Is your job prestigious? (and a lesson in survey creation)

Thanks to my friend Laura, I came across a survey from Harris Interactive that shows Americans' evaluation of how "prestigious" specific occupations are. I found the results interesting, as they reminded me of a discussion my corporate ethics and responsibility professor, Chris Michaelson (now of NYU), raised to a Wharton classroom of very eager soon-to-be consultants and investment bankers. The discussion hinged on two simple questions:

What will you do when you leave Wharton?

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Not surprisingly, the answers to the first questions were potentially lucrative, business-oriented professions: banker, consultant, entrepreneur, and so on. The answers to the second question differed quite drastically: teacher, police officer, firefighter, astronaut, doctor, etc. In short, the discussion highlighted that people often begin life wanting to do jobs that they see as beneficial to society and often trend toward choosing professions that are more economically viable. (Doctors, perhaps, being the noteworthy profession that accomplish both goals)

The Harris findings mimic our discussion perfectly. Among those professions perceived as most "prestigious" are the usual "when I grow up" answers: teachers, firefighters, doctors, police officers, military officers, clergy. And among the low-scoring professions are many that we find adults striving toward, or at least idolizing for the related financial security: bankers, business executives, athletes, lawyers, actors, entertainers, stockbrokers.

So why there is such a disconnect between perceived prestige and potential financial reward? If teachers are esteemed so highly by Americans, why do we pay them so little- and demand next to no proof of performance? And, conversely, why can CEOs, athletes, actors and stockbrokers walk away with millions of dollars in compensation? Why do we glorify these "unprestigious" roles to the extent we do through film, magazines, newspapers and other media?

Either Americans love to celebrate and reward les (perceived) miserables of our society, or these survey results are suffering from some classic pitfalls, namely that respondents (much like children) will tell you what you want to hear to gain your approval, and that they are likely biased by their own experience (alas, teachers, doctors, firefighters, etc. are far more numerous CEOs, athletes and entertainers).

Or, perhaps, this is merely the market at work. Want to do enriching work that will gain the respect of your neighbors? Fine, you can, but we won't pay you much; the prestige is your pay. Of course, ask most CEOs and pro athletes if they feel fulfilled by their jobs and I doubt you'll get too many "no"s.

And the techie in me must point out the sad truth that only 30% of Americans see engineers as having "very high prestige," a number that has barely changed since 1977, internet revolution and all. I bet Bill Gates is crying in his bowl of gold-plated Cheerios.

About the survey

"These are some of the results of the annual Harris Poll measuring public perceptions of 23 professions and occupations, conducted by telephone between July 10 and 16, 2007, by Harris Interactive� among a nationwide sample of 1,010 U.S. adults. However, only about half of these adults were asked about each occupation."

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