Worst job ever?

by Eszter Hargittai on July 19, 2007

Unclear why exactly:), Michael Froomkin asks the question:

What would be the most unattractive job in the regular economy? I’m not talking about the objectively least-well paid or statistically most dangerous, or most unpopular (car salesman?). I mean, what job would you least like to have. No fair saying subsistence farmer in Darfur either — I mean in the US (or other developed economy).

His response: toll booth attendant.

As I note in the comments to his post, I won’t answer, because I prefer to think about aspects of jobs I like. His post reminded me, however, of having heard once that toll booth operators have the highest suicide rate among various occupations. I decided it was time to check on this. There doesn’t seem to be much out there to support the claim. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of methodological challenges to studying the relationship between occupations and suicide rates. This piece does a good job of mentioning several of them from lack of occupational information on death certificates to numbers being too small by category for comparison. From what I’ve read after a quick search, it’s fair to say the rumors I have heard about the above relationship are pretty much unsubstantiated.

Long before becoming a card-carrying sociologist, I was interested in suicide rates.* This may have had to do with the fact that I grew up in a country with one of the highest rates of suicide. According to 2003 figures, Hungary is #6 on the list (interesting group – bottom right corner when you click through), but in the 1980s when I was growing up there, it may have been #1 judging from the figures for the other countries high on the list since some of their rates seem to have gone up while Hungary’s declined considerably [pdf] in the last couple of decades. I doubt there are many Hungarians who don’t know of people in their immediate circles who either committed or at least attempted suicide (I knew several before graduating from high school), but perhaps this is true elsewhere, too.

All of which is obviously not to say that worst job ever equals suicide. It’s just a connection I made after reading about Michael’s candidate for the distinction.

[*] Yeah, yeah, maybe I became a sociologist, because I find questios of this sort intriguing.

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abb1 07.19.07 at 2:45 pm

What would be the most unattractive job in the regular economy?

According to the SNL:

Finally, according to the U.S. News & World Report 1997 Career Guide, the bet job in the United States, for the second year in a row, is Interactive Business System Analyst. However, last year’s worst job, Assistant Crack Whore, has been replaced by a new worst job: Crack Whore Trainee.


Bloix 07.19.07 at 2:50 pm

Toll booth attendants work out of the weather. They can sit down (on stools). Their work is not physically difficult. They do not work under direct supervision of a boss and are not driven by an assembly line. They have little contact with their “customers,” who are not generally hostile. They can listen to the radio. They are generally well-paid for unskilled work.

Froomkin is the usual clueless middle-class guy who can’t even begin to imagine what work is like for most of the people who do it.

Charles Bukowski, who did a lot of crappy work before he got work with the post office, was a connoisseur of bad jobs. In one story he describes piece-workers at long, ill-lit tables who are breaking crabs with hammers and pulling the meat out, over and over, at break-neck speed. He says that it appears they are pulling their own guts out. In another, he describes the work of the men who put up the advertising placards in New York subway cars. They work all night with their hands high over their heads, running through the dark cars as fast as they can, and from car to car on dangerous elevated tracks, with fifty pounds of cardboard slung over their backs.

For bad jobs, you have a combination of some or all of the following: exhausting repetitive motion; piece-work pay or an assembly-line-driven pace; extreme physical discomfort (rain, cold, heat, confined space); physical danger; stink, slime, or muck; and arbitary, cruel bosses.

People like us, sitting at our computers in our comfortable chairs, don’t have a clue what a truly bad job is like.


Jon 07.19.07 at 2:52 pm

I think I read somewhere that the occupation with the highest mortality is soap opera character.


SamChevre 07.19.07 at 2:53 pm

On what grounds is “toll booth attendant” a bad job? I’m with bloix; almost any agricultural job is worse, as are many factory jobs.


Rich B. 07.19.07 at 3:01 pm

I spent the summer between high school and college in a heavy clothes, gas mask and hard hat standing with a fire extinguisher observing approximately a half dozen welders who were working on the repair of a dry dock for a private contractor working at a naval shipyard. There were about two dozen of us spread among all the welders. Over the course of the 10 weeks, there were 2 fires in my section, one of which I stepped on to put it out, and the other one took a single pass with the fire extinguisher over a small piece of wood. The rest of the time I stood, and waited.

I do not claim by any stretch my job was amongst the worst ever — merely that it was pretty darned bad and I would have traded it for a job at a toll booth attendant in a second.


Ted 07.19.07 at 3:03 pm

Press secretary for the Bush administration. Even I have some principles.


Joel Turnipseed 07.19.07 at 3:08 pm

Toll Booth Operator isn’t in the top 20 (maybe not even the top 50) shittiest jobs.

What would be? Uh, let’s see: taxi driver, any kind of piece-work manufacturing (I worked a couple weeks after the Gulf War in a Hostess factory: nothing like standing knee deep at two in the morning in Twinkies when the wrapping machine gums up), any kind of meat packing (a friend of mine once worked in a turkey-processing plant… NFW!), roofing would pretty much suck… boy: there are so many to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start.

No, actually, I worked one of the absolutely shittiest (though actually very well-paying) jobs for a whole summer between the Marine Corps and college: masonry laborer. I had to run my hands under hot water for fifteen minutes every morning just to open my fists, worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, and went to sleep within an hour of getting home every day. Marine Corps boot camp and the Gulf War were nothing compared to that f***ing job (but then: they didn’t pay half as well, either).

Even some of the better shitty jobs would kill most of the white collar workers I know almost immediately (as they kill/injure their skilled practitioners at a pretty high rate): long-haul trucking, commercial forestry or fishing, highway construction, etcetera.


rvman 07.19.07 at 3:10 pm

Chicken Processor

Hands down.


Martin James 07.19.07 at 3:20 pm

At 19, I had a job at an ice cream plant that satisfied 5 of the 7 criteria amnesty international had at that time for torture.

I worked alone in a 10′ x 10′ room at -20 degrees repetitively stacking 125 4 carton sleeves of ice cream on palates then pushing them down a track. The usual hours were 4 am to noon but in the summer it went midnight to noon.

I remember one time the line going flat out at 3 in morning and sweating my butt off at 20 below. My supervisor, Mort was an enormous and nasty SOB (he once sprayed a mentally challenged older employee with water and then put him in the sharp room), and just for fun when I needed a bathroom break he parked the forklift in front of the door so I couldn’t get out.

So I had extreme cold, sleep deprivation, physical labor, mental anguish and isolation. I loved that job because I knew I only had to do it for the summer.

I took a vacation at the end of the summer and when I came back Mort had shot himself while I was gone.


Joel Turnipseed 07.19.07 at 3:20 pm

Actually, the mere idea that someone intelligent could think that Toll Booth Operator was among the shittiest jobs has put me in an alternatingly sad and foul mood.

