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Home » Early Retirement, Retirement Planning

The Value of Work & Status to the American Identity

Last updated by on 21 Comments

A big part of why I’ve adopted the lifestyle I have… OK, the biggest part – is that financial independence is an incredibly attractive prospect to me.

I believe that human beings are more likely to produce the highest positive benefit to society when they follow their passions and interests on their own time and in the absence of financial stress or incentives.

So I was curious to see the responses of a recent poll from Gallup, which asked the question to Americans, “If you won 10 million dollars in the lottery, would you continue to work, or would you stop working?“.

Before we get to the results – can we all agree that $10M is still enough this day and age for everyone to call it quits? Even if the question is interpreted as pre-tax and pre-lump sum, it’s far more money than 99% of us will ever accrue in net worth in our lifetimes.

So what were the results? A stunning 68% of respondents (and 72% of 18-34 year olds) said that they would continue to work. And this number has gone up since the same question was last asked in 2006.

value of work

The remaining 31% would stop working.

Hmmm… that’s, ummm… interesting.

Just a few years ago, another poll indicated that only 45% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs – an all-time historical low. The other 55% were dissatisfied or worse.

And yet another poll indicated that 70.8% of Americans want to be self-employed (while only 7% are).

So, we don’t like our jobs, want to be self-employed (but aren’t yet), yet we would keep working? Something seems off here.

There needed to be a follow-up question to the first that digs a little deeper to get any value at all from this question. In fact, there was: “Would you continue to work in your current job, or would you take a different job?

To this question, 44% of respondents would continue in their current job, 23% would continue in a different job, and as mentioned earlier – 31% would stop working altogether.

keep working after winning lottery

The 44% that would continue working aligns almost perfectly to the 45% who were satisfied in their jobs in the previously referenced poll. It seems highly likely there’s a correlation.

But so happy that they’d continue working in the same job, after the windfall, despite the opportunity to leave the workforce altogether? That’s some powerful kool-aid.

And another 23% are not happy enough with their job to want to continue working in it, after the windfall, but they would still want to start over somewhere else, despite the opportunity to leave the workforce? That’s double-powered kool-aid.

I’ve always wondered why high net worth individuals, particularly those in very high stress c-level roles, continue to do what they do after accruing tens or hundreds of millions in net worth. The best I can come up with is that they (and apparently most Americans as evidenced by these polls) feel a very strong identity and status tie-in to the work that they do. So much so that no amount of money or stress would make them want to walk away from that identity/status. The value of work and status to our identities in America is so powerful it trumps all else. But at what cost?

We live in a country that values work for work’s sake and the status that comes from it. Even if we are overworked to the point of burnout (we do, indeed, work more than any other developed nation). It is the thing we most tie our identities to. Think about it for a second – what is often one of the first questions that we ask or are asked when we first meet new people? “So, what do you do?” or “Where do you work?“.

If I were to win $10 million, I cannot say I’d continue doing the same job (which I’ve been doing for 6+ years now and have learned 95% of what I can learn), However, I don’t think it would be easy to walk away from it, because it is what I do for more than half of my waking hours and I don’t completely suck at it. Not, at least, without a little bit of a re-discovery phase immediately following.

Alas, I would walk away. Would I walk straight to my couch and stay there for the next 60 years? No. I would almost certainly do something else that many would define as “work”. In reality, there would be zero incentive to make money. Rather, I would choose my pursuits based on my interests and the satisfaction gained. I’d do it for a while. Then I’d find something else and repeat.

Life’s too short to be defined by just one job that we have to do to make money, in my view.

Value of Work Discussion:

Would you keep working, if you came across a $10M windfall?

If so, would you keep the same job or move to another job?

What is the value of work to you, if any, outside of making money?

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I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


21 Comments »
  • Karen says:

    My inclination is that yes, I would keep working if I suddenly received some massive windfall of millions.

    My reason is, I’m only 26, and honestly, I get bored. Every once in a while we get a three day weekend, and I find myself on that Monday sort of bumbling around with too much time on my hands. If I did get a huge windfall, I’d probably do a little traveling, but that isn’t something I long to do for the rest of my life. I’m not a wandering sort of person. I would want to settle in one place, and probably up my volunteer work (I do about 10 hours a week), but I would need to work to keep from getting bored.

    I’d pay off debts, buy a condo, put my sister through school, and support my mother in her old age. But even if I still had millions after all that, I’d probably keep working in the same job I do now. It’s intellectually stimulating, I enjoy my coworkers, and I think the work is important (I work for a medical journal). It’s fun and interesting.

  • Greta says:

    You might be making the assumption that people work in jobs that they don’t enjoy or find meaning and purpose. I chose my career because it was interesting to me and because it was useful to society. I don’t make much, but my goal isn’t to be rich.

    I would keep working because I like what I do everyday. I don’t think suddenly having a large amount of money would change that.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      No assumptions – 55% of Americans are dissatisfied, according to polls. I would expect the REAL # is actually higher than that. If a stranger asks you if you are satisfied with your job, I think your first inclination is to respond that you are. Most people usually only air their grievances about work with a close circle of people.

