Is all work "a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie" now?
November 11, 2019 5:51 AM   Subscribe

This phrase used to be how lawyers joked about what it was like to advance in their industry, but it's starting to feel like all work is this way. Are there exceptions?

I'm pretty good at my job. It's in tech, but it's not coding. But I haven't seen any movement in my career for the better part of a decade. I get paid in the low six figures, well enough as a manager with three good directs, and money isn't that important to me. But I also feel a little stagnant.

I've seen less accomplished and less competent colleagues get promoted and get more responsibility just because they were willing to put in more hours, and their title and pay goes up but their work week goes from 40 hours a week to forever on call. I would be wiling to bet they were now making less on an hourly basis.

I thought I'd be able to increase the value of my time to my employer by going to business school part time, while avoiding those long hours, but life hasn't panned out that way. I could probably increase my salary by multiples by going into finance with the MBA, but the marginal costs on my non-work time don't make that exchange attractive.

I'd like more responsibility and remuneration, based on experience and acquired wisdom, but it seems like so much of the world doesn't work that way anymore. To move into management or to employ my MBA, means sacrificing my humane work week.

I suppose once I get used to those 50 to 80 hour work weeks, I might be able to get more money and responsibility for that experience and acquired wisdom. But I don't even want to go there. Is this what you have found as well, and is there any way around it?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like the norm to me.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:51 AM on November 11, 2019

I have friends in tech who started their own businesses and were successful, so now they've retired around the age of 40 and just serve on their respective boards. Of course, that meant putting in long hours to get the businesses started. But it's definitely a different kind of reward.
posted by pinochiette at 6:54 AM on November 11, 2019

Money and responsibility aren't ends to themselves, though. What do you want from, or want to do with, the additional money and responsibility?
posted by mhoye at 6:57 AM on November 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

People who prioritize climbing the ladder and do the things that the corporate machine rewards are the ones who will reap those awards. Sometimes you will be promoted or recognized for contributions without playing the game, but if you're not actively hustling don't be surprised when you are passed over for those who are. I'm not saying that's good, but it is what it is.

I also work in tech, not in a coding / programming capacity. I stepped off the promotion treadmill a few years ago and basically just... did my job. Well, I think. And the response has basically been a bit of stagnation. Mostly I am OK with this, except that I feel there's a good chance stagnation will mean redundancy or difficulty in finding a new job when the inevitable layoffs come. (I might be wrong, but I suspect layoffs are pretty much just a matter of time in tech, not a matter of if, but when.)

I'm here to tell you - I don't think you're going to bask in the benefits of the 50-80 hour work week as much as you will value your free time. If you're in the low six figures you're doing better than a hell of a lot of other people, financially (maybe not great if you're in SFO or NYC, something like that, but still) and if you prize time over money... why willingly jump in the meat grinder?

FWIW, I think you'd be better off putting time into learning to ignore what other people are doing instead of putting that time into climbing the corporate ladder.
posted by jzb at 7:07 AM on November 11, 2019 [9 favorites]

What about treating your job as a means to an end, and explore ways to use your free time to engage with your community, however you define that? I personally find fulfillment outside of work.
posted by Automocar at 7:33 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

In technical roles, beyond a certain mid-senior level, getting promoted is hard work & doesn't directly translate into more money, certainly not into a better life. To keep up a trend of salary increases year
after year, you'd need to move to a new employer every 2-3 years.

That's a plan that could keep you on an upward path for maybe another 10 years, but every career tops out after a while. That's not necessarily a bad thing, or a problem to solve. You just need to make sure you get to a place where your earnings & your lifestyle expectations are in line, before you top out.

In the short term though - even if your current employer doesn't value it, maybe your MBA looks good enough to a new employer that they'll have something for you in a higher salary bracket?
posted by rd45 at 7:59 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

OK, you're going to get a lot of answers that emphasize work/life balance and ignoring the ladder, so let me chime in from the other side. (Also in tech)

I decided early on that I would rather work 50 hours a week in a position where I was valued, engaged, and challenged than 40 hours/week in a position that was stagnant. I love my family, I love spending time with them, and I love my hobbies. However, even with a straight 40 hours/week, work still consumes a good 1/3 of your waking hours. Why waste them?