It’ll never happen, but one of the best ideas ever put forth by an American is the idea of compulsory, totally shitty, totally degrading, military-style hard labor for all Americans: http://www.constitution.org/wj/meow.htm


the blackbird is involved 07.19.07 at 3:34 pm

I’d like to jump on the bandwagon of people dismissing toll booth operator as the worst job. True, it’s low paid and exposes you to particulates for eight hours a day. The rise of E-Z Pass like systems means there’s little prospect of a bright future. But toll booth operator is still in the mediocre category.

There was even an Adam Sandler movie (I know, I know) extolling it as the quintessence of a slacker job.

Bike messengers work for little pay (at piece rate) in an objectively very dangerous occupation. (Accidents in city traffic are a matter of when, not if.) Many unscrupulous employers treat them “independent contractors” to avoid paying for unemployment or health coverage. A large percentage of drivers and pedestrians resent the “aggressive” riding tactics they use to get by.

Yet…the example shows how important prestige can be, even when it’s defined very idiosyncratically. Their accouterments are regularly ripped-off by tastemakers (e.g. messenger bags, fixed gear bikes). Being a bike messenger is an incredibly hard job, but I don’t think it’s anything like the “worst job” because so many white collar folks like me idolize them.


aaron_m 07.19.07 at 3:37 pm

We shouldn’t underestimate how much a good job is determined on a scale of soul suckingness. I think toll booth person must rank very high on this scale.

I have had dirty, hard, and repetitive physical jobs. I have had outside jobs were there was no escape from whatever weather you happened to get that day. I did not ever think I could be that cold and survive. I even had a job where I started the day by jumping out of a helicopter into a swamp and sinking in down to my chest (actually that was pretty cool).

But working in a suit and tie every day as a low level bureaucrat moving meaningless numbers from one column to the next was certainly one of the least rewarding jobs I have ever had. It looked good on paper and was certainly more comfortable, but it was worse than the others.

Of course one summer break I got a pitiful offer to throw blocks of cement into a tumbler, remove the blocks, and restack them on a piece-work pay basis. That would have been worse…you should have seen the crew….

I am guessing that the meat processing jobs are in fact the worst on all the criteria noted so far.


Francis 07.19.07 at 3:38 pm

short-hoe weeding of ag. crops in Imperial County, California during the summer (something I’ve seen, not done) has to be one of the most miserable activities anyone gets paid for in the US.


Danielle Day 07.19.07 at 4:03 pm

Actually, they’re Toll Booth Attendants since they don’t operate much of anything, and (in Illinois, anyway) they’re plum jobs, passed out to the relatives of political hacks. They clamor for the opportunity to stick a rubber-gloved hand clutching a bunch of pennies at you.

By the way, toll roads (like anything that deals in small amounts of cash with many transactions are a big money laundry for the mob and crooked pols.


bjk 07.19.07 at 4:05 pm

They would eliminate tool booth attendants with cameras but they are considered plum patronage jobs. Actually toll booths are the deadliest way to collect taxes. About 8 people are year die on the Mass Pike so the state can collect taxes in nickel and dime increments.


SamChevre 07.19.07 at 4:08 pm


You want to know something scary? In the part of Kentucky where my family lives, working in the chicken processing plant is one of the good jobs.

I’d say piecework ag work is probably the worst job. Roofing is pretty bad (I’ve done a good bit of it); with black shingles in the summer, you end up with 1st-degree burns all over your hands and forearms..


Martin James 07.19.07 at 4:11 pm

Meat packing and processing is surely horrible, but I think nursing home care has to be right up there with it.

Mort, who died 24 years ago next month, used to reflect on the treadmill that life in general is. You get up, go to work, go home, cook dinner, go to sleep and on the weekend you do your laundry, fix your car, go fishing, then start all over again. Life sucks!

The absurd thing was that he was intelligent, tall, good looking with not a little charisma. I sometimes wonder now what would have happened if the plant would have had a Jean Genet to fall in love with him.

Earlier in the summer one of our truck drivers had a friend who shot himself in the stomach ( but didn’t die) over a girl. Mort berated him no end for being twice a fool, once for shooting himself over a girl and the second time for botching the job. He told the driver to tell his friend that next time he would be glad to shoot him in the head should the need arise. In my sharp room isolation I pondered if it was all false bravado.

Later, the word was that he had woman troubles, but I’m sticking to the “couldn’t stand the weekly routine” theory.

PS to Joel,

My dad’s proudest moment of work was when he moved 20 tons of cement from a boxcar to a flatbed truck in twenty minutes because they were running out of concrete in the middle of a job. He would run with a 100 lb bag under each arm.


"Q" the Enchanter 07.19.07 at 4:15 pm

Worst job ever? Draft horse at Manor Farm.


Randy Paul 07.19.07 at 4:15 pm

Popular Science does a survey every year of the worst jobs in science and here is this year’s list:

10.) Whale-Feces Researcher

9.) Forensic Entomologist

8.) Olympic Drug Tester

7.) Gravity Research Subject

6.) Microsoft Security Grunt

5.) Coursework Carcass Preparer

4.) Garbologist

3.) Elephant Vasectomist

2.) Oceanographer

1.) Hazmat Diver

All in all, I think I’d rather be a tollbooth attendant.


Joel Turnipseed 07.19.07 at 4:28 pm


Your dad is a stud. I have no idea what my dad’s proudest moment was, but I do know the most eye-opening moment I had of his work. He was a carpenter/carpet-layer, and when I was thirteen I was helping him on a job and, while building some stairs, he slipped and nailed his hand to the most recently-built step with the nail gun. He turned to me, cigarette in his mouth, and yelled, “Get me a hammer!” Reaching into my work bucket, I handed him a hammer–and he clawed his hand up from the step. Then he yelled, with cigarette still dancing on his lip as he turned his hand over and pounded out the nail, “Get me some duct tape!” And then we went back to work…



Joel Turnipseed 07.19.07 at 4:29 pm

Oh, I’m sorry: attendant


Anderson 07.19.07 at 4:38 pm

How about changing diapers in a nursing home?


Walt 07.19.07 at 4:40 pm

This question’s easy. Egg sexer.


c.l. ball 07.19.07 at 4:40 pm

I think the meat/fish/poultry processing and many outside construction jobs (working a jackhammer on a highway in the summer say?) has to be worse than tollbooth attendant, but I think tollbooth attendant would be pretty miserable — repetitive, no substantial personal interaction, cramped space, and if the booth is does not have AC, then it is pretty miserable in the summer and probably not too warm in the winter, and the car fumes must suck. Sure, you have a radio, but the ambient road noise is going to make listening to anything but talk radio (even NPR has lame shows [e.g., Dick Gordon’s _The Story_ WTF?]) difficult, and anyone whose sat on a stool for long knows that is not too comfortable.

Also, remember that danger and physical risk was not one of the criteria.

I would add another candidate — coding for social science research on a topic that you have no interest in. Talk about dreary.


