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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