The Advantage of Being Poor

A friend of mine commented on one of his young employees as,

“The worst combination you can get – someone who isn’t interested in the work and doesn’t need the money.”

There are lots of advantages of being born into a well-off family. Your family can provide you introductions to get your first job. You can take low-paid or under-paid internships or research assistant jobs to gain valuable experience. Your parents can pay your rent so that you can afford to live and work in Manhattan or Santa Monica or Menlo Park while you are getting a foothold in the industry.

There is one advantage young people raised in poverty may have, though, and that is that they really need the money. Those tales of working your way up from the mail room have an element of truth in them.

Recently, I was interviewed about my first job. I was a dishwasher and the manager actually told me that they hired me because I was willing to wash dishes and didn’t seem to be obviously crazy, unlike some others they had interviewed. I was in high school, broke and had no experience doing anything. I showed up every day and worked because I needed the money. Before too long, I got a job as a waitress. When I left there, it wasn’t too hard to find another waitress job, because I had experience.

In college, still broke, I had a series of temp jobs. First, I worked for a law firm and part of my job was to replace pages in binders with the correct pages for laws that had been changed. This was before the Internet and word processors. The filing was boring as hell. I showed up every day and worked because I needed the money. After a while, I got bookkeeping jobs which were less boring and paid much better.

I could go on, but you get the point – most places I worked, I started out what people who had the luxury of thinking such things would have thought beneath them. I was a student at a top university tearing pages out of books for minimum wage. I didn’t have that luxury, though, and what I thought was that this would pay for groceries so I could eat this week.

Often, I have seen people who could have had promising careers start in the mail room (literally or figuratively) and do a half-ass job because who cares how I sort the stupid mail. Their attitude is that once they get a job that matches their ability and interest, they will put in the effort. Unfortunately for them, not many bosses are going to make someone an accountant or branch manager if they screw up sorting the mail. Most bosses are more likely to hire someone they know than a random person off the street – and by being in the company in that job that was beneath those people who had a choice, I was someone the boss knew.

Even as a teenager, I found it a bit annoying when my friends scoffed that they were not going to wash dishes/ work in fast food/ be an office drone, even though I agreed with them that those jobs were menial and didn’t require any of the education we had gotten. Now that I have to deal with The Spoiled One, I realize how annoyingly immature it is to have someone tell me what they are NOT going to do, especially when that someone wants me to give them money.

Want a better job? Work hard at the crummy job you’ve got.

This isn’t to say that I never had a rotten job with a rotten boss that didn’t get any better. I did. In those cases, I quit as soon as I got another job. I had to get another job because of the whole having no money thing. Here’s something I’ve learned as a statistician – probability. If you have a 25% probability of a job developing into something better, and you consistently have a job for years because you have no choice, then the odds are in your favor that you will eventually improve your situation unless … but that’s my next post …

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