Bloix 07.19.07 at 4:44 pm

Rich B – Dry docks are crammed with shitty jobs. Here’s one: sand-blaster. You wear a full-head hood with an air hose as your clamber around and under the hull, forcing out sand under high pressure to remove the old paint. You work in a thick cloud of toxic dust and grit as you wrestle the hose and sweat inside your protective suit. Try doing that under the Louisiana summer sun and then see whether you’d prefer it to toll-taking.


Joel Turnipseed 07.19.07 at 4:49 pm

Walt, I believe that’s spelled “366 SUXXOR.”


Terminus Est 07.19.07 at 4:56 pm

Not “subsistence farmer in Darfur” eh? Then I choose subsistence farmer in the USA (ie, family, non-corporate, farmer). That or…”sanitation engineer” (those peeps that ride around on the backsides of trucks picking up the shit everyone leaves at the street).


H. E. Baber 07.19.07 at 4:56 pm

Supermarket checker–repetitious, physically confining, boring, nothing to show at the end of the day and constant public contact: nowhere to hide. Data-entry operator: repetitious, physically confining, boring and even worse than scanning groceries because you can’t even think about other things, nothing to show, and closely supervised: very keystroke monitored. Telephone order taker: physically confining (you sit in a carrel all day), boring, closely supervised (supervisors monitor calls), nothing to show for your work and constant public contact.

Almost all pink-collar jobs are awful because most involve either endless repetition, physical constraint, close supervision, nothing to show at the end of the day, constant people contact or all of the above. Ironically, the only pink-collar job that doesn’t have any of these characteristics is housework: the tasks are varied, it’s physical work where you get to move around a lot, it’s strenuous and you can get dirty, no people contact and it produces a visible result of which you can be proud.

I did lots of lousy jobs, and usually ran out screaming after a few days or in some cases a few hours. The only jobs at which I lasted, which I almost liked, were house-cleaning and pizza delivery.


Jon H 07.19.07 at 5:12 pm

A graveyard-shift tollbooth job could actually be pretty sweet. Lots of reading or writing time. You’d get few people coming through, and there probably wouldn’t be as many pissed-off people as you’d see in rush hour.

The optimal arrangement would be graveyard shift at a place like the Cambridge exit on the Mass pike – even lower volume of traffic because you’re not handling the full Mass pike flow, just those who want to get off and don’t have a FastLane transponder.

The main risk, I think, would be that a sleepy truck driver would drive into your booth, but they typically have lots of barriers and things in front nowadays.


Sk 07.19.07 at 5:20 pm

Any of a variety of cleaning jobs that require working in protective clothing and either a breathing apparatus or an air filter.

The sand blaster is one example. Another I just heard about: cleaning all the abandoned refrigerators down in Louisiana, full of rotting food, in that protective clothing and mask, in the Louisiana heat.

Another one: cleaning the inside of large chemical storage tanks (I don’t know how often or exactly what kind of tank, but I know its done-I’ve met someone who did it). Again, in protective clothing, gasping through an air filter, staring through a mask, sweating your life out all day.



MikeN 07.19.07 at 5:29 pm

Fire-watch for welders? I consider that one of the better jobs I’ve had.

My first job (at 16)was processing mink food- that’s taking in and grinding up the part that the chicken processors throw out -( this is starting to sound like a Monty Python sketch: “You ‘ad a paper bag to live in? Looxury!”)

Tomato-picking in Australia- ferociously hot, back-breaking piece-work, though not bad money if you’re fast, which I’m not. Fields full of illegals-Swedish backpackers, mostly- so one funny point was working on a farm owned by Solomon Islanders whose ancestors had been blackbirded to Oz. Black black guys standing around overseeing rows of blond blonde field-hands.


jacob 07.19.07 at 5:36 pm

I’m inclined to agree with people who have suggested various slaughterhouse jobs. They’re violent, dangerous (in both chronic and acute ways), have a (dis)assembly line pace, and they’re messy. This is a good time to point out that the workers at the largest pork-processing plant (over 2000 hogs a day!) need our help now. They’ve been working to get a union for a decade, and their bad jobs have been made worse by the intimidation, firing, and beatings unleashed on them by Smithfield, their employer.

We should also remember just how subjective all of this is. People commute in as long as two hours to get to Tar Heel, so clearly the jobs at Smithfield aren’t the worst things they can imagine. Different people, of course, have different requirements for a job. For some people, the loneliness, boredom, and poor air quality of a toll-taker might be the worst possible job. For others, the enforced socialiablity of various pink collar jobs might be terrible. Some people mind manual labor, some people don’t. Some people are willing to put up with conditions with poor occupational health in exchange for other things.

All of which is to point out the importance of unions–the method by which workers can together decide what is an isn’t acceptable, set standards, and enforce them.


mollymooly 07.19.07 at 5:38 pm

Basic economics tells us that the worst jobs in any economy are the ones done by illegal immigrants earning below minimum wage.


Matt 07.19.07 at 5:38 pm

I’d think that Jizz moper for the jerk-off video booths should be pretty high on the list.


Ginger Yellow 07.19.07 at 5:57 pm

When Science Friday did a show about the ten worst jobs in science article, they had people ring in with their own suggestions. Among them were “forensic entomologist”, ie a person who studies how long it takes maggots to develop in corpses, and a guy who cleaned up murder/suicide scenes after the police were done.


Dennis 07.19.07 at 5:58 pm

Washing dishes in a tex mex restaurant after college was pretty bad. (Yes, that’s what I did with my philosophy degree).


Martin James 07.19.07 at 6:12 pm


Clearly, our dad’s have some things in common.

I agree that the tollbooth thing is a joke. Tollbooth jobs definitely have perks. Attractive people must come through at least some of the time and the stuff you see in cars must be a crack up some of the time too.


Randy Paul 07.19.07 at 6:38 pm

Ginger Yellow,

Please see my comment above at 4:15 p.m.

More from Popular Science in 2003:


Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people’s farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each “episode of flatulence,” Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.

Levitt defends his work against the reflexively dismissive by noting that doctors have never studied flatulence and that smell is a potentially critical medical symptom: “The odors of feces and intestinal gas and breath could all be important markers of gastrointestinal health,” he says. Hydrogen sulfide, for instance, is an extremely toxic gas to mammals, potentially playing a role in ulcerative colitis, among other diseases. And so Levitt has dedicated his career to the study of the myriad fragrances produced by the human gut and imprudently ignored by the medical establishment.


In the early ’80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease’s victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company’s kits. You’d have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, “Pardon me, is this stool taken?”) and the company motto on the back: “Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!”


Researchers who want animal sperm —to study fertility or for artificial insemination—have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal’s rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal’s penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way—manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal’s nether regions. “All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe,” says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. “It’s fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking.” Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods—the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand—require that animals be trained to the procedure. The AV—a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant —is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul’s safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull’s nose. Alas, this isn’t always absolutely effective: Everyone who’s wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer “digital pressure” is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure—er, pressure.

