Which Is the Best Job?

Every year, U.S. News and World Report ranks the “best jobs” in the US. For 2013, the “best jobs” were:

  1. Dentist
  2. Registered nurse
  3. Pharmacist
  4. Computer systems analyst
  5. Physician
  6. Database administrator
  7. Software developer
  8. Physical therapist
  9. Web developer
  10. Dental hygenist

Health care and technology dominate the list. What else do these jobs have in common?

  • They are well compensated. Some professions, like physicians and dentist, are famously well-paid, but all of these provide you with a solid middle- to upper-class lifestyle.
  • They require specialized skills and talents. Not only do they require years of education, they also certain habits of mind in order to be successful. It’s relatively easy (compared to some other fields) to distinguish who belongs in the discipline and who is just a pretender. Beyond the compensation, the specializiation and high degree of skill confers a high level of respect for people who are good at these jobs. (People outside the profession might not even have a clear idea of what they do!)
  • They are in high demand. Both health and technology are growing at rates beyond the rest of the economy, which offers both security and a high degree of autonomy for people in these fields. Right now, at my work, we’re trying to hire a web developer, and it’s common for highly skilled developers to receive several attractive job offers at the same time. As a result, developers can be extremely selective, choosing a job that is just the right fit for their preferences.

In summary, the “best jobs” are well paid, highly respected, and secure. Who wouldn’t want that? Well, that’s a complicated question.

What Makes a Job “Good”?

The jobs identified as “best” were ranked by a specific formula:

  • 10-Year Growth Volume (10%)
  • 10-Year Growth Percentage (10%)
  • Median Salary (30%)
  • Job Prospects (20%)
  • Employment Rate (20%)
  • Stress Level (5%)
  • Work-Life Balance (5%)

Security (in terms of job growth, employment rate, and prospects) and compensation (median salary) were weighted more heavily in the formula, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the “best jobs” were those that delivered on those qualities.

What’s not on the list? Here are a few things that occurred to me:

  • A sense of purpose
  • Positive contributions to the community
  • Time spent with family
  • Aesthetic or personal satisfaction

Those are less easily measured than employment rate and median salary, yet people make judgments about work based on factors like these all the time. The values of the U.S. News list reflects the values of the list-makers; people with different values will make different lists.

For example, on a recent Harvard Business Review Ideacast episode, Professor Joan C. Williams described the influence that class and gender assumptions have on our beliefs about work. Among professional men, working 60 or more hours per week was a demonstration of their masculinity. Maybe they couldn’t rescue people from burning buildings like a firefighter, she noted, but they could put in backbreaking hours. Working class men, in sharp contrast, viewed these professionals as “selfish” men who had misplaced priorities: family should come before work, after all.

Conflicting Values at Work

More examples of values affecting the perception of work abound. Among certain music fans, for instance, the popularity of a musician is seen as evidence of having “sold out.” It’s better to be obscure and artistically accomplished than to be rich and famous. The very fact of material success is read as a potential sign of musical decline. Similarly, among academics, the adoration of the general public is often less important than the respect of a select few. Writing a New York Times bestseller might impress your mother, but not your departmental colleagues.

I once heard Paul Stevens of Regent College describe the hierarchy of professions that he experienced as a child growing up in a particular kind of Christian environment. At the top were overseas missionaries, because they had sacrificed everything in order to share the Gospel with heathens. Next were pastors, who still shared the Gospel but hadn’t quite made the same commitment. Then there were teachers and housewives, who dedicated themselves to the care of children. Next, blue-collar workers and farmers, who did “honest work.” At the very bottom were businessmen, who were viewed with suspicion. Stevens has dedicated much of his life toward helping businesspeople integrate their faith with their work, as well as rehabilitating the view of business within the church.

No matter the value system, one common thread remains: some kinds of work are highly respected, while others are despised or disregarded. Sometimes, these distinctions are explicit, such as in the traditional Hindu caste system or medieval Europe’s Great Chain of Being. More often, these judgments are unspoken, except when it comes to “encouraging” our children which line of work to go into.

In college, I was surprised to learn that the eldest son of one of my English professors was an apprentice auto mechanic. Even more surprising (to me, at least), what my professor seemed perfectly OK with this. “Every family needs a good mechanic,” he said, before going on to explain that his son seemed to have found his niche in the world of car repair. At the time, I was running as fast I could from my small town roots (where car mechanics were far more highly regarded than English majors). I couldn’t imagine why someone so close to the world of academia as my professor’s son would lower himself to working with grease and tools. Today, having learned how expensive car repairs can be and knowing how much skill is involved, I have a much higher respect for mechanics.

The greater challenges: Can I respect every kind of work? Can I look beyond the job to see the value in the person doing the job? And can I distinguish truly good work from work that just happens to conform to my cultural assumptions?

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