peers and not judging them.
    You can either work hard at try to change your parents opinions ( very wrong opinions) or just ignore what they say. It depends on what your comfort level is and how much energy you want to devote to this.
    Your words and actions are testament to your spirit not your job title.

  7. lurker carl says:

    That’s too funny, the lawyer and corporate VP degrading other professions. As if they don’t know their own professions have unflattering stereotypes.

    What are career stereotypes and their costs? This article negelected to answer it’s own question except through a link to a CNN article. And that article talks about a lack of interest in manufacturing because kids think you need a college education to achieve the American Dream.

    Oops.

  8. MattJ says:

    What about career paths that I know I hold a negative stereotype about? I can think of one career path in particular that I’ve always had a poor impression of, one that I associate with lying and unethical behavior. The best way to fix a negative stereotype is with knowledge, so I’ve spent time studying the reality of that particular career and met some people involved.

    As with almost all legitimate and legal career paths, it’s filled with good people doing good work.

    I have some negative beliefs about certain careers. They may not be perfectly informed, but they didn’t come from nowhere, either. I do my best not to attack people individually for their career path, but I’ll definitely be warning any children I raise rather than let them get taken advantage of, involved with, or harrassed by people whose job either skirts or crosses ethical or moral lines.

  9. Icarus says:

    My comments from the last few days are awaiting moderation because I’ve changed email addresses.

    while this is all well and good, I still think I will discourage my children from becoming a stand-up philosopher

  10. SwingCheese says:

    I work in a discount retail store. In addition to this job, I teach as an adjunct professor at a local community college, and I do freelance writing for textbooks. I also have a master’s degree. I work with two other teachers, and a chemist. But when some people see us at work in the retail environment, they are rude and condescending. I’ve had people mock my job in front of me. Career stereotyping is everywhere, and yet, in this economy, it is not unreasonable to assume that perhaps the person working in the retail or service sector is well educated.

  11. Adam P says:

    The older I get, the fewer people I know who are happy being lawyers and having gone to law school. Most of them hate their jobs with a passion and wish they never heard of law school, but their 6 figure student debt keeps them tethered to their jobs. I assume by the time the loans are paid off it will be too late in their minds to change careers.

    Law school should come with a warning label.

    I’m a Chartered Accountant, which has it’s share of negative stereotypes (as do all professions except maybe Doctors)! Given my lifelong fascination with money, math, logic, order, and balance…it is a decent fit for me.

    I think a lot of it is not necessarily being happy with your profession so much as happy with your work environment. Finding a good fit with co-workers, bosses, etc. is also important.

    I HATE time sheets. I was very unhappy tracking my time in 6 minute intervals, and equated that with hating accounting when I worked at Deloitte & Touche. Now that I’m in private industry, no time sheets, wonderful boss, and it turns out I like being an accountant.

  12. Telephus44 says:

    I think the stereotype I hate most is : you’ll be happier/more successful if you work for yourself. Working for someone else is just a paycheck and you can never be fulfilled in just a job. Therefore, we all need to start a side business and grow it until we can quit our day jobs.

    I can’t count the times PF blogs perpetuate this stereotype. If it works for you, great. But don’t assume that the rest of us with jobs hate them.

  13. Dot says:

    I haven’t done time sheets in 12 years ( I am an accountant also)but I did get goose bumps remembering a time when I had to after reading your comment. Those were awful days!
    You are spot on with your last two paragraphs.

  14. Maria says:

    Telephus44.. AGREED!

  15. Dot says:

    I use to stereotype lawyers in an unfavorable way until I needed one and got an inside look into our (US) legal system. Turns out that a fair amount of DA’s are pretty unscrupulous and just looking to win a case at any cost and climb the political ladder.
    I found myself the most hated lawyer in town… Hated because he was fiercely passionate about defending the constitution not worried about becoming a political figure one day or his win ratio.

  16. jim says:

    Stereotyping and saying fast food workers are all stupid is just being a jerk. But I don’t think its at all bad to discourage your kids from pursuing a career in the fast food industry.

    BTW, the article linked to claims that you can make $100,000 as a machinist within 10 years. Thats quite a stretch and I have no idea where they come up with that figure. 90% of machinists make under $60k. Not long after that $100k claim they say that one employers top worker makes $30 an hour. Maybe they’re just assuming inflation will increase the wages? In any case $100k for factory work is NOT realistic.

    I have actually seen more than one article now with specific employers claiming they can’t find machinists or other skilled manufacturing workers. The article talks about how kids these days think manufacturing isn’t stable. Thats all probably because US employers have been steadily cutting manufacturing jobs for the past 2 decades. You can’t lay people off for 20 years and then turn around and wonder where all the skilled workers went or why people think your jobs aren’t stable.