The best job in science? We nominate the pig.

I’m glad I don’t work in the sciences.


Glenn 07.19.07 at 6:40 pm

Hah, H.E. Baber, I wrote a paper for class a year or so ago about your paper arguing that pink collar work is worse than rape.


salazar 07.19.07 at 6:40 pm

Among the 10 worst jobs in science according to popsci.com (2005):

10: Orangutan Pee Collector
7: Spermbank semen washer
3: Kansas Biology Teacher
2: Manure Inspector
1: Human Lab Rat (Univ. of California San Diego apparently had some World War I nerve gas injected into students who were paid $15/hr. to take part in a study).

Anyway, the whole thing is available here:


H. E. Baber 07.19.07 at 7:03 pm

Hi, Glenn! I stand by that paper, “How Bad is Rape”–being a supermarket checker is a heck of a lot worse.


Josh Rosenau 07.19.07 at 7:34 pm

Coal miner?

It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

Darker still when mine safety regulations are watered down by mine executives appointed to government regulatory positions.


mollymooly 07.19.07 at 7:37 pm

#35: There was a documentary on discovery about a crime scene cleanup company in America. A guy in Dublin was inspired, saw a gap in the market; with Ireland’s increasing gangland violence, he’s earning good money.

#38.3: See Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”.* (* But not any of his later movies)


SamChevre 07.19.07 at 7:49 pm

It seems to me that focusing on the really rare “icky” jobs distracts from the fact that a lot of people work at jobs that are quite bad.

In other words–how many of this blogs readers can imagine thinking that $8/hour and health insurance is a really good job–worth driving 2 hours each way and working in very unpleasant conditions?


jacob 07.19.07 at 8:13 pm

#45. Yes, coal mining sounds pretty bad, but yet many people who do it clearly don’t think it’s the worst job ever. After all, the rest of that song is about the call of the mine and the desire to go back. “Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine / A man will have lust for the lure of the mine.”


jacob 07.19.07 at 8:13 pm

Er, sorry. That last post was directed at #42.


H. E. Baber 07.19.07 at 8:14 pm

It seems to me that focusing on the particular badness that’s characteristic of bad men’s jobs–dirt, danger, and physical discomfort–distracts from the characteristic badness of bad women’s jobs–repetitiveness, physical constraint, close supervision and heavy personal contact, though I grant that some people might regard the last as a benefit rather than a burden.

Guys have a choice when it comes to bad jobs–they can trade-off dirt, danger and physical discomfort for the kind of badnesses that come with clerical and service sector jobs–of course at lower pay. Women by and large don’t get the opportunity to make that trade-off. If you can’t get a good job you’re pretty well stuck with repetitiveness, physical constraint, close supervision and personal contact. There are no safety-nets.


dr 07.19.07 at 8:24 pm

As noted above, don’t underestimate the soul sucking factor. I’ve worked a number of unskilled light industrial jobs that leave you aching, dirty and poor after a days work, but the absolute worst jobs I’ve ever had were in telephone sales. The pay is based on a commission, and making a sale is highly, highly correlated with reaching an elderly person who’s so lonely that they’ll stay on the phone, listen to your pitch, and make a purchase just to have somebody to talk to.


djd 07.19.07 at 9:21 pm

I’d say being a rabbi is by far the worst job in the galaxy.


Tracy W 07.19.07 at 9:41 pm

Having been both a checkout chick and changed diapers in a nursing home, I’d say that the diaper-changing is worse and the smell is appalling, but you get a lot more hugs in that job than that of checkout chick.

I worked at the supermarket part-time during high school, and the shocking thing for me was realising that for most of my full-time colleagues this was the highlight of their day. They got out of the house, plenty of people contact, and some money. It was a very strong motive to study for my exams.


Jeff Rubard 07.19.07 at 10:21 pm

I was a supermarket checker at a religiously non-union “big-box” chain in the Pacific Northwest (not Wal-Mart). In addition to obviously not being able to leave for bathroom breaks more often than every two hours, we weren’t allowed to smoke outside during paid breaks (on the theory that some employee would eventually get run over and mess up the insurance rates). Since there were no baggers, we were required to switch the huge quantities of food being purchased between two “output” belts operated using pads mounted at knee level.

In short, I surmise this was one of the less desirable places to check in the US — but it was easily one of the better waged jobs I’ve ever had, and the others (including “data entry” and “telephone order taker”) weren’t exactly trips through hell either. The problem with such jobs isn’t the workflow, it’s the compensation and benefits, which are what put a significant crimp in your ability to self-actualize. But even the anecdotal evidence here shows there is clearly “another level” of distress and danger available for anyone unfortunate not to have the basic skills that get you a date with a terminal of some kind.


H. E. Baber 07.19.07 at 11:29 pm

The problem with such jobs isn’t the workflow, it’s the compensation and benefits.

DE GUSTIBUS, DAMMIT!!! These jobs were trips through hell for me–the lousy pay and benefits are icing on the cake. I have panic attacks on long plane trips–not because I’m scared of flying but because being confined physically scares the hell out of me: I never go to movies, concerts or any events where I have to sit in an audience. I’m also deathly shy and anything where I have to have a lot of people contact is a misery. The best lousy jobs I’ve had were driving jobs–pizza delivery and delivering newspapers in bulk–followed closely by housecleaning. I’ve happily traded off pay to avoid physical constraint, dressing up and people contact.

I was impressed at an early age by William Morris’ News From Nowhere. One of Morris unfeasible crackpot Fabian Socialist ideas was that the worst jobs, i.e. those that provided the greatest misery for the greatest number, should be the most highly paid so that people could make trade-offs between job satisfaction and other satisfactions. I still think this would be a great idea however the Market certainly won’t deliver it since the lousiest jobs are done by people with the fewest bargaining chips and there are lots of them so lousy jobs are overcrowded and hence poorly paid.

I’m also wondering why I’m the only one that’s even mentioned the issue of sex segregation in employment. This is a biggie! Barbara Bergmann argues, plausibly, that wages and benefits for pink-collar jobs are low because thee occupations are over-crowded. Women, particularly women without college degrees, are restricted to a narrow range of occupations so within these occupations wages, benefits and working conditions deteriorate.

Gotta say it worked out for me. If I were a guy and could have worked construction, or much better trained for and gotten skilled blue collar work–as an electrician, plumber, mechanic or appliance repairman–I’d have jumped at it and never bothered going to college much less getting a PhD. The academic life is pure bliss–and being a tenured full professor is the closest thing to the beatific vision of which we are capable. I am sure as hell glad that I’m a tenured full professor rather than a plumber even though I’m probably paid less. But if I were a guy and had to make a decision at 18 whether to go for plumbing or philosophy, given the costs in terms of years of student poverty and the risks, you had better believe I’d have picked plumbing. I don’t mind shit.