  • Stuart says:

    That’s a really interesting question.

    As Karen just mentioned, I am 34 and I need something to occupy my focus.

    So I would probably continue working, but reduce the number of hours so that I can expand a couple of side projects that I’m working on.

    Either that or I would sell my business and devote all of my time to a major research project that would not otherwise be viable.

  • Kim says:

    I would keep working at my current job (self-employed) at a lighter workload until the day it wasn’t fun anymore. More importantly, I’d use the $10M to give my husband a reason to leave his not-as-fun job and have time to do more creative pursuits, like maybe start a blog for fun :-)

  • Michelle says:

    If I came across a $10mm windfall, I would be working towards things that I really love. More volunteering and helping others.

    I like to work, and I like to keep busy.

  • Steve says:

    Like others have stated, I don’t know if I’d just blindly do nothing all day, I’d likely get bored. I’d likely see if I could find something to do all day in a way that excites me at a charity I agree with.

    I do agree Americans are too status-obsessed. Their quality of life might not improve at all with some new purchases, but we need to have a bigger house, newer car, etc. Walk into a high-end clothing store and look at the price tags; is their clothing that much better? No, it might not even be better at all. But it’s high-status clothing!

  • Mike F says:

    For those competitive people who enjoy working hard at something to be better than others: I recommend one of the many sports/activities which have easy comparisons and are quite fun: Golf (handicap), Rock Climbing, (routes have various skill ratings, the higher the number you can complete, the better you are) Cycling on Strava, among many other options.

  • If I received a windfall of that magnitude, I would first take some time to assimilate and consider my options. That means continuing in my current “job” for a while and finishing my PhD. I’ve been working on it for too long to give it up for any reason! Same for my husband and his PhD. After finishing we’d probably take some time off to travel and relax, move to San Diego, and buy a house. Then we would decide how we want to spend our time. I think my husband would continue in research because that’s what he loves but there wouldn’t be pressure to accept positions he wasn’t completely excited about. We’d probably start having babies and I’d be a stay-at-home mom, likely still occupying myself with blogging or freelancing. So my answer is some of each, I guess. Continue in the same position for a while and then slowly make some changes – nothing rash!

  • FatChance says:

    I’d be gone tomorrow. I am 47 and could retire today if I absolutely had to but I like my job…just not enough to keep working if there was 0 financial incentive to do so.

    I think I would ride my bike across the US and maybe back through Canada and then find a job teaching kids young enough that they still want to learn.

    I would miss the social interaction with my co-workers. That would be the hardest thing to give up.

  • Jason773 says:

    Funny how the first few women who have responded so far seem to be drinking the kool-aid by the gallon, not the glass. IME women in their 20’s are absolutely void of hobbies, activities and challenges to occupy their time. Not that men can’t be like this, but to me it’s much more prominent with women since they’ve bought into the feminist, career woman propaganda. FWIW I’ve asked this kind of question of other women IRL and most say they would continue to work.

    I know so many guys who would leave their jobs immediately, including myself (and I kind of like my job), because they have so many other interests and hobbies. Sadly, as a single guy in his 20s it’s difficult finding an interesting woman who does something else besides work, shop and watch bad TV, but that’s a different story.

    • Leah says:

      I do agree with you as I see it in a lot of my girl friends who are very career focused. Perhaps it’s rooted in our biology that (most) women seek stability and comfort (for raising a family) while men tend to be more risk-takers. But to counter your perception of women in their 20′s, I am a woman in my twenties and I have made a point of pursuing a lifestyle in which my interests (eg: travel, literature, writing) are given as much time as possible and work (for money) as little as possible, ie: I choose work that gives me plenty of personal time and flexibility. People often say they are envious of my lifestyle but truth is, once we give value to something like personal time for pursuing our interests and we consciously make an effort to do so, it becomes feasible to have a lifestyle that suits non-work related interests and pursuits. I think G.E. does a great job of showing how we can free up our time by simplifying our financial lives so that we are able to pursue richer social/spiritual/intellectual lives.

    • Karen says:

      “Funny how the first few women who have responded so far seem to be drinking the kool-aid by the gallon, not the glass. IME women in their 20′s are absolutely void of hobbies, activities and challenges to occupy their time. ”

      Ouch, talk about assumption-city. I love my job and am definitely focused on growing my career, so I can grow my income, so I can take care of myself in my old age. But I wouldn’t say I’m “void of hobbies and activities.” I volunteer, I go to a weekly Buddhist meeting, I read and write obsessively, I take MOOCs and I’m learning programming (which is not a skill focused on in my current job). I also hate shopping and don’t own a TV.

      I do exactly what I want to do. What I want to do is keep my great day job, read and write in my spare time, continue my education, and volunteer. So, that’s what I do. Because I enjoy my job, I wouldn’t immediately find a reason to quit if there was a huge financial windfall. Once the job became less fun or not as fulfilling, then yes, I’d move on. But I’d do that regardless of whether I had a magical 10 million sitting around waiting for me.

