"Golden handcuffs", or just a good, stable job?
January 12, 2021 5:03 AM   Subscribe

I've been at my well-paying, comfortable, but unfulfilling corporate job for about 2.5 years now. An opportunity to switch to something more in line with my personal values and goals has come up. I've never thought of myself as someone who strongly values money/prestige, but I'm having a lot more feelings than I expected about losing some of the material benefits my current job affords me. How do I work through this to decide if I should stay or go?

A couple years ago, in my mid-twenties, I washed out from academia onto the shores of Big Tech. At the time, I jumped at the opportunity to:

1. Pay off my student loans and save up some money
2. Get some big-name work experience on my sparse CV
3. Have someone else finance my relocation to a new place because sure, why not?

I feel extremely fortunate that all of that has come to pass, but throughout that time I have steadily become less and less happy with the job itself. Various management changes and restructuring has put me far from the aspects of the work I was initially drawn to, working with a group I don't really fit in with. I don't feel overworked or like I'm in a toxic environment, exactly; I just feel that I'm stagnating, intellectually, and it's making me feel incurious and exhausted outside of work too (though this could be the covid situation, too). I never wanted to be someone who just clocks into a bullshit job every morning for the paycheck, if I had other options.

Recently an opportunity at a nonprofit research institution came up that felt much more in line with my interests and aptitudes. Initially I felt very excited about this - it was exactly the sort of thing I thought I wanted to end up doing after achieving my 3 goals above, when I first started at my current job. But I hadn't anticipated how nervous I would be about taking a significant pay cut (I won't be going broke, but the nonprofit world ain't paying FAANG money) and also the loss of that "big-name" prestige (apparently I have a more fragile ego than I thought).

Will there ever be a time when I know that I must leave my cushy job, or am I always going to feel this way? Am I just going to have to take the leap one day, and is now (with *gestures at everything*) the time to do so? All advice appreciated - thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You know that if the non profit job doesn’t work out for some reason, you can always go back to big tech, right? Quite common for people to make a foray into new adventures (I’ve mostly seen it in for startups, but I don’t think nonprofits are different) and return in a few months, often to their old company, but also possibly another Big Tech one. They won’t hold it against you. You may even get a fresh new role and pay bump when you return.

So I say go for it! Not many people have the opportunity to switch jobs like that so embrace your good fortune.
posted by redlines at 5:14 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]

Only you know what kind of person you want to be. Do you want to be showered in money to maximize value for shareholders and pay for second mansions for the C-suite, or do you want to make the world a better place?

Sure it's nice to have expensive things, but it's also nice to feel like you're working for some sense of good that doesn't revolve around the profit motive of a multinational amoral behemoth, that will drop you like last weeks' sushi when it suits them.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:34 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Go for it, especially if you've paid off much of your loans.
posted by scruss at 5:35 AM on January 12

I'm quite a bit older but seeing people retire from places like Microsoft in my Facebook feed with what I assume are very cushy retirement packages in their 50s is really awesome to see. I did something similar to you and began to get dissatisfied with all good jobs. This is a hard decision but I'd ride it out or take the traditional career path of up and out until you semi-retire young and can do non-profit work. "Paying off student loans" tells me you're not in a position to buy a private jet or do other crazy big tech money,

I learned the hard way there's a certain point in corporate jobs you become non-fireable in a Homer Simpson way. Management will change eventually and you'll still get raises and bonuses. Seek what you want to do in your current company would be my advice, Boomerangs are not uncommon like mentioned above but there's always a grass is greener aspect. Most my friends in their 40s have accepted that there are aspects to their jobs that suck but stability and freedom is something you can't buy,

I will say the happiest of my friends stayed in tech jobs through thick and thin and were rewarded in non-traditional ways. Choosing the best projects, getting out from under bad management, and generally able to deal with life curveballs easier when you're a known quantity that needs time off or just has a bad 6 months.

I sound like my mom but big tech is.a bubble and I'd ride it out personally knowing what I know now.
posted by geoff. at 5:42 AM on January 12 [18 favorites]

I think there's a really easy fix for the "golden handcuffs" aspect of a high-paying big tech job, and that's to live well below your means and save like crazy. Like 50% or more of your income can and should go to savings if you're making FAANG money (unless you really love a big, spendy lifestyle, in which case don't go to the nonprofit and take the pay cut). Then 1) you know how to live on a lower salary (and equally important, you know you know how to do it) and 2) after a few years you have a big ol' "fuck you money" cushion that lets you not really have to make decisions based on money anymore.

As for the "prestige" aspect, do *you* actually feel like it's prestigious? Now that you've done the work and seen the other work that's getting done and who wins and loses and why? (There's also a sort of prestige or at least mystique associated with the whole "getting out of the rat race" thing, for what it's worth.)

You don't share a lot of the details about why you think this nonprofit thing would be a better fit or what stage the "opportunity" is at (like, did you see an job ad, are you being actively recruited into an application process, or has someone said, "This job is yours if you want it"?). Maybe you should find out more about it! Maybe you'll discover it's too awesome to pass up, maybe you'll realize that although on paper it is exactly the job you want, the people you would be working with seem like massive assholes.