  17. Johanna says:

    “But I don’t think its at all bad to discourage your kids from pursuing a career in the fast food industry.”

    Wait, why not? “The fast food industry” is big business – it’s not all cashiers and burger flippers. There must be plenty of career paths within it where you can do quite well for yourself – and I’ll bet they’re easier to come by than, say, a successful career as a novelist.

  18. Andrew says:

    Adam P.– In the 1980′s I used to run a market research phone room, and every week I had to check and reconcile the time sheets for about 40 people. The was before any kind of software was available to help, so everything was handwritten. What a nightmare–

  19. jim says:

    OK so what I meant was …

    But I don’t think its at all bad to discourage your kids from pursuing a career as a cashier or burger flipper in the fast food industry.

  20. eden says:

    Besides pushing people into jobs they don’t enjoy b/c what they do enjoy has a poor stereotype, and the poor working environment generated when people you interact with hold a negative stereotype of your job, there is a third side to the costs of this type of thinking. My father runs a manufacturting business and he constantly encountered employess who believed the negative stereotypes of manufacturing jobs and consequently weren’t motivated to improve at their job and advance in their career. This hurt the business, and the employees b/c my father was so happy to give large raises to the few employees who were dedicated.

  21. Baley says:

    I think that a huge cost of this way of thinking is the thousands of dollars that young people spend pursuing a 4-year college degree just because “it’s necessary for success,” when what they’d be really good at and really enjoy is something that a trade school would prepare them for in much less time and for a lower cost. Why encourage students to get a business degree (which doesn’t actually prepare them for any particular job) when they could, instead, become a mechanic, machinist, electrician, cosmetologist, dental technician, etc? This has played out in my and my husband’s lives. We are now $100,000 in debt between the two of us, just for school loans, and he doesn’t even have a degree! He’s now in a technical program that WILL get him a decent-paying job (more money than we’re both making at the moment) at the end of 3 years, for less money than taking only 1 year at the state college nearby. Before this, he thought that he had to have a degree even though he wasn’t cut out for school and would much prefer to work with his hands. Young people need to be encouraged to figure out what they want to do and pursue the path that will get them there, not to just hop on the college bandwagon because everybody else is doing it.

  22. Marinda says:

    I have worked in professions that don’t encourage respect from many people, childcare and culinary arts. This was before I got my college degree at age 45, and after I secured a larger paycheck and less hassle from people about what I did for a living and where and who I worked with. It’s been many years, I have retired, but the skills and talents I acquired with and without a college degree I still use. I cook, bake, sew, review books, craft, and all this enhances the quality of my life.

    It’s not just the status of the occupation or career path, it’s what it brings to your life above and beyond the paycheck and after that part of your life is over, how you carry on into another phase. My husband is my hero, with his education and work experience he is on his third career and been a success in all.

  23. Mike says:

    Re: Comment #1 (Steven)

    Other than calling the author lazy, your comment isn’t so insightful either.

    The point of this post is we should be aware of and reflect on what stereotypes we may have, to clear up our own prejudices. Not news, but a worthy reminder.

    Sure, Trent could have said “I’ve always loathed XYZ’s”, but how would that help?

  24. Tracy says:

    Well, it could have helped if he mentioned it, explained why he thought that way, the process he went through for educating himself, and what he really found.

    Instead he just handwaves it and I agree with Steven, that is lazy.

  25. Steven says:

    My comment isn’t intended to be insightful. When I read the opening sentence, I thought maybe Trent had taken on a subject that he could provide some perspective on. It’s something I don’t recall reading about here, something new and fresh, but it essentially ended up being nothing new because Trent refuses to branch out and expand his world view. He even refuses to share his personal thoughts about which careers he’s held negative attitudes towards, probably for fear of offending anyone. This could have been an incredible post, certainly the topic has sparked some good conversation amongst the readers, but Trent’s effort to write an interesting and thought-provoking post fell short. I believe the reason why is because his heart isn’t in TSD anymore and he’s just pumping out content for the sake of putting out content, likely due to contractual obligations.

  26. A Sumner says:

    An article about career stereotypes? I was ready for a fight! Even when people defend my line of work, it’s usually insulting. “Oh, be nice. It’s not like they make all that much.” As if we are creatures to be pitied! I started in fast food almost 10 years ago straight out of high school and now I’m working my way through the junior college and studying… wait for it… restaurant management! It pleases me that thus far the worst thing anyone has said about fast food is they wouldn’t want their kids cashiering or cooking as a career. That person didn’t say their kids are too good for fast food, or that it’s not a good job for starting out, just that it’s not a good long term prospect if you don’t intend to move up. At least that’s how I interpreted it.

