Carnival Cash: The Cult of Seniority
Alright, screw it. Let’s burn the boats. I said I wasn’t going to get into this until I released the book, but the idealist career advice post I had planned doesn’t make sense without a discussion of corporate seniority. If you haven’t read this recent post, in which I outline the terms pictured below, you’ll probably want to read it for reference or this one might not make as much sense to you. In this post, I’m going to defend a thesis that the best career advice I could offer to any knowledge worker, counter-intuitive though it may seem, would be to avoid earning seniority at a company.
In a prequel to this series I seem to be starting, I define the essential conundrum of the corporate pragmatist. This post is going to focus on corporate idealists and the essential conundrum that they face, and it’s going to address a reader’s question while we’re at it. That question provides a good lead-in to the context here. Paraphrased, it was, “while going it alone may be good advice for seasoned, senior developers, shouldn’t junior developers hitch their wagons to a company for a while, giving a lot of extra effort and working their way up while learning the ropes?” My simple, off-the-cuff response is, “oh, dear God, no!” But the more nuanced response I’ll expand on here is, “that may be a strategy, but be very, very careful, because here be dragons.”
The hierarchy below is great for describing tenured corporate players, but not so much for describing new entrants, fresh on the scene. From an org chart perspective, they’re down at the bottom with the pragmatists, but they’re not pragmatists. They have yet to give up on their ambitions and put an “I’d rather be bowling” poster in their cubicle. They’re idealists in spirit, by and large, since they enter the corporate world in awe of suit-wearing, business-travel-booking, corporate-card-waving middle managers, who they perceive to be larger than life. The entrants believe in the company man and they believe in the company, but they clearly don’t come in as middle managers. They have yet to get there. And finally, they share a touch of commonality with the opportunists in that they have not yet been schooled in and beaten down by the corporate narrative of mediocrity. But they are not opportunists because they have yet to figure out that they need to cheat to win. So, newbies are kind of like corporate stem cells, waiting to assume their proper position.
Pragmatist Salary and Idealist Baubles
Let’s look at two possible paths through the company: that of the pragmatist knowledge worker, and that of the idealist one. There are 2,080 working hours in a year, and 40 working years in a career, for a grand total of 83,200 hours in a career. Let’s assume that the pragmatist knowledge worker averages $100,000 per year over the course of his career for a total of $4 million in earnings, while his idealist counterpart averages $120,000 for a total of $4.8 million in earnings. Just to recap here, that means that there is an AVERAGE of $20K in difference per year, which, for two people that start at identical comps is HUGE, given that it will probably be three years before either one of them sees anything more than a COLA. And, on top of that, pragmatists are much more likely to secure better salaries by job-hopping while idealists stick around for decades, taking whatever obligatory five-year raises the company deigns to dole out. A pragmatist can match an idealist’s salary 10 years in by just jumping jobs twice.
And all of that extra pay later in the career doesn’t come cheap for the idealist. It’s a life of midnight emails followed by 6 AM touchpoint meetings. The idealist misses children’s first steps because he’s on a conference call with the Dubai people that’s really critical for moving the company’s overseas presence to the next level. He got a fat $1,000 bonus check when that deal was sealed! Over the course of his career, the idealist pumps in 60 hours per week, whereas his slacker counterpart gets by with a mere 40. The reward is a corner office, fancier perks, and the right to give orders and expect to be obeyed. Of course, that’s the least the company can do, since the idealist actually works 124,800 hours to the 83,200 hours for the pragmatist. The real cost of those middle manager perks comes into true perspective, though, when you consider that the pragmatist earns $48.08 per hour for his career, while the idealist, with the nicer car, better office, and org chart authority earns $38.46 per hour. So, pragmatists reading this, pity your pointy-hair in his Lexus because he actually makes less than you do.
Yes, adjusted for hours, a rationally checked-out pragmatist actually earns a higher wage than a harried, hard-charging idealist working his way into the thick of middle management. Sure, a snapshot later in their careers has the idealist making more, and, by the end, probably even making more after all of the unpaid overtime, but after how many years of taking a ridiculous haircut? He never breaks even.
So why does anyone do this, unless that office with the windows is also stocked floor-to-ceiling with gold bars? It’s because they get caught into the lifestyle — into the idealist cult of seniority. They marry their identity and perceived worth with the organization’s identity and operate accordingly. They wind up caught up in the hype and insulated from external valuations of the things for which they and their cohorts compete. It’s like Lord of the Flies in there.
Have you ever gone to a festival or carnival where they sell you like nine tickets for $15, and everything costs four or eight tickets? You literally can’t use all of the tickets you buy unless you spend $60 on 36 tickets. What’s the benefit of using these tickets instead of actual currency? Absolutely, positively none. It’s a complete racket put on by the carnies to sucker you while you’re in a festive mood. They introduce and value a currency that’s worthless anywhere but at the carnival. There’s nothing impressive about having loads of leftover carnival cash.
