Money and prestige vs meaningful work?
November 20, 2020 10:07 PM   Subscribe

Looking for stories from people who have left (outwardly) successful/prestigious corporate careers for a “smaller” but (potentially) more meaningful role? What did you think about when making the switch? What did you decide and how do you feel about it in retrospect?

In case it’s not obvious from the question I find myself considering abandoning a fairly successful corporate role in my field for a role also in my field, but working on much smaller scale projects, for less pay (initially probably a 10-20% cut, with a lower lifetime earnings ceiling) with worse benefits. The upside would be (I think, but can’t be completely sure) more meaningful work and a more positive work environment - but is that enough to make up for the trade offs? And if it’s not, what are some ways I can reconcile myself with the slightly soulless and sometimes antagonistic nature of my corporate position instead? Looking for others who’ve experienced a similar decision and would like to know how it worked out for you.

The pandemic is also confusing my decision making - it’s hard to know how much of my feelings are COVID fatigue vs actual issues with my job... I should probably also include that current corporate job has had lots of layoffs as a result of the pandemic, whereas the smaller potential company is the busiest they’ve ever been, so in purely business terms, the small company is on a more obviously positive trajectory.
posted by annie o to Work & Money (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I cannot answer the question directly from experience, but I can tell you that, as an old guy, that when I experienced the feeling of doing nothing meaningful, rather than change careers, I found volunteer work that filled that void. Going to work was not soul sucking, it just was not really contributing to my community.

If I were forced to choose between my career that was quite frankly financially rewarding and the volunteer field that was emotionally satisfying, because I was at a point in my life that I could afford to make the change, I did re-allocate my time such that my income was reduced pretty substantially.

I am glad I made the decision when I did, but even in hindsight, I think I would have regretted the move if I was younger or better put, more financially unstable. It is also my opinion that no matter what you are doing, no matter how rewarding, there are times when it will be drudgery or the people with whom you are working with will get on your nerves.

My last thought is a quote that I do not know who said it first, but means a lot to me from experience,. "I have never regretted things I have done or decisions I made, I have only regretted things I did not do."
posted by AugustWest at 10:58 PM on November 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have a friend who moved from being a corporate big law attorney to being an in-house lawyer at a publishing house. I think he is very happy with the trade-offs, namely, somewhat less stratospheric earnings and a possibly smaller scale field of influence, but more intellectually challenging work and a more manageable work-life balance.

I have never heard him say exactly this, but my guess is that it's extremely important, when making a move like this, to fight very hard to make sure that, even if you're accepting some lifetime reduction in pay, that you are nonetheless being paid fairly for the work you do. Many, many organizations based on idealistic premises exploit the people who work for them, and expect the inherent rewards to make up for the frankly shitty working conditions. It is a recipe for misery. The mention of 'worse benefits' in your question gives me pause, because while you may not need the most gold-plated Cadillac of plans, or free massages at work, having bad health care will adversely affect your quality of life. You want to be at a company that supports the employees in the work that they do, not by blowing smoke about how valuable they are and how much everyone loves each other, but by supporting them in pragmatic ways, like paid time off and access to health insurance.

My initial instinct is that I'd be more likely to accept a future earnings ceiling than a current pay cut, unless that pay cut was matched by an actual reduction in work--shorter work week, no email outside of work hours, etc. Your skills are your skills, and they're worth a certain amount. 'More interesting' work is still work, at the end of the day, and doing more work for less money is a recipe for burnout, I think.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 12:30 AM on November 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think you're also assuming that meaningful work is somehow less stressful than a successful corporate job. I worked in the NGO field (technically still do but it's much more corporate now) and the work hours were very long and demanding.

I get to enjoy weekends now because I do not care about my work outside of paid work week hours. Most people I know in meaningful NGO work have very long hours, worry about work outside of work hours, are paid lower than corporate rate and deal with burn out. I get the "work should be your passion" but I can tell you that leads to a horrendous work/life balance.

I have ex-staff who went corporate and are happy and ex-staff who stayed NGO and are happy. The happy ones are those who have a decent work-life balance and are comfortable within their salary. Just don't be rosy-eyed about social/NGO work, it can be more draining than 'boring' jobs.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:11 AM on November 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

I did this in my mid-30s. I left a corporate senior management position to strike out and open my own business in a completely different field. I did it for all the reasons you mention above and really thought through the pros and cons (spreadsheets and graphs; the whole nine yards.) Ultimately, the new venture failed and I ended up getting back into the corporate world. Here's what I learned -

- If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I probably still would have done it. It got me out of a soul-crushing career trajectory for which I was not suited. It probably also at the time saved my marriage.

- I gave up money, a more expensive house, a more expensive car. I gained family time, getting to do something I really loved, and got out of the rat race.

- One thing I thought through during the evaluation process was what I would do if it all failed. I sat with that thought for a time and sketched out a contingency plan. When it came time to pull out that contingency plan and execute it, some of the panic was tamped down by the thought that I had already built this into the equation.