Martin James 07.19.07 at 11:31 pm


People are different. Some people just LOVE coaxing money out of the lonely. I’m reminded of Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man talking about your ordinary f**king person hating confrontation but the Repo Man lives for that stress.


Antti Nannimus 07.19.07 at 11:32 pm


Finally in Crooked Timber we have a thread with the potential to live forever and to provide everlasting social value! Adolescent children should be forced to read it even before they’re forced to read “Great Expectations”.

My own worst job was as the laborer on the asphalt laminating machine (you don’t care to know)in a building products factory. But mortuary attendant also had it moments. Nevertheless, I’m not whining. I probably got by easy.

As a male, I’ve got to believe it would be really tough to be a prostitute. Wouldn’t care to be a proctologist either. Okay, I suppose I tend to be somewhat squeamish about the nether regions of other people, but those are really bad jobs, right?

I think there was once a comedy sketch on the “Steve Allen Show” about the world’s worst jobs. The one I’ve always remembered is the person whose job it is to put the firing pins in hand grenades.

This really needs to develop into a canonical list and awards process. It would be hard to find good judges though.

Have a nice day,



H. E. Baber 07.20.07 at 12:11 am

May this thread live forever and continue to generate social value! A colleague alerted me to this thread because of a post on my blog about avocado sorting. According to a feel-good PBS travelogue I accidentally watched this process hasn’t changed in 50 years and, as the narrator breathlessly effused there were no chemicals or high tech involved: just a roomful of women sorting the “ones” and “twos”–nice green avocados for the supermarkets and ugly brown ones for guacomole.

This, by my lights, has got to be one of the worst jobs on earth and I’d bet that the pay and benefits are lousy too. And I’d bet that the jobs these women’s male counterparts do, picking those avocados, are even worse. I’m always surprised, and dismayed, that with all the worry about wages and benefits–which is legitimate and important–no one seems to worry about the intrinsic character of the jobs most people do. Why?

I’d choose my current (academic) job over any other alternative even if it paid minimum wage–and if I were independently wealthy I’d probably do it for free. I wouldn’t sort avocados even if it paid several times what I make. I might sort avocados for a week if I could make enough money to live on for the rest of my life without working at all, but short of that–no deal.

What I wonder is why there’s so much concern about wages and benefits (legit!) but so little about the nature of the work people do and why in particular interest in vertical sex segregation–wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement for women–but so little concern for horizontal sex segregation, for enabling women do get into traditionally male jobs so that women have more scope for trade-offs, more choices.


SG 07.20.07 at 1:07 am

coming late and in defense of the toll-booth attendant claim – my partner knew a woman who worked as a ticket collector at a Japanese railway station. This job involves standing in a little booth while all the quantillions of passengers pass you by and hand you their ticket. Apparently people would quite regularly stub their cigarettes out on her hand as they walked by. Usually they would be lost in the crowd before she could stop them, even if she were allowed to.

The soul-suckingness inherent in these types of jobs is not the nature of the manual or intellectual labour, but the fact that you are completely vulnerable to abuse from every arsehole in the world who passes you by. And that`s a lot of arseholes. That would be particularly true for toll booth attendants in the UK, US and Oz, where people think being in their car makes them the arrogant arsehole who rules the universe.

(Plus, I bet toll-booth attendants have a high casualty rate from car accidents, including from that small percentage of arsehole who think it`s fun to pretend to hit them, and then accidentally do).


Anonymo 07.20.07 at 1:42 am

I think you guys are forgetting the worst part of being a toll-booth attendant: being a bystander to Mafia hits.


H. E. Baber 07.20.07 at 1:42 am

Being untenured was pretty soul-sucking–having to bow and scrape and suck up to undergraduates, our customers, to get good evaluations. I never cared that much about having my soul sucked though–so long as I didn’t have to do boring, repetitious work under close supervision. That’s a reasonable trade-off: sucking up to undergraduates, much as I hate it, isn’t nearly as bad as data entry or supermarket checking.

Now I’m tenured and don’t bother. I could get paid more if I got good evaluations, but I don’t give a damn. I’d rather do what I please, and do what I think is the right thing in my teaching.

Still, I don’t like teaching one bit. Even though it’s not boring, repetitious or closely supervised, it involves sucking up and people contact, and there’s nothing to show for it at the end of the day. I like the preparation, structuring my courses, writing handouts and setting up my class websites, but I hate lecturing and dealing with students during office hours. The job is so good though–the autonomy and chance to do research–that even subtracting the misery of teaching it’s still be best job on earth. When I got tenure I xeroxed my tenure letter 10 times over and framed a copy with the caption: “safe from the typing pool–forever!” I’ve had that hanging over my desk ever since. That’s why I’m in this game.


ag 07.20.07 at 1:45 am

the fact that you are completely vulnerable to abuse from every arsehole in the world who passes you by. And that`s a lot of arseholes. That would be particularly true for toll booth attendants

I read somewhere that Golden Gate Bridge tolltakers could predict assholes from the cars they drove.

The standouts were mostly sports cars — driven by youngish, angry and miserable men who had rewarded themselves for their white-collar drudgery. IIRC, Corvettes were bad news. But Ferrari and Porsche drivers rated well.

That taxonomy may be specific to the Bay Area.


H. E. Baber 07.20.07 at 2:48 am

Interesting about angry, miserable, youngish men engaged in white-collar drudgery. I frequent Inside Higher Ed where threads are regularly invaded by this lot and their undergraduate aspirants cursing academics as overpaid, underworked bums and demanding “accountability.” They’re punching the clock, sitting office park carrels doing this soul-sucking drudgery, resent the fact that we have offices and autonomy, and imagine that we’re being paid more than they are. That’s the bottom line in the attack on Academia by conservatives.

I’m not getting paid nearly as much as they are and don’t have the goodies that they take for granted–the chance to choose my job and where I live. But I’m perfectly happy to pay whatever it takes out of my potential wages for the office and autonomy, and to sacrifice the choice of where I live and virtually anything else for it.

The academic life is a vocation, not a career much less a job. The question is: are you willing to sacrifice everything to avoid boredom and constraint, and to get job satisfaction. I am.


Tom T. 07.20.07 at 5:02 am

Froomkin apparently has never watched “Dirty Jobs,” “Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers,” or any of the sort of shows that attempt to answer his question.


Doug 07.20.07 at 7:02 am

Way upthread, “People like us, sitting at our computers in our comfortable chairs, don’t have a clue what a truly bad job is like.”

Clearly disproved by the examples, and I would add that perhaps many of us are sitting at our computers in our comfortable chairs because we have a clue what a truly bad job is like.

My own candidate (seen, not done; I was doing fire watch or similar at time) is cleaning out the sulfur pits at an oil refinery. Refineries are a gallery of vile smells, but the sulfur was in a class by itself.