But I don't think it matters a whole lot either way what you decide about this particular opportunity: other opportunities in line with your preferences *will* pop up in the next few years (and you'll probably have a good shot at them even if you feel like your skills are stagnating a bit because a lot of nonprofits definitely fall for the prestige of Big Tech), and if you decide to take this opportunity and change your mind later you will, as redlines says, be able to get back into tech.
posted by mskyle at 5:44 AM on January 12 [11 favorites]

Depends on the loans/savings situation. If you bail on security, the first rough patch you hit will send you back unhappily. If you have a solid base, you can choose jobs on their merits. Good luck deciding.
posted by mahorn at 5:47 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I left a high-paying job in financial software last year to join a regional non-profit. Overall, great move, though I don't recommend starting at a food bank two weeks before a pandemic strikes. Been an interesting time.

I took about a 25% pay cut, I think, but felt that the bump in benefits was a good trade. I also had some external factors that absolutely made a difference: healthy retirement and emergency funds, low COL city, no debt other than a mortgage, no dependents, in my mid-thirties.

I was pretty miserable in my finance job - the people were just awful, the work actively went against my values, stagnation everywhere - so switching to the non-profit gig was literally lifechanging. I've gained more skills in the last 11 months than I did in the previous five years.

Re: the prestige thing - people are actually way more impressed and interested by my work at the food bank than they ever were about my previous jobs, or than they are about my friends who work at FAANGs. Once you get past the ping-pong tables and the beer fridge, is FAANG work really so different from any other tech job? I'm not sure how future employers might perceive it, but I have time to come up with a compelling narrative if I choose to help back to the private sector.

I am so much happier in my day to day work; I sleep well at night; I am proud to be part of an organization that helps people so much right now.

Message me if you want to talk more about the particulars!
posted by punchtothehead at 6:04 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]

If you have flexibility to switch now and have even an inkling that it might be interesting, you should do it. As others have said you can always make your way back to the kind of job you have now. But if you wait until later when you might have a house, a family, or other obligations it may become impossible to switch since you'll be even more dependent on that salary. Build up some savings and take the plunge -- at least you will have given yourself a chance to answer this question for yourself, rather than looking back after a few decades and wondering what if.
posted by cubby at 6:20 AM on January 12

I feel like if there's one thing I've learned from my garbage fire of a life it's that I should trust my gut. I had a laundry list of rationalizations for why I should have taken my current job (stability, a title that would bump my pay elsewhere...lots of Very Practical things that were probably on your list for taking Your current job). But I knew in my gut that it was the wrong choice. I felt a little bit sick every morning once I made the decision. Writing the email to accept the job literally left a bad taste in my mouth.

It's a couple years later and I actually no-fooling want to die, because of this job. Like yours, I have slowly been stripped of all of the fulfilling duties and goals I had and instead am just forever managing things that are set up to fail, making products that grow worse with every iteration, with a team that is less operational every day.

You have to find a way to silence your ego and your financial worry and really feel what your body tells you about this change. What is the physical sensation you feel when you imagine walking into the new place? What about when you imagine walking into your current office? Tingling? Does your heart race a little? Does a fog kind of lift? Or do you feel a little cold knot in the middle of your gut?
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:22 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]

If you ever feel like you need to switch back, it won't be hard. 1) People do that regularly. 2) Tech as an industry expects a fair amount of job hopping from most folks. 3) Recruiters will not blink at statements like "I enjoyed my time at Nonprofit but I'm looking to get back to market rate pay and Exciting Big Tech."

Go right ahead and do this. I've worked in tech my whole adult life, and the opportunities I've had to do a little good, and not just make money, have been the most rewarding professional experiences by far.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:43 AM on January 12 [12 favorites]

If you experience anxiety at the prospect of a pay cut, the way I recommend dealing with that is to seize control of the process by giving yourself a pay cut.

Set up an automatic payment with your bank for the account your salary gets paid into, diverting 10% of each salary payment into a long term investment account that it will cost you some kind of penalty to get money from before maturity. Then start making all your remaining spending and investment decisions based on your newly diminished salary, as if the money you were diverting never really existed.

What I expect you'll find, especially if you're starting from a FAANG-scale base, is that it will be relatively easy to start adjusting your value-for-money judgement in order to make living on the reduced income sustainable, and that it will only take a few months before you're not really needing to think about it any more.

Once that's happened, give yourself another 10% pay cut in exactly the same way. The adjustment period will be shorter this time because you've already practised doing it once.

Rinse and repeat until you actually find yourself needing to juggle a bit in order to pay rent and bills on time. Then downsize to cheaper accommodation.

Congratulations! You have now picked the lock on the golden handcuffs, and you're completely free to work in whatever field sits most comfortably with you, for whatever they're willing to pay. If you self-pay-cut right now and take the project seriously enough to apply a bit of creativity to, you might even find you're needing to cut your new salary to keep your effective income where it is.