      “feminist, career woman propaganda”

      Yes, any woman who enjoys her job is clearing buying into “feminist propaganda.” How dare a woman find fulfillment and excitement outside the kitchen.

      “as a single guy in his 20s it’s difficult finding an interesting woman”

      You’re single? I’m shocked because you sound like such a delightful catch.

  • eric says:

    Before we get to the results – can we all agree that $10M is still enough this day and age for everyone to call it quits? Even if the question is interpreted as pre-tax and pre-lump sum it’s far more money than 99% of us will ever accrue in net worth in our lifetimes.

    So post lump sum this is what 5mil? After taxes 2.5mil? This number is way too low to even think about leaving the work force. Organic non-factory farmed locally sourced food is expensive. The average price for pre-owned single family homes in the bay area are north of a million. This is about enough money to comfortably buy a single family house and a tesla while leaving buffer money to take bigger career risks such as working at an early stage startup or seeding your own. But stopping is out of the question. Having 10mil (or 2.5 after lumpsum / taxes) in the bank also doesn’t even put you in the same league as the 1% in the bay area.

  • Nicole says:

    I have this discussion with my husband and friends and colleagues all the time. I absolutely hands-down would quit my job immediately if I won $10M. I am very lucky to work for an incredible company that highly values its employees and treats us very well and provides great benefits, and I actually happen to like my job. But, at the end of the day, it’s a job I do in order to collect a paycheck. At the point I no longer needed the paycheck in order to continue to live a comfortable life, I’d absolutely stop working here. Like you said, I wouldn’t sit on my couch for the rest of my life, but I’d definitely have a more relaxed “schedule” and wouldn’t mind some couch-sitting and sleeping in on weekdays. I’d volunteer my time, resources and efforts on causes I care deeply about but I would not work for money.

  • Jacob says:

    For me it isn’t a matter of whether or not I “like” my job. I enjoy my co-workers, I love my patients, and I find my work meaningful. BUT…in order to do it, I have to get up at a certain time, on certain days, be there from Xam to Xpm, etc, etc.

    I love hiking and playing piano, but they’d start to suck if I was a slave to someone else’s schedule. 40+ hours per week of anything is not my idea of fun.

    I want to wake up on a natural schedule and make my own decisions on how productive to be and where I should put that productivity to work depending on my own natural cycles and desires. I’ve never in my life had trouble w/ boredom because there is ALWAYS something to do, whether it be volunteer, learn a new hobby/skill, or simply go out into nature and relax w/ a good book.

    It all comes down to freedom and flexibility.

  • Chris says:

    Yes, if I came into a lump sum of $10 million I’d keep working in my current occupation and attempt to double the money. And, I’d do whatever possible to make sure there was enough wealth built up for the grandchildren of my grandchildren.

    The biggest value I find in the work I do is meeting new people, but those everyday opportunities might disappear once a person comes into an enormous lump sum money especially if its public knowledge, like winning the lottery.

    Who knows, a person might not even be able to work with the public if they came into such a large sum of money.

  • David says:

    After setting aside and investing what I thought was needed, I’d quit my job, move, finalize this business plan I’ve had in my head for so long and start my business. So, yeah, I’d keep “working”, but it’d be doing what I’m passionate about in an environment I’ve perfected for myself.

    Environment has a lot to do with employee happiness. ;-)

  • ~Matt~ says:

    Being happy with my current job I would continue to work. Other than buying a modest home I would bank the rest and break down the remainder into yearly bonus if you will till the expected time of my demise. I enjoy my standard of living but a extra $100K a year would really take the edge off. (assuming I live to 90 and 40% to the government)

  • Hannah says:

    Speaking from someone who’s been unemployed for several months at a time in each of the past several years, I can say that the only reason I’d continue to work after a windfall, is due to the purpose it gives.
    Meaning, any person worth their salt gets bored, depressed, and feels lousy after just sitting around for months contributing nothing to society or the household. Its healthy and natural to want to work, for the sake that work is good.

    However I think you found the main reason – that America is too horribly stuck on defining a person by their occupation.
    As someone who’s dream is to stay at home and raise a lovely family, spend my time teaching them – instead of sending them to school – and maintaining an orderly household, I’ve learned just what a horrible bias there is against that.
    Why is it considered so worthless and unacceptable for a grown woman to want to run a home and raise children, like they did in the 50s and 60s?
    Why is it that when someone asks what I want to do, and I tell them, their eyes glaze over, the smile fades, and they look askance?
    Can this be but just one reflection of how America has become way too wrapped up with defining a person by something they do outside the house, instead of defining them by who they are?
    All that said, I’d still pursue my dream even if I landed a windfall; and I know my husband would continue to work at what he loves – computers – but definitely in a different capacity than he is currently. With a lot more free time!

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