SG 07.20.07 at 7:50 am

ag, riding my bicycle in Sydney I could do the same. 4wds were the worst, followed by big aggro grunt cars (like Fords, Holdens – what Americans call the GTO, I think) and then top-end luxury cars (mercedes, etc.) People in actual sports cars were pretty rare but generally okay. There could be a fascinating study in this.

doug, I once did work experience at a smelter in Australia and there was this chap whose job all day was poking the slag back over a big hole when it looked like it was going to fountain out. he had to wear heat-resistant armour in the sun on top of the furnace for his whole shift, and carry this big pokey thing that he poked at the superhot slag with. In that town it regularly got up over 40 degrees in summer. His job didn`t look so fun, even though he had a little sheltered room to hang out in. I was doing work experience with the engineers, and the difference in job enjoyment was obvious even to my 17 year old senses.


julian fischer 07.20.07 at 8:00 am

Uh, that would be my job: telephone sales.


abb1 07.20.07 at 8:02 am

In France (here in the Alps for sure) a toll booth attendant will tell you: hello, thank you, have a good day and good bye. And smile. Almost every time. Nice, I almost enjoy paying tolls here. In Italy they don’t say anything and you can see that they really hate this job.

Now, cashiers in a supermarket: in the US typically they are not allowed to work sitting on a chair or stool, correct? Why is that; it’s such a meaningless cruelty, isn’t it?


Carl 07.20.07 at 8:24 am

Abb1: If I’m not mistaken, SNL called “assistant crack whore” the worst job in America.


tom 07.20.07 at 8:34 am

There was an interview with a toll booth attendant, recently, in a UK paper. The UK pretty much only has one toll booth, so there’s not many of them! She loved the job, enjoyed meeting people and helping them on their way. I’m sure she’d disagree.

I have to say, I agree with the poster who suggested “low level civil servant, pushing numbers from one column to another”. Sure it’s not physically demanding, but ever so slowly it sucks the life from you. You leave for the day feeling like you have accomplished NOTHING. Repeat this over 10 years and it is a truely soul crushing experience.


kvn 07.20.07 at 8:35 am

Now, cashiers in a supermarket: in the US typically they are not allowed to work sitting on a chair or stool, correct? Why is that; it’s such a meaningless cruelty, isn’t it?

I’m a bleeding heart in favor socialized medicine and other progressive European things, but come on. Cashiers need to be standing when they work.


P.M.Lawrence 07.20.07 at 9:30 am

SamChevre and others appear to be taking the view that agricultural work is – equivalently and identically is, rather than coincidentally is – bad. But we actually have comparisons from other times and places that suggest that this is only so when it is full time, all the time. The comparison is between peasant as battery chicken and free range peasant.

What are the comparisons? Well, there’s Pirenne’s analysis of oasis and desert Arab lifestyles, and there’s what happened at Leverburgh (the locals preferred crofting to factory work provided by a philanthropist). I’m sure there are others.


MR. Bill 07.20.07 at 10:55 am

Aww jeez..
I grew up on a dairy farm, and that can be pretty soul sucking. If you like the outdoors and don’t mind cattle (and I loathe them)and hard work that is daily and unremitting, it could be ok. I have worked (lasted less than a week) in a chicken processing plant (late ’70s, there was a ‘lung gun’ a vacuum for viscera, if you will) and that was pretty awful, sinking, and refrigerated and repetitive. I doubt it has improved much.
Even the best jobs or the ‘dream jobs’ can become hellish: I have had a 20 year career as a artist in fiber, and even with some success, you can find yourself in a impossible work situation. I had a number of commissioned works, contracts I felt I had to take to feed my family, where the timelines were totally unrealistic. My technique was the handwrapping of yarn (mostly carpet or commercial embroidery yarns) onto cores of of roping or upholstery welt, and repetitive stress was always a problem. In 2000, I received a commission from the Atlanta Braves for a fiber hanging to commemorate their hosting of the All-Stars game in April for June delivery. I worked 700 hours in 12 weeks to make “Three Pennants” a hanging of three overlapping pennant forms (one for each World Series won by the Braves franchise, in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta) 12’x37′.
I have serious rotator cuff issues from that commission… And the 16= hour days at the end are a blur to me now.
I now work light construction/handyman…It can be tough (the week of New Year’s I was digging out a crawlspace to insulate under a workshop), but since I live in a beautiful area (the Southern Appalachians) it has it’s perks..


shpx.ohfu 07.20.07 at 12:29 pm

The recent “Our Daily Bread” docu about food industries (jizz collection, slaughterhouses, farming, sorting etc as outlined above) makes you not want to work OR eat ever again.


aaron_m 07.20.07 at 12:51 pm

“I’m a bleeding heart in favor socialized medicine and other progressive European things, but come on. Cashiers need to be standing when they work.”

If this is supposed to be sarcastic it is too subtle. If you are serious let me be the first to say, what the fuck!!!!!????


SamChevre 07.20.07 at 1:49 pm

SamChevre and others appear to be taking the view that agricultural work is – equivalently and identically is, rather than coincidentally is – bad.

If I’m coming across that way, it’s a mistake.

I grew up on a small diversified dairy farm; I have a small farm which I’m trying to expand. I like farm work. BUT picking fruit by the box is low-paid, dangerous, unstable work, with incredibly long hours.


djw 07.20.07 at 2:05 pm

My brother had an industrial cleaning firm that cleaned Chicken and Catfish processing plants and Elderly care facilities. He thought the Catfish plants were the most disturbing until he realized that government supervision (mind you, this was before the present administration took over) for the food plants was superior to that of facilities for our older citizens. If a chicken or catfish plant has a hygene problem, it gets shut down immediately, and the owners are under immediate cost pressure to clean things up. With a retirement home, the report has a long way to travel before any corrective measure is forced, meaning in practice that these homes can do just about anything before getting shut down.


James 07.20.07 at 3:14 pm

1. Alaskan Crab Fisherman. – Highest rate of death. Freezing water and storm like conditions.
2. Miner. – Demanding physical labor, constant threat of death.


Kent 07.20.07 at 3:45 pm

Re: the crack whore portion of the thread, I must clear up the record. Every year, when the year’s “best job” was announced by whoever announced it, the SNL news guy (was it Dennis Miller? or that other smarmy guy?) would make a job about the worst job.

Year 1, the worst job was crack whore. Year 2, there was an updated worst job, which was assistant crack whore. Year 3, assistant crack whore was replaced by crack whore trainee.

Yes, I was watching all 3 times. Yes, I did need a life back then. (Still do.)

w/r/t the main thread, I think that “soul-sucking” is a critical factor, and that what sucks your soul probably varies from person to person. F’r instance, for anybody who cares about animals, killing animals (slaughterhouse “technician”) would be the worst. Some people wouldn’t be bothered by it. Also, if you love talking to people, then supermarket checker would probably be a great job. Similarly, even “threat of death” doesn’t necessarily make something a bad job, if you think your job is worth it, i.e. soldier.