I was glad I did this when I was young. I am now 60 and retiring soon. I have a car (a Prius rather than a Tesla), I have a house (a condo rather than something grander). I had time to rebuild my wealth after the business failed.

Honestly, this is a big decision and your judgment is probably clouded by COVID. Can you wait awhile and decide after we get back to normal times? Big life altering choices should be made with a clear head. Take a year to focus on volunteering like mentioned above then see where you are at. I took 2 years from first thought to making the actual jump. And things still failed.
posted by eleslie at 3:32 AM on November 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

The upside would be (I think, but can’t be completely sure) more meaningful work and a more positive work environment

In addition to the excellent point dorothyisunderwood made above, I'll also caution not to assume it will be a better work environment because you're working for a meaningful cause. There are antagonistic people everywhere. If this is a smaller place, you might actually be more likely to encounter someone like this if it's such a small place that there's no real HR or legal department. I know - 'HR is not your friend, etc.' - but it does help curb really egregious behavior.
posted by unannihilated at 6:02 AM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I’ve actually done it twice. The first time I was 30, owned a home with my solidly-earning husband, and had an all-consuming job in an NGO. I took a massive pay cut to go work in publishing. That was the right move for a couple of reasons - I did love the new job, and it was on a clear career path. I followed that path working for 3 different publications and working my way up to a pretty plum job, although the plum job was something I got when my favourite magazine folded and I was moved into the prestigious role.

That last job got toxic for all the reasons you hear about in media and I was let go in a massive downsizing. Then I got a job in an arts focused organization in the marketing department. Hour commute each way. Super busy. Here’s where I did it the second time...I loved that job in many ways and I actually now miss it, but the organization had a deep, deep Old Boys structure with a tantrummy CEO (literally raging through the halls.) At the same time, that job was just healthy enough for me to get back on my feet, and I had also found a passion for martial arts. My Grandmaster (and friend) was in need of help - small business help, like from running supplies to locations to setting up CRMs and payroll systems. He could only afford to pay me about 55% of my salary. But...the two locations are close to my home, eliminating my commute, and one of my kids was in the afterschool program and the other was there taking lessons.

And I had two moments before deciding... one was, there had been three sisters in my class who were early teens to mid-teens who came in, hijab-wearing Muslims, bullied and they wouldn’t look you in the eye. And I watched them become kick-ass martial artists, but also stand straighter, etc. Over time I learned they had started a group for Muslim kids at their school. I live in a very diverse area but still at that time, there was anti-Muslim sentiment set off by Stephen Harper and Trump. Second, I saw Wonder Woman. And I cried for a lot of reasons but mostly I spent my life feeling like I didn’t measure up, and people, 95% of them male, set that off in the workplace - storming through with baby-boy CEO tantrums, pivots, dismissing my ideas only to implement them in a fanfare 4 months down the road (at one point my team had a pool, under one particular VP.)

And I realized so many female-led movies are about succeeding despite trauma, despite the men. And then here’s a schlocky, CGI movie with Diana, who just doesn’t get it because she grew up with Amazon’s.

I had a standing job offer to train Amazons. So I took it. I shared all that so you’ll know how strongly I felt. Remember: I have a spouse who backed me and our house is functionally paid off, we have under 2 years to go. I also had an incident with my child where I was downtown and although he was fine, the hour between us felt...vast.’s what I got back. More of myself, because I’m aligned with my values and because the sort of...physicality of my job, if I don’t do it right my bus drivers aren’t there to pick up the kids, there’s no toilet paper, there’s no staff to open the door, etc....has been good for me. My relationship with my kids has been transformed- this is the biggest gift - because not only am I around and at, say, lunchtime I sometimes have flexibility, and because I’m around 700 kids and teens all day so I’m in their world, not stuck downtown.

And I also helped make things better financially and moved that salary up a bit but I’m still quite far from where I was. I eliminated the commuting expenses which helped, but now as much as I thought.

I shared all that’s still hard work. And stress. Long hours, we’re open Saturdays and until 10pm, summer camp season is insane days, like sometimes if things go off the rails (like, true example, half the staff go out for lunch together at a buffet and all get food poisoning/norovirus and I have 80 kids arriving at 7:39 am) I’ll end up working 12, 14 hrs.

Smaller and multiple roles means no one backs you up.

Less prestige really does not mean less stress and in my case, if I mess up I can literally have 5 year olds at the side of the road. And almost all my staff are under 25. And I deal with all the upset calls.

There is no career path in this job exactly- it’s quirky operations with a side of marketing - except that if the business expands I get to expand it.

