Mona, 18, is griping about her miserable summer car wash job’s low pay and high spray. Software salesman Barry is moping about how bad his sales are compared to the other guys and hates his job for that—thinks it’s awful. Factory workers in Guangzhou grumble about their harsh working conditions. The problem is, they all think, “bad jobs”. But, not so fast—what makes them so sure their jobs are “bad”?

Some would disagree. Bosses and academics may argue that any job that is accepted and turns out as the employee expected or expects to turn out on average can never be a bad job, just so long as it is actually a voluntarily accepted paying job and not work on a chain gang or some other form of literally involuntary servitude.

Yet, viscerally and intellectually, many of us recoil from what seems to be such an absurd idea, especially given how horrific or crazy some kinds of work can seem to observers and to those doing it, once they start the job.

Other “bad-job skeptics” argue that if, on average, the typical worker in a given job category comes out ahead, those who don’t can’t complain about the job’s being a “bad job”. To whine about their specific job outcomes, as Barry does, is, the critics maintain, as unreasonable as Las Vegas losers’ complaining about poker decks or roulette wheels (actually maybe even more unreasonable, since “the house” on average wins at the expense of the gambler, unlike the average boss).

These bad-job skeptics are invoking the mathematical concept of “expected gain”, which measures the average expected payoff of choices in terms of a combination (actually the multiplication of) their risk and reward. For example, tossing a coin and betting \$1 each time has an expected gain of zero, because, after many tosses by one or many individuals, the average payoff will be zero—reflecting the fact that heads are just as likely to come up as tails. On average, a bet on “heads” (or “tails”) will lose as often as it wins. You can’t complain because you lost, betting on your last or only coin toss or the job you want to toss, if, on average, the payoff to workers or players is zero (fair, but only break-even) or greater than zero (net gain).

Of course, a job that exacts more than was bargained for, because of unforeseen developments like a tsunami or employer fraud, can become a bad job. But what about the voluntarily accepted job (actually a redundant phrase, since “job” should, by definition, be voluntarily accepted employment) that turns out exactly as expected? Can it really deserve to be called a “bad job” by the worker who has it?

Here are more details about the possible arguments that would appeal to both heartless sweatshop bosses and well-intentioned dads encouraging their kids to take that summer job at the car wash:

1. If the “expected gain” from the job for an individual or on average for all workers in that job category is greater than zero, then,by definition, the job cannot be bad. This summarizes the point made above. If the job someone has accepted involves exactly as much labor, time, risk and resources (LTRR) and sacrifices of whatever available alternative uses of his LTRR as he rationally expected and agreed to, and it results either personally or on average for all workers in that category in the net gain expected, the job can’t be bad.
2. The worst job may not be a bad job: Obviously, since some jobs pay more cash (goods, perks or resources) per unit of labor, time or resources, some jobs will, of course, be “better” than others—a lot better. But, when making comparisons with better paying, safer, cleaner, etc., jobs, those comparisons are purely academic if the alternative jobs are unavailable, representing not even opportunity costs. However, if those jobs not only exist, but are also truly available to him, the rational worker will accordingly take one of those better jobs — which still only makes the job he previously voluntarily accepted relatively “worse” rather than necessarily and absolutely “bad”, in terms of the conditions and rewards it specified and which were agreed to.

The point here is that the “worst” of the jobs is not automatically a “bad” job. It just means that it’s not as good as the alternatives. Hence, it is, as a minimum, conceivable that among a complete listing of all jobs, one of them is the worst, without being at all bad. If this sounds strange, rather than obvious, stop thinking about jobs. Think about movies instead: “Titanic”, you say, was better than “Avatar”, but neither was as good as “Terminator”. Hence, you believe that “Avatar” was the worst of the three. But that doesn’t mean “Avatar” was bad.

It judging whether a job is bad or not, it must always be borne in mind that every job represents a voluntary exchange by two parties—the worker and the employer (including a private customer or client). In exchange for payment in cash, goods, services or other rewards, someone does something for someone else, often using up personal resources, such as paint or bandwidth, to finish the job.

In the end, if the money or other rewards received are, as expected (or at least on average among all workers in that job category), worth more to the rational and informed worker than is the labor, time and resources used up and risks taken to do the job and the rewards are offered in exchange for the cash, goods or services, the job is a good deal, not a bad one. In every such case, the work (on average, at least) represents a net gain. The individual worker or the group comes out ahead, or on average stands to come out ahead. How can that be bad?

This line of argumentation is perhaps best used on Mona, the teenager; on Barry, the software salesman; and on the factory workers, if their jobs are, in fact, exactly (on average among them) what they expected them to be when they accepted them—including the conditions and salary as net gain.

On the other hand, to Chinese factory workers who have had horrible surprises, e.g., in the form of unexpectedly dangerous working conditions and/or broken promises, thrown at them, this analysis does not apply. Nonetheless, mathematically speaking, if the “calculated” and resulting expected positive payoff, a.k.a. “expected gain”, is greater than zero and approximately equal, the job is, on this argument, never bad—even if for a particular worker the outcome is not as good as it is for the average worker doing the same job in the same company or industry.

A job that is truly “bad” will be one in which the reward received is worth less than the initial or eventual costs and risks accepted by the worker (i.e., a job that has “gone bad” or one taken on through bad judgment in the form of initial miscalculation of the payoffs and associated odds, or an irrational “debt-wish”). In the same mathematical terms, “bad job” means a job in which the expected gain is less than zero at the outset or is revised to less than zero once the job commences.

If the job turns out exactly as expected, it can’t be called “bad”, unless the worker was crazy enough to knowingly accept a losing proposition. If there is no net gain (i.e., a break-even situation) expected or there is a net loss to the worker expected at the outset, the job-taker’s judgment deserves to be called “bad”, as well as the job itself.

Learning from Jack Nicholson

To understand this point about average payoffs and jobs, think of failed wannabe and A-List Hollywood actors: If on average their expected earnings are greater than zero and with attractive calculated risk-to-reward ratios that allow for spectacular success, being an actor, for them, would not fall into the category of “bad job”, even though it may turn out badly for many, indeed, most, actors. For every 100 struggling actors among the 150,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild (recently merged with AFTRA), serving upscale lunches in L.A., there may be as few as one Jack Nicholson eating that lunch, but eating and buying anything else his heart desires, and enjoying a colossal income that evens things out, job-wise.

That’s Hollywood.

That makes acting probably fair….

….and probably not a bad job.

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[In Part II: How a “bad job” is like a snoring husband, and other unexpected insights into jobs we hate.]

in Best Careers]