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Rundles wrap up: Underemployed

Someone asked me recently how I was, and for some reason I replied "Underemployed."

They laughed, and I laughed, and we both let it pass like "Oh, I’m fine. You?"

But actually I meant it. To most people, I suppose, "underemployed" can mean that the work they are doing is beneath them; beneath their educational level, beneath their vision of themselves, beneath what they planned, or, often, beneath what their spouse thinks is possible. What they (and the spouse) really mean, of course, is that they aren’t making enough money.

The money part is interesting. I know a ton of people who think they should earn more money, and almost as many who think all their troubles would be over if they got a raise of, say, 10 grand. But I have never met a person – poor, underpaid, well-off, or fabulously wealthy – who wasn’t busying themselves with a way to somehow make more money. In that sense, I guess, everyone is underemployed – even Fortune 500 CEOs or football coaches at top-tier universities.

And while I am not immune to money concerns or human nature – sure, I’d like more, always have, no matter where I was/am on the earnings scale – I really meant my comment about being "underemployed" as a statement on the work itself. Since journalism has, for the most part, blogged itself into utter insanity and inanity, or worse, dug itself into liberal and conservative latrine holes, I find myself pining for the old days where the work was challenging and highly interesting, people paid attention to it with some respect, I was very good at it and successful in a purely professional way, and I never really gave the money part much thought. It has always been a common truism in journalism that we didn’t get into it for the money.

I once had a romantic relationship, shall we say, where said other person strongly suggested that I quit being a writer and go directly into real estate, the supposition being that real estate people make ungodly amounts of money. At first I thought she might be having a stroke; you know, saying funny things almost by accident. But as it turned out she was serious. One time I wrote that I know many people who would be stray pet executioners if it paid well, and I guess what I really meant to say was "real estate specialist." I’m not knocking those in real estate; I’m just saying that you couldn’t pay me enough to find that work satisfying. I wouldn’t want to be a proctologist either, and I hear they are loaded.

Over the years I have known many people, fortunately, who do (or did) for a living what truly brought them joy. They are adherents to the old adage that "Money doesn’t buy happiness," but that’s apparently not true. Two recent studies I came across seem to indicate that money does, indeed, buy happiness, or at least it raises the life-satisfaction level in both individuals and countries. I would hope these studies are wrong, that joy can’t be expressed in purely economic terms, but I am very willing to volunteer as a test subject. Sign me up, I’ll try and buy as much happiness as I can, and I’ll get back to you on my relative level of happiness.

Barring that, I just seek to understand what, for me, being "underemployed" really means. I know I am not completely satisfied in my work, and I would love to be engaged in something that really thrilled me day in and day out. I believe that I have actually achieved that a couple of times in my life, but human nature being what it is, that belief is stronger now in hindsight than it was in the midst of the work.

As the writer James Thurber once observed, "I suppose that even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA building, would pall a little as the days ran on."

Ah, but there’s always a little pall overshadowing "underemployment." Which is why, I suppose, so many people seem unhappy in their work. This is nothing new, of course: The founder of The Denver Post, F.G. Bonfils, said – and the paper still uses as an editorial slogan – "There is no hope for the satisfied man."

Call me hopeful.

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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