H. E. Baber 07.20.07 at 6:23 pm

I’m still wondering–because this thing about bad jobs is my chief hobby horse–why in discussions of social justice and well-being there’s virtually no discussion of the badness of bad jobs. Of course these jobs have to be done, but they can be improved–supermarket checkers can sit rather than stand. And more importantly things can be organized so that people have more options, can make trade-offs. Given that what sucks the soul varies from person to person more choice would go a long way in promoting human welfare.

Why I wonder aren’t people concerned about the fact that lots of people do jobs that they find perfectly awful and have no way out? Is it because we did some of those jobs briefly, during summer vacations, or part time in college, finished our degrees and moved on to better things–and so imagine that people who do these bad jobs also have choices? That’s just false. Maybe some had choices when they were kids in school, but once you’re stuck in a bad job there’s no way out apart from getting another bad job, and not much choice about the particular badness the job either: you take what you can get. There are no social safety nets and, with the end of welfare as we knew it, no escape.

By world standards very few people in the US are truly poor. Most American poor people have refrigerators, telephones and TVs. But lots of people have perfectly awful jobs that make them miserable. Bad jobs simply create more misery than poverty as such.

Why the lack of concern–and the lack of empathy? I have never gone through a supermarket checkouts or gone through an office at school where there were rooms full of women at terminals doing boring clerical work, without remembering that I escaped this by the skin of my teeth through pure dumb luck. Well, maybe I get in a stew about it because I’ve been corrupted by David Lewis, see the possible world at which I’m doing one of those rotten jobs a hair’s breadth away and am looking for modal safety nets.


Suvi 07.20.07 at 6:48 pm

Working in battlefield clearance can’t be pleasant.

You get to identify and remove mutilated, decomposing corpses and ownerless body parts. Some of the dead may have been your friends. Where you work is probably full of unexploded ordnance, mines, booby traps and other objectionable stuff (which you might also have to remove, if you know how to do it).

You may have to work in extremes of temperature, and there is a high risk of catching disease if you aren’t careful.

To top it all, you only get a soldier’s wage, which can be shockingly low, depending on whose army you’re in.


Ralph Hitchens 07.20.07 at 7:23 pm

Not a scientific sampling, to be sure, but I frequently transit the Dulles “Greenway” between the airport and Leesburg (VA), as well as many other tollbooths — the PA & Ohio Turnpikes, parking garages, etc. Nearly all of the attendants with whom I have dealt exhibit a pleasant attitude. Go figure.


Martin James 07.20.07 at 8:29 pm

h. e. baber,

Supermarket clerks in various regions of the country have widely different wages and healthcare benefits and a diversity of union representation.

If the people doing this job found the work environment so poor, why does is job process (standing up, close supervision, etc. so similar?)

It may be that your aversion to close supervision, public contact, and repetitive tasks is very much greater than the average member of the UFCW.


H. E. Baber 07.21.07 at 12:22 am

My point still stands. If I have an aversion to repetitive tasks, close supervision and public contact there are likely lots of other people who are as averse as I am–but who, unlike me, didn’t luck out and manage to escape.

We tell ourselves comforting, self-serving lies: they don’t suffer as we would (after all, they’re not as smart as we are so don’t get bored as easily) or they choose these jobs because they like getting out of the house and enjoy the contact with people. Maybe there are people who don’t mind the work or choose it over other options. But there are sure as hell plenty of people who are suffering because they work at these jobs and can’t escape. For most the only escape is housewifing and even that isn’t a option for most any more. (You wonder why working class women aren’t sympathetic to feminism? They see feminists closing off their only escape route!)

You bet it’s important that they be unionized and get fair wages and good benefits. But no matter how good the extrinsic rewards they can’t truly compensate for the tedium, misery and constraint of lousy work.


W. Kiernan 07.21.07 at 2:37 am

Dennis: Washing dishes in a tex mex restaurant after college was pretty bad.

I had a job once washing dishes in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Tucson called Woody Mercer’s Cowboy Lounge. It was one of the most entertaining jobs I ever had. Everybody else in the kitchen spoke Spanish, which I didn’t understand, all the time. The barbeque was super good. A couple or three of the waitress were very pretty, and the hostess was a knockout. I still remember her high-heel boots. Woody Mercer himself played guitar and sang country. It’s wonderful being in Tucson as soon as the sun sets; a few times I was almost perfectly happy working.

Now the best job I ever had, not the best for me for sure but clearly the most useful for the human race, was when I was the operator of a sewage treatment plant.


abb1 07.21.07 at 5:52 am

Yeah, strong unions is, of course, the best answer; the second best: drugs and alcohol.


roybelmont 07.21.07 at 7:39 am

H.E. Baber-Of course these jobs have to be done, but they can be improved—supermarket checkers can sit rather than stand.
I’m a supermarket checker. I’d prefer to stand, thanks all the same. Sitting in that context is much harder on the back.
For sheer ghastliness my personal experience in previous jobs offers up custodial maintenance on the bed-ridden basically indigent or nearly-so elderly, especially cranky males who create such a fuss to be left alone the less-imaginative orderlies do in fact leave them alone. Which means the next shift or the one after has to get in there and clean dried-up fecal matter out of their ass-cracks, which may have begun to ulcerate, while they scream for the nurses and Godly help and fight with all of their dwindled strength to hurt and/or get away from you.
That was not particularly fulfilling nor did it lead to an end-of day calm, particularly. More like to abb1’s drugs and alcohol.
On the other hand, working for mean and sadistic people who have power over you, and relish it, and use it to get satisfaction from your being crushed between a need for work and their hellish fun at your expense, regardless of the actual conditions on the job or the nature of the work itself, has to be the worst of all.


Michael 07.21.07 at 7:43 am

The worst job ever fortunately no longer exists. During WWII, the biggest tank battle ever fought was fought at a place called Kursk. Incidentally, this, not stalingrad, was the battle that doomed Nazi Germany, they lost badly, particularly they lost about a year’s worth of tank production. The Germans were going to attack, but delayed to ensure the latest shipment of tanks got in, so the Russians took the opportunity to shore up their minefields. This being the Soviet Army, they were long on men and short on mines, so they formed a special corps whose job it was to:

Crawl through the russian mine fields into the german mine fields.

Crawl through the german minefields until you found a mine.

Dig up the ARMED german mines with a special wooden shovel (the mines had both magnetic and vibration trigers)

Carry the ARMED mine back to the russian mine field and bury it.

Then go back and do all of this while UNDER FIRE from snipers, mortars, and light artillery.

I am not sure what the survival rate of these men were, but I would not be suprised to learn it was 0.


Guy 07.21.07 at 8:33 am

“Cashiers need to be standing when they work.”