You're not even thirty years old now, which means that you likely have decades for compounding returns to work their magic on money you'd otherwise have been pissing up the wall to maintain whatever you currently envision as a FAANG-appropriate lifestyle. Which means you'll probably end up being able to retire before you're 50, if you want to, into circumstances that feel pretty much as comfortable as the one you had while you were working.

They say time is money but they're wrong. I'll be 59 this year. I gave up my last paying job at 56. And I can assure you that once you have enough to be able to pay your bills without worrying about them then time is better than money by at least an order of magnitude.

I've observed before that there are two essentially different approaches to having a fully satisfying life: one is working like a steam train in pursuit of whatever you want, and the other is learning not to want very much. The thing that many people seem not to grasp about this is that these approaches are complementary, not opposed, and that simultaneously applying both of them results in a synergy that works much better than either alone.
posted by flabdablet at 6:55 AM on January 12 [21 favorites]

That last paying job, by the way, involved working two days per week doing IT technician / netadmin work at a local school for a lower hourly than a McD's shift manager makes. I'd had it for twelve years and it was fun.
posted by flabdablet at 7:02 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Applying for the job will give you the opportunity to think through all this formally. Applying isn’t accepting. Go for it.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:52 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]

If you're going to potentially switch jobs, you should also be looking elsewhere -- throwing all of your hopes and dreams into one single possibility is a recipe for Bad Times.
posted by aramaic at 7:55 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

"Will there ever be a time when I know that I must leave my cushy job?"

Quite possibly not. But there may come a time when you feel completely fed up and can't take one more day of it, and if you're deeply entrenched in the lifestyle afforded by your current salary at that point, you'll regret not taking this opportunity when you were young and relatively free. You can always go back to big tech and big salaries. There's a reason so many people do nonprofit work in their twenties, corporate work in their prime earning years, and then nonprofit work again once their kids are grown.
posted by xylothek at 8:08 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I think there are two different questions, whether in general to get out of Big Tech, and whether to take this specific opportunity.

I'm going to ignore the first question because I don't know a great deal about Big Tech. The second question is much more interesting and practical anyway because it's focusing on the specifics. Apply for the job and find out if it sounds interesting, the organisation functional and your future coworkers plausibly pleasant. Figure out whether the specific pay, benefits and work they are offering sound like a good trade for your time compared to your current job without improvements.
posted by plonkee at 8:10 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

A life well lived is a life full of meaning, in my opinion (and a few philosophers too maybe). Only you can decide and actualize that meaning, and it can be found inside or outside of work. To me, this sounds like an opportunity to find something good.

I think life adapts around salary a lot too outside of like hugely expensive areas to live or large commitments (big mortgage, putting kids through college). You may actually find a new appreciation for things if forced to change in that way.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:34 AM on January 12

Recently an opportunity at a nonprofit research institution came up that felt much more in line with my interests and aptitudes.

I can't speak to whether or not you should take -this- specific job if it's offered to you or leave the specific cushy job that you're in, but I will say this: what do you know about the day to day life at Research Institution? I've worked all over the place in a lot of different jobs and industries, and in my experience (anecdotes are not data but enough experiences start to build a qualitative data pool), I've run into more toxic work environments and bad management in non-profits and academia than anywhere else, and a lot of it is justified by "oh, but we're doing good work" "you're making the world a better place" "no work environment is PERFECT, what do you expect?" "but you have such LIFE FLEXIBILITY, where else are you going to get that?" etc. So make sure not to romanticize the non-profit life and to really suss out the work environment, as much as you can, for a healthy work culture.
posted by joycehealy at 3:59 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Have you thought about just switching roles or positions within Big Tech? It's not at all unusual for the same thing to get old after a couple years, but in most cases switching to a new subject area at the same company can feel like a whole new job, with the benefit that you're familiar with all the HR stuff and can keep your benefits and so on. Alternately, take a serious look at what your role is now and figure out what's a next-level role at a different company in Big Tech and interview for it - it seems like you've been pretty passive about job-searching but if you put some effort in you might find a bunch of available options that could be the best of both worlds.
posted by inkyz at 4:44 PM on January 12

Will there ever be a time when I know that I must leave my cushy job, or am I always going to feel this way?

8 years ago I left a job to work on IT infra supporting major OSS projects inside a research university. It wasn't great money, and I did learn a lot, but I do recall there being a lot of stress about the budget. Every year for five years I wondered if this was the year the administration would realize the department had a budget hole of roughly my entire salary. Every fiscal year was fraught with political infighting many layers above us that was toxic enough to be covered in local papers. Eventually they did figure it out and laid me and every other unionized, full time employee off.

I now work in FAANG making literally 4x what I did then, and while the upper management is just as toxic, I'd definitely recommend doing the opposite of what I did: build up the FU fund first, then chase your dream.
posted by pwnguin at 8:45 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

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