The Lifers: How and Why People Become
Unhappy Lifetime Employees.

I have met various type of people since I began my sentence in corporate servitude. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of my past co-workers, who was about for years older than me, about the categories she put different workers in. Of all the categories she mentioned, none scared me most as the “lifers”. The lifers are the employees that are dedicated to the company. The lifers are the ones that would never dream of quitting. The lifers are the ones you see in the grocery store with the company t-shirt on Saturday. They’re the ones that have been with the company for more than 15 to 20 years. They’re the ones that bleed the company colors. They are the ones that every new entrant to Corporate America with an entrepreneurial spirit should be scared of becoming.

How does it happen? How does one become a lifer? Since I am not one (and have no aspirations to become one) I can only offer thoughts and conjectures. I have a few reasons why I believe people become lifers. One of the primary reasons is that they drank the company kool-aid. Another reason is safety, but ask yourself, is one truly safe when solely relying on employment from an external source? A third reason is indolence and comfort; and yet another reason is fear. I have only given a brief introduction into the reasons I believe people become lifers here, but worry not; a more in depth discussion follows after the jump.

Drinking The Company Kool-Aid.

One of the prime reasons I believe that people become lifers is that they drink the company kool-aid. The company kool-aid is the stuff corporations try to serve you when they try to tell you how great the company is, or how great their overall mission is. It’s what you get served at your orientation when they completely indoctrinate you on the company culture. It’s what you get served when you work an 11-hour day and get no overtime, just a pat on the back and a spiel about how you are a great asset to the team. The company kool-aid is what they serve you when they explain all the benefits of upper management without telling you that there is a good chance you may have no life when you get there. The kool-aid is what people at Enron where drinking when the decided to invest their entire retirement savings back into the company. Make no mistake companies are very calculated with their different recipes for kool-aid; they hire organizational psychologists, and “consultants”, take surveys, copiously review employee productivity charts and employee profiles to concoct the right kool-aid that will allow them to retain employees at minimum cost, while attempting to keep them just happy enough so they don’t quit. The kool-aid is nothing more than the tactics managers use to gain employees allegiance to the company. I am not saying that all companies have bad missions or purposes, and I am not saying that all tactics that companies employ to keep their troops happy are bad, but I am saying that these tactics are rarely not carefully planned out. Falling for these carefully planned out tactics is one thing that causes people to become lifers. The worst thing about drinking the company kool-aid is that it will eventually cause you to loose any ambition that does not relate to serving the company’s goal, it can rob you of your entrepreneurial spirit if you are not careful. Many Lifers drank the kool-aid, they believe there is no greater place to work, no greater mission to serve than the one that their company adheres to.

Safety.

Safety is one of the main reasons why people become lifers. While I tend to think that depending on a company to be honest and successful enough to provide you a salary, retirement package, etc, is not safe at all, a lot of people do not believe that. Working for yourself, starting a side project, or developing an external source of income is hard. Entrepreneurship is not something that is easy, if it was everyone would be doing it. Although depending on someone else for your financial well being can be considered unsafe, working for yourself may not be much safer. It is a lot easier to depend on a company and have them provide you with health care, a steady check, a retirement package, and a yearly bonus (if you are lucky enough to work for a company that does so). It’s hard to find all of the above-mentioned things on your own; it can be a lot easier to allow someone else to worry about those things for you. I don’t think safety is what causes someone to be a lifer but I do think it is one of the main things that keep people lifers. Think about it, once you get married, crank out a few kids and subscribe to the American dream of a big house, nice car, and huge debt, it is a lot harder to take risks on starting your own fulltime or side business, once you have all these extra responsibilities, you need to see that those kids get fed, see that that mortgage gets paid, make sure those car notes and minimum credit card payments get paid every month. I am not saying that it is impossible to take the risks and sacrifice that are needed to avoid becoming a lifer when you have some of the issues mentioned above, but it is harder and it does take a higher degree of creativity and hard work; some people think it is easier to just work for someone else than to exercise that degree of creativity and hard work.

Indolence and Comfort.

Even though these two reasons could be two separate categories, I grouped them together because I feel like they go hand and hand. There are a couple different forms of indolence that can occur when talking bout The Lifers. Sometimes, people are just to lazy to go out and start a side project or look for a new job, so in turn they will just stay at the same place forever, or until the employer shows them the door. I definitely fell victim to the first form of indolence; I stayed at a job I hated because I was simply too lazy to look for a new one. Another form of indolence that can cause people to become lifers occurs when they are not challenged. If one is not challenged for years and years, eventually one will get used to not being challenged; they will get to the point where they become a lifer at a company because they know they may have to work harder if they leave, they may actually have to be productive. I also fell victim to this form of indolence; I got to a point where I was used to coming to work and having very little expected of me, it was easy, and I was scared to go to a new job where I might actually be expected to work. I also noticed this form of indolence a lot when I worked in the government. Since it is extremely hard for the government to fire people, government workers can fall into a path of laziness and just get used to it, therefore they don’t leave because they fear actually having to do something hard.

Fear.

Fear goes hand and hand with safety. A lot of employees know that their current employment may seem to be stable and safe and they do not wish to risk loosing that feeling of safety and stability by leaving. This fear causes them not to take chances in their professional lives, which can cause them to be unhappy, unfulfilled, or bored. Before I go and rag on the lifers that fall in this category, I will admit that it is easy for me to say the things that I say in this post, because I am young, unmarried, and my only real responsibility is paying off my student loans. The type of fear that I speak of here is easy to succumb to when you have real responsibilities such as a wife and family to take care of. In that case I think the fear is completely understandable, because you don’t necessarily have the luxury of taking risks easily. It is for that very reason that I think people that are just starting their careers should try as hard as possible to limit the number of responsibilities that they have to take on. The sooner you start piling on the responsibilities without fully knowing what you want to do with your life, the sooner you will have a reason to succumb to the fear I spoke about in this section. If you do have responsibilities that can cause you to fear risk, try your best to surround yourself with supportive and creative people, this can sometimes alleviate or at least soothe your fears.

So far, one thing I have noticed during my time in corporate servitude is that lifers don’t seem to exist in the same capacity in a small company as they do in large ones. This observation makes sense when you think about it, the type of people who would go work at a small company are entrepreneurial, risk takers who are not scared to try something new; sometimes people go work at small companies because they are hoping to help be on the ground level of building something great; these aren’t really characteristics of lifers, at least not the lifers that are lifers for some of the reason I have listed above.

I know that I criticize on the lifers a lot, but being a lifer is only bad if you don’t want to be one. There are lifers that actually love being lifers; they like wearing the company jacket on their day off; they love getting dressed up and taking their spouse to the company Christmas party; they cherish the late nights without overtime because they feel like they are doing it for the greater good and there is nothing wrong with that. We need lifers like that, they are the ones that make the world turn. Sure they CEO’s and entrepreneurs may have the vision, but it is the dedicated lifers that turn that vision into reality. So there is nothing wrong with being a lifer, if you are happy being one; but there is nothing worst than the lifer that simply complains about how he /she hates working at the company that they have been at for the last 20 years, but never tries to do anything differently. So, if you feel like you may be on the path to becoming a lifer, just be sure that it is a life that you will be happy living.