Do people actually feel trapped in their careers?

A reader (though perhaps not yet a loyal one) wrote me:

“I don’t know if you take reader requests – but on the Nurse/Teacher/Kitchen Staff post from a little while ago – I am curious what the economic data might say about career switchability. I.e. sure, a teacher or nurse may feel trapped, but how free does everyone else actually feel? I’m assuming it’s hard to get data on this (what counts as an actual career change?) – but I (as someone scanning a list of blog titles and clicking on the one titled “It’s a Trap!”) would be interested in your perspective on this from an economics angle.”

I’m not quite sure how to go about answering this question directly, but I’ll venture a couple things. Some lazy searching on google scholar turned up a paper from 1988 that itself rediscovered a survey by the San Diego Teachers Association from 1964(!) that found “A feeling of being trapped in the profession” to be the #1 cause of burnout reported by teachers. A couple thoughts!

First, 1964! Second, while the reasons for feeling trapped in the teaching profession in 1964 were no doubt different than they are today (*cough* extreme institutionalized sexism *cough*), but we need to consider that the profession of teaching at the primary and secondary levels isn’t one that creates a lot of opportunities for adding to your human capital, which can lead to feeling, correctly and incorrectly, of the job market passing you buy.

A more recent paper from 2002 notes that “The lack of anything resembling a genuine career ladder contributes to the feeling of many teachers that they are trapped in a career that has become not only joyless but futureless.” As someone who’s been there myself, I can tell you there grows quickly in the mind a specific anxiety that that to stay a teacher too long is to risk being left on a career ladder with no rungs. If there was ever a reason to have the now clichéd “quarter-life crisis”, that’s it.

While teachers may leave the profession early for fear of being trapped by atrophied human capital, nurses appear to be more a story of over-specialized human capital. A relatively simple analysis found that nurses with more education and experience were more likely to stay within the professions. Nothing terribly shocking (or causally identified) there, but other work has found within-profession concerns of overspecialization as well: one paper found that emergency department nurses were especially concerned about becoming trapped ED-only nurses, particularly those in more rural hospitals, losing access to more lucrative urban jobs that require more advanced care-giving and physician support related skills.

Sure, it’s a little methodologically kludg-y, but I also enjoyed this endeaver to create a career typology separating ladders from dead-ends.

This is a great time to remember that causal identification is important, but it isn’t everything. Sometimes its really useful to create a super-charged summary statistic and look for patterns, like the above.

To get back to the readers question about extending beyond teachers and nurses, I think the key to understanding the transition costs of a career is to appreciate the two channels for becoming trapped:

  1. Human capital atrophy
  2. Human capital overspecialization

Atrophy speaks to a lack of options because of an absolute disadvantage, while overspecialization is because of an intense comparative advantage. The first is, in most ways, far scarier because you have limited options save to stay in a career where years tenure is your only real advantage. The second, on the other hand, is really only problematic if you have a strong preference against the field of your specialization or you fear the risk of obsolescence. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take overspecialization fears seriously. We’ve all seen a againg musician who can still fill an audience but looks like they’d rather get a root canal than spend another evening on stage. They’re not there because they want to, they’re because they’re second best option can’t cover their mortgage.

Do I have an career advice for maximizing career advancement and adaptability ?

Do I ever! Get an advanced degree in economics from a respectable school. Or, barring that, a school entirely absent in respect or prestige. More specifically (and more seriously), my advice is this: major in tools, minor in substance.

Substance can be acquired piecemeal, in a disjointed sequence with random and sometimes large intermittent breaks. Acquiring tools, on the other hand, is far more dependent on uninterrupted periods of intense learning and application. You can read about the Ottoman empire over coffee breaks and bus rides. Learning Python, R, real analysis, econometrics, virology, chemical spectroscopy, or evolutionary game theory are all far more easily learned if you can dedicate months or years to them in large uninterrupted bursts of focus.

Further, tools tend to exist in their own phylogenetic hierarchy. Once you’ve acquired a tool, it is often an order of magnitude easier to acquire a new, closely related tool. It might have taken 2 years to get really good at C++ or Java, but because of that you can learn Python in a couple weeks of fooling around on a side project. Those first tools are the most important ones you will ever acquire, but they are also the hardest.

A secondary bit of advice: major in something that people know is always at least a little hard. I try not to overrate the “signalling theory of education” but there remains the hard to deny reality that education does have some signaling value. One of the signals is “I’m smart”, but as a signal I think it’s highly overrated. A more important signal is “I’m willing to learn things that are hard”. Most careers within persistance advancement and robust demand require the continuing acquisition of new skills and adaptation to new circumstances. You want very badly to signal, early and often, that you are someone who is willing to put in the effort to adapt and remain productive.

Despite that some members within my vocation may suggests, however, the answer to every problem is not in fact more school. Which leads me to my final, most important, but probably most trite piece of advice:


No, seriously, quit. If you can pay your bills and you want out, get out. If you can’t, start laying the groundwork for your exit. Yesterday would have been better, but today is a close second. There’s no room for sunk cost thinking in careers. You only booked two commercials in 7 years in LA? Move to Kansas City and learn to code. You want out of the service industry? Jump start your BS in chemistry two classes a semester. You hate nursing? Start applying for admin positions in your hospital, apply for reimbursement for a 2 year executive MS in IT management through your hospital. You hate your PhD program and realize there’s no market for your degree outside of academia? Start writing ad and social media copy for local restaurants trying to get off the ground.

This isn’t me trying to admonish you with “by-your-bootstraps” ra-ra BS. This is me saying that the time you’ve put in shouldn’t matter if you want something else. But maybe you don’t want something else. That’s fine too! Just don’t tell me you’re trapped then, just say that you’re bored and you need a new hobby. And then sell your hobby on Etsy. And then market your hobby through google. And then write a book and tell Martha Stewart about it. That’d be pretty cool.

But then again, it’s easy to give advice. Do your best. Feed your kids. Keep trying. It’ll be fine.

One thought on “Do people actually feel trapped in their careers?

  1. thomas March 29, 2022 / 12:07 pm

    As the reader who made the request – I appreciate the post! I enjoyed your analysis here – I do think there is probably also some sort of networking effect that plays a role in terms of feeling trapped (perhaps it simply compounds the atrophy/overspecialization risks). But, thanks for the taking the time to tackle the question.


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