When it comes to describing their dream job, Americans are dreaming big. MidAmerica Nazarene University surveyed 2,000 people and found that 41% dream of being business owners–but only if that meant working less than 60 hours per. They dream of having 52 days off per year, a one-hour lunch, 38-hour workweeks, and the ability to work remotely 11 days a month.
Surprisingly, few dream of climbing the corporate ladder as just 12% of the survey participants wanted C-suite titles and 23% said they want a mid-level management role.
When it comes to dream salary, the average for men was $444,958, while women wanted $278,637–a difference of $166,321. For men, the most important elements of their dream job were a good income, flexibility, and creative freedom. Women had the exact same goals, but they ranked their priorities differently, wanting flexibility first, creative freedom second, and a good income third.
A quarter of participants said they’re currently in their dream job. These people were more likely to have a high salary, a doctoral degree, live in the Southwest, and be part of the baby boomer generation. And while they may not be in their dream job, several participants said they’re already in their dream industry, which was most likely to be accounting, media, construction, education, engineering, entertainment, government, healthcare, HR, IT, legal, nonprofit and social work, science, and skilled labor and trade.
Dream versus Reality
The characteristics of a dream job in the study all speak to the desire for freedom and self-determination, says Tracey Messer, assistant professor of organizational behavior for Case Western Reserve University. “And when we think about who may have the most choice about work, we think about entrepreneurs,” she says.
But working less than 60 hours a week is a fantasy, Messer adds. “There are a number of studies that show that small business owners work significantly more than other employees,” she says. “Small businesses tend to have fewer resources to fall back on and fewer employees, too. This same sense of fear and limited resources impacts vacation and lunchtime.”
The laundry list of attributes doesn’t scream “dream job” to Daniel Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. “To me, ‘dream job’ implies that I’d want to do it even if I wasn’t paid, and I just happen to get paid for doing it,” he says. “Dream job implies something about the content of the work that excites me or makes me attracted illogically. Something I connect with emotionally, something that plays to my unique strengths and makes me feel like I contribute something meaningful and I’m recognized for my personalized contribution.”
The list sounds like “do the bare minimum without too much commitment,” Cable continues. “I think that people with dream jobs usually want to give a lot more than 40 hours to it,” he says. “Maybe most people just see work as ‘that thing I need to do in order to get money to pay for stuff I need in life.'”
A dream job should address the basic things that all humans want in life, which include being part of a group that accepts you for who you are; having a chance to use your unique skills and be recognized for your contributions; an ability to experiment, learn, and try new approaches to using your skills; and feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in what you do, says Cable.
“My sense is that most of us don’t know the psychology of what makes humans happy, and these are invisible, so we spend our time pursuing things that don’t make us happy but that are visible, such as raises, promotions, and less time at work,” he says.
Making Your Current Job More Like Your Dream
Ironically, some of the aspects of a dream job are likely already part of our current job, such as having a lunch hour and vacation. Yet, studies show that 52% of Americans don’t use all of their paid time off and half of Americans don’t take a lunch break.
“Many of the responses to our survey seem to shed light on situations that Americans wish were more openly acceptable in the workplace,” says Roxy Fata, who spearheaded the survey administration and analysis. “If you work somewhere with a stated amount of PTO days, it still may be frowned upon to take those days. …In this dream job scenario, everyone would have those days off and take them. That way, it would put everyone on an even playing field and allow employees to actually enjoy their time off.”
Same thing for the lunch hour. “There are too many negative connotations associated with people who step out of the office for an extended lunch,” says Fata. “If everyone took an hour and it was seen as the norm, all employees would be able to enjoy their lunch without judgment.”
And other attributes are becoming easier to attain, “Remote work and flexible hours were a high priority for many participants, and more and more these days, companies are finding ways to give their employees the autonomy they crave,” Fata says.
What the study highlights is a disconnect between what we think we want, and what we really are willing to do, says Cable. “To say ‘I want a lunch break’ and then not take a lunch break shows that the person is not confronting what they really want,” he says. “They must want some status, or raise, or sense of completion that giving up their lunch or vacation days gives them.”
It’s likely that many of us don’t know what our ideal job is, Cable adds. “Many of us are projecting without the facts of what those jobs are really like,” he says. “Being a business owner may sound good, and might look good on TV with all the freedom to make your own decisions, and it’s prestigious. But it’s hard to know how it feels to be a business owner who ends up thinking about their business all the time until you are a business owner.”
What’s most important is understanding your priorities when it comes to your professional life, says Fata. “When you think about your needs and decide which aspects of a workplace are most important to you, you’ll gain the clarity that is paramount in making the right move, or making the right requests to make your current or next role more of a dream job,” she says.