Money Fail: Dead End Job

The biggest Money Fail I can possibly think of is for someone to work their entire life for low wages at dead-end jobs.  Not everyone aspires to be wealthy or to rise to the top of the corporate world.  But, to work so hard, get paid so little and have no opportunity for advancement is a definite fail.  I’m not talking about someone choosing a low-paying profession because it’s their passion and they enjoy it.  I’m talking about being stuck in a dead-end job because they never made the effort to pursue a career.  Millions of people are in this predicament and it’s getting much harder to live on minimum wage.

This is the second post in a series of Money Fails.

Money Fail: Broke on Thursday
Money Fail: Dead End Job
Money Fail: The Payment Mentality
Money Fail: Ignoring Unpaid Bills

Money Fail: Spending to Impress
Money Fail: Never Track Finances
Money Fail: Lenders of Last Resort

Wandering Aimlessly through Life

Dead End Job

Image by Helga Tawil Souri

The most common way to wind up permanently employed in dead-end jobs is to wander through life without a plan.  It starts in high school when people suddenly graduate and don’t know what to do with their lives.  So, they take a menial job and work just hard enough to keep it.  Or, they go to college and take some classes that sound like fun, but they soon get bored and drop out.  Each new job is in a different field, so they always start at the bottom.  Or, they jump ship for a small raise, with the same title and no career advancement.

The problem is that time passes and opportunities start to disappear.  Any work experience is fine on a resume when someone is in their twenties.  But, if they are still wearing a name badge in their thirties or forties, the train has left the station and the ship has sailed.  It will be very difficult to break into high a paying career at this stage in their life.

Meaningful employment that pays well often follows a career path.  In the trades, people start off as apprentices and work their way up to journeyman.  It’s similar in the corporate world, although people usually start out as summer interns or in junior positions out of college.  The point is people work up to high paying positions, after years of gaining contacts and experience.  Despite what many college students think today, they won’t be starting out making six-figures.  They will have to exhibit some combination of passion, skill, hard work and personality to move up the corporate ladder and make big money.

Acquiring Skills & Education

There is an endless debate about the value of college and whether or not it’s a good investment.  The quality of many college programs has dropped dramatically at the same time the costs have skyrocketed.  And, there are a much higher percentage of people with college degrees chasing a shrinking percentage of high-paying jobs.  There are a lot of people with expensive college degrees and six-figure student loans who are working at Starbucks.  If teens are trying to find themselves, it’s way cheaper to backpack around Europe than to squander four years in college.

In my opinion, the value of a college degree depends entirely on a person’s career goals.  If someone is getting a degree just to check a box on a resume, it may not be worth it.  This is especially true for degrees that haven’t prepared a student for a specific role in the workplace.  Fortune 500 companies aren’t hiring many aspiring anthropologists.  But, they do need a lot of engineers, chemists, information technologists and accountants.  For those who have decided on a specific professional career, there is no substitute for a relevant college degree and work experience.


Although much of the growth in the economy has been for service jobs, the blue collar trades provide a great opportunity for many.  There are a lot of people who simply aren’t interested in attending years of college and working in a corporate environment.  Some people enjoy working outside or with their hands and there are plenty of good jobs available for them.  Despite all of the advances in technology, jobs for plumbers, mechanics, electricians and construction workers can’t be outsourced overseas.  People are becoming less capable of maintaining things on their own, which creates a growing opportunity.


Others join the military and learn valuable job skills.  They can come out after four years with experience that is difficult to learn in the private sector.  And, the government pays for their college education.  I have two nephews who took this route.  One was a medic and he is studying to become a fireman.  The other is maintaining jet aircraft.  I also know a number of people who are my age and retiring from the military in their 40s with a pension.  That opportunity doesn’t exist in the corporate world.


The best shot at a lucrative future belongs to the entrepreneur.  According to the book The Millionaire Next Door, someone is four times more likely to become a millionaire if they are self-employed.  This option isn’t suitable for everyone.  It takes long-hours, some luck and a lot of persistence to succeed.  But, for the people who have done it, they would never be happy working in a corporate environment.  They prefer to control their own destiny.

Contribution & Reward

No matter what path a person takes in their life and career, they are often rewarded by the total contribution they make.  People like Ray Kroc and Sam Walton created empires from the mundane.  People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates brought computer technology to the masses.  People like Tesla and Edison invented a world without darkness.  These people didn’t sit around in a cubicle waiting for the weekend.  They didn’t have to ask their boss for time off or a raise.  They didn’t show up late, sneak out early or complain about their co-workers.  Neither will the next generation of great entrepreneurs.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that life is an opportunity.  The rewards are quickly growing for those who produce and shrinking for those who don’t.  The days of company loyalty and job security are gone.  Everyone is becoming a free-agent.

“Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.”