    Just for the record, the stereotype isn’t that everyone in fast food is stupid, it’s that we don’t speak English! (smiley face, winky face, sticking out the tongue face)

  27. Jacq says:

    I think it would be helpful to every parent and every child to figure out their kids’ Myers Briggs personality type. It has helped me immeasurably with parenting my INTJ and ESTJ kids.
    The INTJ is academically oriented and I sure hope the ESTJ doesn’t waste his time with university and becomes an entrepreneur / goes into sales of some type. Kids show you who they are, we do them such a disservice by trying to fit their round pegs into our square holes.

  28. K Ann says:

    Regarding Comment #27 (Jacq) Reading your comment was like a breath of fresh air! Thank you! I hope anyone making their way through this long list of often negative comments sticks with it long enough to get to yours.

  29. jim says:

    re : #16, A Sumner, Yes nothing wrong with fast food jobs in certain situations. But the majority of the jobs (below management) aren’t going to support you long term.

  30. deRuiter says:

    #29, Jim’s correct. But fast food jobs, the low eschelon ones, aren’t intended to support you for life with a family of four. Fast food jobs are wonderful for training the young about how to work. They are entry level jobs. If you can keep your fast food job for a summer, you learn to show up when scheduled, to punch in on time, to work with other people of different backgrounds, to shower before coming to work, to wear clean clothing, keep your hair neat, to speak without curse words, some safe food handling techniques, how to deal with the public, how to take direction from a boss, and how putting in more hours brings you a larger paycheck. Minimum wage jobs are not intended for middle aged people with families to support. Get a minimum wage job, finish high school, save a little money, decide what you want to do. Become a plumber, electrician, carpenter, machinist, clean houses well enough and long enough to learn how to do it right and then hire others and open a cleaning company if you aren’t comfortable with the college idea, which doesn’t necessarily lead to anything except a pile of debt. Don’t drop out of high school, sell / take drugs, get pregnant at 16 and be unsure of the father, or if you are the baby’s father, be unsure if it’s really your child, and then moan about a lack of opportunity and how bad it is to be 40 and flipping burgers. Fast food places hire managers from the ranks, but you must present yourself well, perform your job well, show up a few minutes early each day to indicate your interest in the job, don’t bad mouth the boss, insure you can read and write fluently, and not drag a lot of low class drama from your personal life to the work place. Fast food jobs and other minimum wage jobs are great, they are a beginning and it is your responsibility to see that you only have them at the start of your career. Hit a rough spot career wise? Then take a night job flipping burgers or delivering pizza to tide you over while you get a better job. Fast food and other minimum wage jobs are also fine for those who are retired and want some part time work for the stimulation of being around people, and / or to pad out that Social Security check or provide a few little luxuries.

  31. BIGSeth says:

    If you make fun of someone your kids will turn out just like them.

  32. Kevin says:

    Ugh … so now we get banner ads right smack in the middle of the article content?

    Hope it was worth the payday, Trent.

  33. Kathleen says:

    #27 (Jacq) – This INFJ couldn’t agree more!

  34. Golfing Girl says:

    My parents are from blue collar backgrounds and I was the first to get a degree in my family. My in-laws have their PHDs. As for our 3 kids, I want them to get some higher education, but not necessarily college. I am saving money so they can get a degree, go to culinary school, or trade school. I would be very proud if one of my kids ended up being a carpenter, chef, etc. instead of a doctor or lawyer if it meant them being happy, despite the fact my husband and I are in the finance game.

  35. Kevin says:

    @Golfing Girl:

    “I would be very proud if one of my kids ended up being a carpenter, chef, etc. instead of a doctor or lawyer if it meant them being happy”

    Are you sure about that? What if they wanted to use the college money you’ve saved for them to go to acting school? What if they wanted to become an anti-abortion activist? What if they wanted to spend a year pointlessly “Occupying” some symbol of capitalism? What if they wanted to join an MLM and sell overpriced kitchen items? Would you still approve then? As long as “it meant them being happy?”

    I would hope not – because they’re children. They don’t yet understand that what makes them “happy” today could make them miserable tomorrow. It’s your job as a parent to steer them toward long term happiness (vegetables) when all they really want is instant gratification (ice cream).