Small note from Europe on supermarket check-out personnel. I have yet to see a supermarket where cashiers need to be standing all day. They have stools at their disposal and use them.

That said, sometimes cashier take a break doing their jobs “standing”. Main problem for them, I asked some of them, seems to be their lower backs since they often have to grab a heavy item, turn to pass it in front of the scanner and then turn some more to push it aside. Standing makes that gesture more comfortable.

So, everybody can rest assured. Cashiers here have the best of both worlds. They can sit and stand.


Elliott Oti 07.21.07 at 1:52 pm

When I was 18 I worked a summer hauling crates of popsicles and yoghurt off an assembly line and onto a pallet. I worked double shifts (illegally): 14 hour days with 3 half-hour breaks (also illegal). The factory was hot, humid, noisy, the work physically taxing, repetitive, and monotonous, and the noise prevented conversation. We *were* allowed to drink packs of yoghurt or ice off the assembly line any time we wanted. Which we did almost continuously in the damp heat. To this day I cannot stand popsicles.

Back then I used to wonder how anyone could work under such conditions for a long period of time and remain sane. Most of my work mates were young temps like me, but there were a number of regulars who had worked there for 10 years or more and they did not seem very sane to me either.


H. E. Baber 07.21.07 at 8:13 pm

I worked as a checker briefly and the standing didn’t bother me at all–generally I’d rather stand than sit at most things: it was the boredom, repetition and exposure was awful. C’mon, this issue isn’t whether standing is better than sitting or vice versa, but the badness of jobs–the boredom, the absence of anything to show at the end of the day, the constraint, and in some cases the filth and danger.


SG 07.22.07 at 3:26 am

Worst job: Wallabies Forward coach


Alan K. Henderson 07.22.07 at 6:32 am

#3 said:

“I think I read somewhere that the occupation with the highest mortality is soap opera character.”

Yeah, but soap opera characters often rise from the dead. Sometimes even more than once.

The two worst types of jobs for me would be any kind of direct sales (I am not a talking-people-into-doing-stuff person) or nonthinking jobs (like the tollbooth job) that don’t allow you to bring a book or sudoku or whatever to work to keep the mind active.


Keith M Ellis 07.22.07 at 5:49 pm

H. E. Baber seems to have some difficulty with the idea that other people are not duplicates of herself. A troubling flaw in a philosopher.


/b 07.22.07 at 8:47 pm

A troubling flaw in a philosopher

More troubling to me is that here is yet another teacher who doesn’t like teaching or interacting with students, who teaches only to escape a worse job. Guess Prof Baber’s students get an accidental course in situational ethics.


H. E. Baber 07.22.07 at 9:40 pm

‘Scuse me–I do understand quite well that others aren’t duplicates of me, laus deo. I’m arguing that there are quite a few people who make the smug, self-serving assumption people who do lousy jobs don’t suffer as much as “we” would in their position. I’m old enough to remember the remarks of some Vietnam era general who claimed that the Vietnamese “didn’t value human life” in the way that “we” did. I don’t claim that everyone who scans groceries or does data entry is as miserable as I’d be be doing that job–I’m making the reasonable guess that some, maybe lots, are and arguing that, like me, they should have the means to escape.

As for me, I don’t like teaching and do it because the alternatives are much worse, but you can bet I give it all I’ve got because I’m grateful to have this job, because it’s what I’m paid to do, and most of all because it’s one of the most worthwhile and important things that anyone can do, and on that account a privilege.


Jeff Rubard 07.23.07 at 2:37 am

Well, I was going to let my anecdote be, but I see a lot of superficially similar criticisms I don’t agree with at all. My position is this: the “good” job done by large numbers of people isn’t to be found under actually existing capitalism. And in addition to being unsafe and underpaying, it is true that mainstream work environments often offer very little opportunity to display agency of any kind, something that adult human beings rightly take pleasure in. Grocery checking is pretty much just like any other common job in this respect, i.e. vastly less preferable than one’s time not working — and people who speculate about the easygoing nature of UFCW members could easily test their theory.

But I actually think that in a more just society, there would be fewer “directive” jobs of the sort that Professor Baber seems to find more suitable to human flourishing. One of the good things about lots of these bad jobs is that they provide what is clearly a valuable social service, as opposed to being, say, a hedge fund manager. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part (I myself found studying analytic philosophy “seriously” to be one of hell’s minima), but it seems to me that the good for all has to be sought in what can realistically be done by all, and that means a focus on the badness of common jobs in terms of making them better. Someone, as they say, has gotta do it.


phil 07.23.07 at 3:27 pm

#90 It could be worse: England coach.


Joshua Holmes 07.23.07 at 4:50 pm

This reminds me of a quote from an assistant football coach at my high school, who was in charge of the weight room:

“I want you little horseshits to remember one thing before you go get your neck broken: some guys get stronger on accident than you’ll ever get on purpose.”

To wit, there was a recent incident in America where a kid tried to rob an old man in a store line, but the old man felt the hand in his pocket, grabbed the kid’s arm, and beat him near within an inch of his life. Although the man was 72, he had been a Golden Gloves boxer, a Marine, and then a steelworker for several decades. That’s just bad.


clew 07.23.07 at 7:06 pm

Nurses’ aide (diaper-changing for the warehoused permanently ill) is the worst job I’ve ever had, even though I worked in the cleanest and most honest home in my neighborhood.

The best-off patients are dying fairly quickly; it’s true that I liked hugging them, but it was heartbreaking every time. We had the long-term care patients from the county jail, who frequently had many transmissible diseases; because it was a decent place, there were gloves and masks and I was expected to wear them and didn’t catch anything. I did have a wrist cracked by one of the violent patients. Because it was a decent place, the experienced workers kept an ear out for newbies getting in trouble with the sex-offender patients, and only set us up sometimes. We had more trouble keeping them from molesting fellow patients.

The worst-off patients were not dying quickly, but had to live there in the smell and heartbreak for decades. Car accident victims, most of them, and a woman who had almost certainly been framed as mentally incompetent by her son.

Most of the protection we had trickled down from things the nurses’ union had fought for; nurses had only just unionized, IIRC.

If you had no empathy at all, the only problem with the job would be the effluents, the low pay, and the mild physical danger. But not even Bob Black would think that a just society would seek out those with empathy and set them to take care of the helpless.


clew 07.23.07 at 7:08 pm

Dang. “without empathy”, in the last sentence of 98.


Katherine 07.24.07 at 9:46 am

I have to say that I agree with h.e.baber to the extent that it is easy for white collar “workers” who once had a lousy blue/pink collar job for a summer or a season or even a couple of years to say that it wasn’t that bad really. And that’s because they had an escape route and took it. How much more soul-sucking would such a job be if you knew that that was it, forever.

PS I’ll add to the European perspective and say that I have never seen a supermarket checkout person not sitting on a stool or chair. Why on earth would they have to stand? Why not give them the option to do either?

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