Sam Ewing – Professional Baseball Player

Recommended Reading

There was a great rebuttal to this post over at

Cognoramus – UnFail: There’s No Such Thing as a Dead-End Job

Other Related Posts:

CNN Money – From Unemployment to Startup
Debt Free Adventure – Find Work You Love
First Generation White Collar – Entrepreneurship is a Dream for some People

This post was featured on the Carnival of Personal Finance over at Boomer and Echo.  If you aren’t familiar with the Carnival of Personal Finance, you need to check it out.  There are tons of amazing posts.

13 comments to Money Fail: Dead End Job

  • Bret,

    I think many people look at a college degree – any college degree – as the gateway to a middle class lifestyle. It’s sort of like the scene from Fight Club:

    Tyler: My dad never went to college, so it was real important that I go.
    Narrator: Sounds familiar.
    Tyler: So I graduate, I call him up long distance, I say “Dad, now what?” He says, “Get a job.”
    Narrator: Same here.
    Tyler: Now I’m 25, make my yearly call again. I say Dad, “Now what?” He says, “I don’t know, get married.”

    …(I still think the movie is overrated) The movie has a point. If a goal is “get a degree, any degree”, people probably aren’t thinking about the implications of their choice. I’m not saying don’t pursue what you want – I’m saying find a way to do it without drowning in debt on the way out. Like you said, it should be more than checking a box on a Resume.

    Nice article.


    • This subject is pretty close to home for me, because I have 22 and 18 year old kids. I am trying to guide them towards productive and rewarding lives, while allowing them to choose their own path.

      I remember being that age and wondering what I was going to do with my life. Luckily, I got better advice from my Dad than Tyler from Fight Club. My Dad told me not to worry about it. He said it was normal at my age and I would figure it out soon enough. A couple of years later, I was taking a programming class in college and I knew I wanted to work with computers. I have been doing it for 26 years now and I still enjoy it.
      Bret recently posted..Money Fail: Dead End JobMy Profile

  • Bret,

    Interesting post that got me thinking. My thoughts got so long that I did a post of my own on the topic, but I WILL address the military as an option.

    Next spring I will be getting out after 9 years of service. I’m already fielding job offers from desirable employers, partly because my military career path has led me to a good profession despite a lack of education. Easy, right?

    Is building a career worth missing half of your daughter’s first year of life or your grandmother’s funeral? Are gray hairs on a 27-year-old a good trade-off?

    If you’re thinking about joining the military strictly for the education and career prospects, please reconsider. You will hate every minute of it because you’re joining for the wrong reasons, and it’s hard to be good at something without a passion for it.

    Join for the right reasons (desire to serve, desire to improve your character, for example), and you will have an irreplaceable experience you’ll never regret.
    Cognoramus recently posted..UnFail: There’s No Such Thing As A Dead-End JobMy Profile

    • Cognoramus,

      It’s great to have an expert weigh in on such an important subject. Since I went the college route instead of serving, I’m far from it. But, I do live on the edge of Camp Pendleton and I spend a fair amount of time on base and with military personnel and family. I have a tremendous amount of respect and understanding for the sacrifices they make. It’s definitely more of a commitment than a career.
      Bret recently posted..Money Fail: Broke on ThursdayMy Profile

  • Bret – this is good stuff. As you mention, it’s hard to move in a certain direction if you keep starting over! There can be some advantages to learning different skills, but not having a plan that has a clear purpose for how to piece them together won’t allow progression.
    Dan Meyers recently posted..Want to start your own business? [Video Interview with Chris Fagan, CEO Mobestream Media]My Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by Dan.

      When I was writing this article, I was thinking about a couple of people I know like this. It’s sad they are middle-aged and still get paid like they are in their 20s, because they keep starting over in new fields. If they had a career focus, they would get ahead.
      Bret recently posted..Money Fail: Broke on ThursdayMy Profile

  • Great stuff, Bret. I don’t really have any more to say because I completely agree with you. 🙂
    Invest It Wisely recently posted..Steve Jobs, Entrepreneur and Capitalist ExtraordinaireMy Profile

  • Terry

    Any suggestions for someone who has had a lifetime of dead end jobs and is now over 50 and unemployed?

    School is financially not an option, and I’m not confident it would be worthwhile at this point anyway.

    • Hi Terry,

      Thanks for stopping by my blog.

      I had a very similar question from a reader in 2009 and I wrote the post Practical Advice for the Career Challenged for him. Even though it’s geared towards younger workers, I think it would help you to read it.

      Unfortunately, I have a number of good friends who are over 50 and unemployed. One of them has an MBA and the other has a BA. They both have decades of experience in solid fields. Employers and the economy haven’t been very kind to seasoned workers, especially in younger industries like technology.

      But, there are definitely some opportunities. In your case, I would look for something in the service trades, like plumber, mechanic, electrician, construction or landscaping. See if you can get on as an apprentice and work your way up. Try to stick with one field until retirement.

      Two reasons I recommend the service trades are because there will always be demand and they are easy to start your own business later. One guy in a truck with a cell phone and some flyers could do pretty well, with very little overhead.
      Bret recently posted..What if Everything you Know about Money is Wrong?My Profile

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