And my salary has meant our lifestyle moved a bit with my job, from aiming for UMC to middle class...we don’t eat out much, we road trip instead of going to Italy, our tech is older and our home has almost zero smartness, our cars are older. My retirement savings path looked ok at the point I moved but I think I need to reexamine that. My husband and I are truly okay with that...we were very intentional about it and we both are kind of plain people who don’t need our appliances to match (they currently don’t, the stove and fridge came with the house and we got a used dishwasher when ours broke) and we hope to travel later but if we don’t, we’ve gone out of way to build a life where we walk on the beach *here.* Our kids will be fine for university if they select fairly local schools and if they want to go to Some Crazy US School, we’ll have to look for aid including the bank of wealthy grandparents.

Of course, Covid killed my business mostly - I’m working right now but it’s the government money floating my job. We’re lucky in that we were about to expand and so we had reserves. If the vaccine rollout goes well we might make it - I might get furloughed a bit and will job hunt then but I feel better right now. Still. I’m feeling a bit the money I could have been saving the last few years. Except - I would probably have renovated my kitchen.

And now I’ve been out of my old career for 3 years and I’m turning 50 and although I’m doing a UX/UI certificate, almost done!!, I have no idea if I’ll be able to get back on the bigger business ladder if it comes to it. And again, my spouse provides basically our base living salary, and also during a lot (not all! Not with daycare!) of our lives we saved.

I’m glad of my choices but if I am forced to make a move, I now would go for a bigger salary and more stress, because I’ve recovered and I feel ready and I want sweet numbers in all my accounts.

I guess what I’m saying is...

a) you probably won’t be less busy or stressed. You might be more positive, my organization’s culture is crazy positive because all my 22 year old staff are dead certain they are going to become either Chief Instructors with me (yay!) or Twitch influencers. :) But seriously they have made me feel very good about the future and that rocks. And I do believe in what we do, although when the toilets clog at 8:15 am Saturday it’s hard to remember. :)

B) How much you will miss the money will depend on how stable you are and what the actual money means. If I were super stressed about every time my child dropped his Chromebook down the stairs in the middle of learning virtually in a pandemic when all the boards just ordered hundreds and so I have to drop $700, I would resent it. In my case I have savings, not infinite but there. I would really, really sit down and quantify that.

C) unless you’re my age or older no change is necessarily forever. You will probably keep building skills and experience that can turn back into money if you are willing to do X where X might be move or go back to school or do a networking move. However thanks to ageism there is a ceiling for that - I’m almost curious to find out if I *could* get hired into a young team.

That is so long! I hope it helps.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:03 AM on November 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

About four months ago, I left my job at a prestigious university for what I felt was a more meaningful role at a tiny (~10 person) company. I generally liked the work I did in my old job, and had acquired a lot of institutional knowledge and built strong bonds with a lot of my coworkers in my 15+ years there, but because my research was federally-funded, and because of who has been at the top of the federal org chart, I'd started to become disillusioned with the overall mission. I was also a medium-sized fish in a very large ocean, and not enough of a ladder-climbing type to play the kind of politics necessary to advance in that environment.

Fortunately, my new employer was in a position to roughly match my total compensation level from the old job, but the math is a bit fuzzy there, and will depend a lot on how out-of-pocket costs for healthcare work out this year. There's some upside for more if the company's successful enough to be acquired or go public in the future, but I'm not building that into my financial plans. So my financial risk isn't quite where yours is when you're looking at possibly a 20% drop.

COVID is probably impacting your thinking here, but in my mind, the fact that your current employer is laying people off while the small company is thriving more than outweighs any possibility that you'll regret things later. You can always try to find something else later, or if you leave on good enough terms, maybe even return to the larger company in the future. What you don't want to do is end up being laid off from your current position after passing on this new opportunity. Even if the happiness from the new job doesn't offset the loss in compensation, when you add in the reduction in risk of being without a job, I think I'd take the plunge if I were in your precise situation.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:38 AM on November 21, 2020

When I was still in college (and for several years after) I worked for a small tech consulting company, which at the time was fantastic (great pay, travel opportunities) but also had its downsides (I left to go to grad school right before the company basically folded because the big funding fish it relied on moved on). It also gave me a little glimpse into how life was for many regular tech industry folks in Silicon Valley, which was enough to warn me off it (CA is great but the commuting sucks). After grad school I found a big role at a small company in the midwest and just passed the 12 year mark earlier this year.

While I don't have the daily lived experience of working for a big corporate FAANG-like company firsthand, I can say that small niche business is great IF YOU FIND THE RIGHT ONE. Upsides are things like autonomy and flexibility, and very little corporate management structure forcing you to while away hours in meetings. Downsides are precarity and responsibility (the second one is arguably an upside, but in a small company you really have to pull your weight and everything you do is magnified in a way that being a cog in a machine usually isn't). Another big upside is that not having to live in $EXPENSIVE_CITY makes the smaller salary actually go a lot farther.

What I can say for certain is I've never once had the thought "I wish I worked for Google" so I think I did something right.
posted by axiom at 11:40 PM on November 21, 2020

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