The end result is that for that extra 25% of effort I have a job where I am trusted with interesting and impactful work and with pay that is substantially more than 25% greater than if I had worked a straight 40 hours/week.

Finally, it isn't really about putting in 50 instead of 40, it's about the willingness to "burst" and absorb work when you need to in order to meet critical deadlines or deliver something of exceptional quality. With time, you build better time management and prioritization skills and bursts become less frequent.
posted by lucasks at 8:12 AM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I work in a very different industry (non-profit/research) - and I can tell you that work is very different there. The work around here is always changing, always demanding - and if you want to learn and expand your skills, there is strong support for that. No one except senior staff (the scientists) works more than 37.5 hours / week - and even senior staff only have to do that sometimes.

We have our crunch times, but try to staff appropriately to fulfill them with some flexing. If an organization is continuing asking for overtime to meet deadlines, that organization is under-staffed.

That said, no one at my work place, except for the most senior people (e.g. CEO) makes over $90,000, and even the CEO makes a low-6 figures (publicly shared). Maybe more organizations should be like that: hire more people, pay them less (but still well), and work them less.

On another note: my other experience of work is within precarious and low-wage jobs. You are probably aware that work in these jobs is entirely unlike that in higher-status positions. You can work super-hard, and never have a raise ever (not even for cost of living). You are just a cog - and if they could replace you with a literal cog, they would.
posted by jb at 8:52 AM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am at a similar fork in the road. Support for the promotional path that involves higher expectations of availability, or take a different path where I can still make more money but am not expected to put extra hours in. The more money isn't a ton more, but it's probably enough. I think I read somewhere that you aren't any happier once you make more than 75k per year so I figure if I'm at or above that I'll be ok.

I even work for an employer that talks about work/life balance with no call, but I see even still, the management role has an expectation of longer hours and I'm not interested. It does seem that the corporate world expects to suck us dry. I'd rather have a life and be happy and have enough than top out and make myself sick.

It isn't clear whether you've transitioned to other employers in that decade but as others said that's the way to get those salary bumps if you don't want to do overtime. And maybe it also depends on company culture. I wonder if there is a way to ask how you can be considered for a promotion and feel out the response to see if more time is expected at your individual place of work.
posted by crunchy potato at 10:44 AM on November 11, 2019

There is nothing about promotion in modern organizations that is about reducing your hours of work. It is about improving the quality of your work hours: more deciding and less being decided-by, work evenings are spent wining and dining clients and not eating vending machine snacks while struggling with a powerpoint, and getting paid more.

The joke about the "pie" maxim is that when you make partner in a law firm, or get an analogous promotion in some organizations, you don't, at least immediately, get that much change in what you do.

And it's not really applicable outside the professions -- in corporate America removes individual-contributor tasks very quickly in the management hierarchy as you are promoted, and increases pay to far more than one could make (hourly or otherwise) than an individual contributor. It's great if all those things are what you want, it sucks if you hate meetings, sales and politics and love to code.
posted by MattD at 12:00 PM on November 11, 2019

I'd like more responsibility and remuneration, based on experience and acquired wisdom, but it seems like so much of the world doesn't work that way anymore.

Generally these days, the way you get a better job and more pay is by changing employers or threatening to. Employers are inclined to just pay you much the same and have you keep doing the same thing as long as you seem content to do so.

You need to look outside for better opportunities. When you have that better opportunity as a solid offer in hand, you can go to your current employer and tell them you have better offers elsewhere and see if they are willing to counter-offer. Then you can weigh the competing offers. If you never give your employer a reason to change your situation, they won't.
posted by JackFlash at 12:17 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think everyone feels pretty precarious in their position. Being valued by your employer, outside of what you’re profiting the company, is a thing of the past. At any minute you could be replaced by someone with half the experience for half the pay.

So the way to keep your job in this situation is to put in the hours. If you’re working 40 hours a week for $60K, but I’m working 60 hours a week for $60K, which one of us will lose our job when the downsizing angel passes overhead? It’s a race to the bottom devaluing labor, the kind of thing unions are supposed to prevent, which is why corporations and their sympathetic friends in government have weakened unions so much over the years.
posted by ejs at 10:10 PM on November 11, 2019

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