The difference between having a job vs. having a career

Work is an enormous part of the human experience, consuming much of our lives and contributing to one’s sense of worth and identity. While nearly every statistic clearly illustrates that the vast majority of Americans are disengaged at work, a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center uncovered an important potential culprit: nearly a third of Americans (30%) see their work as just a job rather than a career or even a stepping stone toward a career they’re passionate about.

So what’s the difference between just a job and a career? Here are a few of the deciding factors.


Annual salary carries some weight, according to the same study. Those who earn a household income over $75,000 are 14-20% more likely to be satisfied with their career than those earning less. Because income usually accompanies a higher level of education, this can also indicate that employees associate higher education with careers and not jobs. In fact, employees are more likely to classify a position requiring a college degree as a career, and again, this directly correlates to their level of engagement and satisfaction at work. Another surprising statistic supports this: 75% of people with a four-year degree or higher are satisfied in their careers compared to just 64% who have less education.


The concept of “The American Dream” has taught US workers that if they become what they dreamed they would be some day they have found their life’s work or their destined career. This is the same sense of hopeful aspiration as the old tradition of little girls dreaming of their wedding day, or young children dreaming of the day they’ll become firefighters, pilots, teachers, doctors or artists. For this reason (and because passion / sense of purpose and job satisfaction go hand in hand), the difference between a job and a career depends the level of interest one has in their work. Those who get up in the morning and look forward to a new challenge every day might say they’ve settled into a career, while those who punch the clock and then painfully endure the next eight to twelve hours might call their work “just a job.”


Identity can be likened to passion; employees who identify themselves by what they do often classify their work as their career, while those who just do it for a living might call it a job. Interestingly, those who work in the private sector are less likely to identify with their work – only 42% say their work “gives them a sense of identity” compared to 65% of nonprofit workers, 67% of government workers, and 62% of self-employed workers.

On a related note, leaders are more likely to consider their work a career than their subordinates working in physical or manual labor. As a matter of fact, 62% of leaders are satisfied with their career while only 48% of laborers would say the same about their own.

Ditching the job for a meaningful career

If this is you – if you feel like you’re just punching the clock to earn a paycheck and not thriving in the career in which you were meant to be – it’s never too late. You can take a few steps today to find more meaningful work and change your outlook in the morning:

  • Ask yourself, “What am I passionate about?” and then explore careers that could help you satisfy that passion.
  • Consider pursuing a degree, certification, or other specialty training to increase your earning power and potential to grow in the company.
  • Review any potential employer’s reviews on an anonymous employer review platform before applying or accepting an offer to find out how they deliver on promises of work-life balance, autonomy, meaningful work, community, challenge, and more.
  • Explore opportunities to branch out on your own or join a nonprofit or government entity since these career paths tend to provide more meaning than those with private employers.

The most important takeaway? Whether you’re in a career you love or just a job that’s getting you by, you own the future!

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