  36. Katie says:

    Kevin, my parents always just told us they wanted us to do something that made us happy and that was ethical. I’m a lawyer; my brother is, in fact, in theater. He’s happy, respected in that community, and can support himself from it fine. I’m glad my parents didn’t try to pressure him into falling me to law school (though I do love being a lawyer), and instead allowed him to take the risks he felt like he needed to.

  37. Boophilus says:

    @Kevin
    I don’t understand your problem with Golf Girl’s statement. You say that a parent should look out for their child’s happiness, not their instant gratification. But that is what she said – happiness. And her examples were of careers that involved trade schools, not just anything.

    Yes it is easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, but it doesn’t mean she won’t or can’t be proud of her children. I think it is extremely hard. Maybe your kids work hard to make the world a better place, but their idea of better is not yours. Should she disown them or shame them if they fall on the other side of a political or religious fence?

  38. Kevin says:

    @Boophilus:

    My objection isn’t necessarily with Golf Girl specifically, but rather, with the short-sighted liberal philosphy that suggest “chase your bliss and the money will follow.” With high school guidance counsellors who recklessly advise students to “study what they love and ignore the income potential. You must be HAPPY!”

    Smash-cut to 15 years later when that philosophy degree is collecting dust on a shelf while 30-year-old Junior trudges down to his room in his parents’ basement after another long, hard day flipping burgers, and settles in at his computer to try and churn out another post for his philosophy blog.

    Trent and JD are actually great examples of this. They had lucrative careers (software and running a box-manufacturing company, respectively), but it wasn’t enough. Instead, they chased their “happiness” and took a huge risk by launching finance blogs. Finally! They were truly happy!

    Fast-forward another 10 years and they both hate it. JD’s getting divorced and Trent’s passion for writing has waned. They hate dealing with the accounting, the vendors, the advertisers, even churning out the posts has become a chore. So they both sold their blogs, and now look at the quality of the content. JD’s is just another aggregate blog that features posts from other people, and Trent’s clearly been phoning it in for quite a while now. What happened? I thought running their own blog and being their own boss is what would make them “happy?”

    Maybe what makes you happy today won’t necessarily still make you happy 10 years from now, so your best bet is to find a job that PAYS WELL, and that you can tolerate for the long-term, and save your “happy” pursuits for your hobbies.

    Betcha the high school guidance counsellors never tell the kids THAT though, do they?

  39. Kai says:

    I think your best bet is to seek a job that pays enough for the sort of life you want to live, and that you find satisfactory. Many people are not going to find someone to pay them to do what they find truly spectacularly exciting, and it’s not uncommon for that excitement to wane once it’s a job, even when you can find such a position.
    But I think it’s reasonable to aspire to more than tolerating one’s job. If you look for the sort of work you enjoy, or the work environments, and seek employment that you will find at least satisfying, though better if it is realistically available, you’ll do better than someone who can just tolerate his job.
    but of course, it needs to be able to make enough money to support the way you want to live Some people are happy working a more enjoyable or less demanding job and keeping the rest of their life simple to make it work. Others prefer to spend more energy at work and make more to spend on their off time.
    Of course, some people are lucky, and their skillset or interest can take them to a job that is highly rewarded in our society.

    I too strongly disagree with the ‘follow your passion and the rest will come’ idea that a lot of people espouse. But it’s not unrealistic to just look at what you need and what you want and find a balance.

  40. Elysian says:

    I agree with the two above commentors. Following your passion is good I guess, but supporting your family is better. If you can do both, more power to you. If you can only do one, then you decide what is more important to you (which I hope if your family) and then deal with the loss of the other.

  41. jim says:

    Kevin,

    What makes you think that the ‘follow your passion’ is some sort of ‘liberal philosophy’? I am not of the impression that Trent or JD Roth call themselves liberals exactly.

  42. Kevin says:

    @Jim:

    Number 1, because conservatives are typically more practical and level-headed, whereas liberals are typically more emotion-oriented.

    Number 2, I never said either JD or Trent were “liberals.” I merely used them as examples of where “following your passion” didn’t turn out to be all they thought it was cracked up to be.

  43. Johanna says:

    “conservatives are typically more practical and level-headed, whereas liberals are typically more emotion-oriented.”

    Effin’ what?

  44. Johanna says:

    I mean, sure, liberals get emotional sometimes. But when it’s in response to conservatives saying and doing things that are completely ridiculous, can you really blame us?

  45. BD says:

    Johanna: Excuses, excuses.

  46. Jennifer says:

    In my high school french class we did a language exercise where we made predictions about our classmates’ future. I was voted most likely to be a librarian and was beyond embarrassed. I pictured myself exploring the world, changing it one person at a time. Little did I know librarians do just that, and I love my job on the bookmobile! =)

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