Let’s switch gears for just a second, now, and do a thought exercise. What if I offered you a job for $100,000 per year? But wait, I’m not done. What if I offered you that same job, but I told you that instead of a cubicle, you’d get an office? And what if I told you that I’d add “senior” or “principal” to your title? What if I told you that you’d be on the meeting invite for a lot of meetings involving the CTO and all of the most sought-after people in Outlook? What if I told you that you could sit in on interviews, participate in perf reviews for junior employees, and strut around LIKE A BOSS? What if I even threw in a gold watch or a company ring after five years of service? Pretty sweet, right? Exactly, which is why I’m now offering you only $66,000 per year for it. Sure, it may be a 33% pay reduction from the original offer, but did I mention that you get to sit in a room while you’re at work? A room with a real, no-fooling door that you can totally close? That alone has to be worth like 40 grand, right?
You’d tell me that I was absolutely, completely insane if I interviewed you and wrote you an offer like this. You’d go onto Glassdoor and post such a scathing review that it would make their servers explode. You would be insulted to the absolute inner core. And yet, if I offered you the job and then made you this same offer, slowly, over the course of a decade, you’d thank me, call me sir, and ask for another. And that, my friend, is because you’ve been inducted over the course of that time into the cult of seniority and anointed as a card-carrying idealist.
Valuing the Worthless
I’ll restate once again my departure from the Gervais Principle series in that I do not think of idealists as idiots. I think of them as, well, idealists. They’re so caught up in delayed gratification and earnest competitiveness that they completely lose perspective. Their ongoing mantra is that putting in 60 hour weeks now will pay off down the line when they’re acing out their fellow idealists for coveted promotions. Then they blink, and they’ve been doing it for 10 years with nothing to show for it but carnival cash, but still, that next promotion is right around the corner. Just a little more of this and then they can kick back with the sweet life.
Of course, if there were nothing to reward this competitive instinct, chasing promotions wouldn’t be enough. There have to be interim prizes. And so, one year in comes an “employee of the month” award with a parking space. Two years in comes a chance to listen (but not to speak yet) in on the monthly leadership council meeting. Three years in and your title picks up a senior to be followed three years after that with principal. After seven years, when the interim head of operations leaves, it finally happens — your first office. Net worth of all of those perks: $0. The feeling of having more status than your coworkers: priceless (but really, also $0).
“That’s ridiculous, Erik,” you think. “You just don’t understand.” And you’re right, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I’m not in the trenches with you on a day-to-day basis, understanding the interacting social dynamics, and observing the signaling cred that your efforts have purchased for you within the circle of people with whom you spend a solid third of your life. I can’t appreciate what you feel when you walk past all of the cubicle dwellers on the way to your office, with both you and them knowing that you’ve earned a place above them. I don’t live that insular reality with you and with them, so I can’t know. I can only appraise its net worth as an external party and sadly conclude that you’re paying a hefty premium for something that has worth only in your theater, and only social worth at that. And I can sadly recognize that you’ve stocked up on carnival cash that loses value as soon as you leave, even if you’re proud that you have more of it than anyone else at the carnival.
This is what the corporate structure does to idealists. As I mentioned before, it robs them of perspective. It introduces a bubble culture and funnels their natural competitiveness into zero sum games for worthless prizes while opportunists quietly brush past, looking for actual items of value. So what is the danger to the entry level knowledge worker in hitching to a company and putting in a ton of overtime to earn experience? It’s not that she’ll put in extra effort without compensation, which is a rational, initial choice. It’s that she’ll get distracted by the lights, noises, and fun rides at Pleasure Island and begin to hoard carnival cash without realizing. It’s that she’ll blink and 10 years will have expired, and her market worth will have soared far above her pay while she’s collected offices, token titles, meeting invites, and other baubles that have no value outside of the carnival. And, worse still, she’ll have minimal leverage with which to go looking for competitive offers, since she’s traded a whole ton of value on the market in for carnival cash. Being the resident expert on Acme Inc.’s weird, internal SAP installation may net a lot of water cooler cred at Acme Inc., but Beta LLC hiring managers are going to raise a skeptical eyebrow and say, “and that helps me…how?”
And perhaps the most depressing part of all of this is that the ruling opportunists understand how self-limiting and non-strategic this career path is. When looking for their next CFO, they’re not looking for people that get comically over-competitive and dump $200 into the fast-pitch game in a futile effort to win a $4 inflatable bat. That’s not at all strategic, and you can keep that person around, even through frustration, by offering progressively bigger inflatable bats. To bring it back to message, if I’m a CEO, I’m not going to take a middle manager that works at a 33% discount in exchange for essentially nothing and promote him into a leadership position to negotiate key deals for me. All he’d know how to do is discount merchandise and services below cost until the opportunist across from him finally took pity on him.
So now you’ve seen the conundrum and motivations of the idealist in addition to the conundrum of the pragmatist. With that description and a piece of career advice in the books, I’ll next move on to how most LinkedIn career advice articles should be entitled, “7 Weird Tricks to Posture Your Way Cluelessly Into Middle Management and Stay There Forever.” I’ll also offer a look at the inclusive allure of the cult of seniority and how people get creative when it comes to sacrificing themselves to indifferent masters. So, stay tuned for more on the idealists and, perhaps, at some point, a bit about the opportunist conundrum (though no promises on that last one, outside of the book).