The Worst Jobs in America: Dirty, Shady, and Dangerous Work to Avoid
What makes an occupation one of the worst jobs in America? That's easy. Any job that involves performing disgusting, life-threatening, exploitative, or terrible-paying work should qualify. And any job that robs you of your human rights or dignity should be considered one of the worst jobs ever. Unfortunately, millions of Americans and other people around the world must cope with those kinds of horrible jobs on a daily basis.
In today's world, it's possible for many of us to live each day without thinking about the countless people who truly have jobs that suck. Plus, some people have jobs that are so bad that we choose—either consciously or unconsciously—to put them out of our minds, as if they don't exist.
That's why a lot of lists of the so-called worst jobs actually fail to include some of the worst jobs. That is, they fail to mention some of the jobs that most of us would label as terrible because most of us don't want to think about them. Instead, we often get lists that place an occupation like newspaper reporter as the worst job in America. Sure, it's a challenging and declining occupation, but is it really worse than all of those other occupations that we might be ignoring?
Consider the many examples of dreadful jobs in this article and decide for yourself. Every section is worth exploring, but here's what the article includes:
- Awful jobs that are often performed by undocumented workers
- Jobs with decent pay but terrible downsides
- What the worst jobs in history can teach us
- Additional candidates for the worst jobs in America
- The worst-paying jobs in America
- The worst occupations in the U.S. for job prospects
- Why we all have jobs that suck according to someone
- What makes people unhappy in their jobs
(Unless otherwise indicated, salary information is based on national estimates from 2015.*)
Jobs That Are Often Taken By Undocumented Workers
Imagine risking your life in order to come to America and support your family. Then imagine feeling trapped in a job in which you are treated as less than human. It's a common plight among many thousands of undocumented workers (i.e., workers who don't have U.S. work visas or are not legal U.S. residents or citizens).
What if the people you care about most had jobs like the ones below?
It's easy to recognize why this occupation is one of the worst jobs in America. Killing and processing animals for meat often comes with severe emotional and physical hazards (including lethal ones). But those dangers are amplified for some of this industry's favorite workers—those who are undocumented. After all, such workers are always faced with the possibility of being deported. And the government conducts relatively little oversight of the industry. As a result, a lot of meat-processing companies choose not to follow basic labor laws. They mistreat and demean their workers while exposing them to extra-long shifts and threatening them with termination or deportation if they speak up about their injuries or other concerns. For documented Americans in this job, the average wage is $12.70 per hour. But undocumented workers usually earn well below the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour, since their employers are already operating illegally by hiring them.
Some wealthy Americans hire female undocumented workers to be private nannies for their children. Such nannies usually live on their employers' properties and do most of the day-to-day caretaking of their kids. But, like slaughterhouse workers, many of these nannies are mistreated, harassed, or even abused. And they are often subject to demeaning tasks, excessive hours, extremely low wages, and little, if any, time off. The average wage is $10.72 per hour for legal citizens or residents of the U.S. in this job. But illegal nannies often make less than minimum wage.
Whether in private households, motels, hotels, or other settings, America is home to a lot of undocumented maids and housekeepers. And many of them experience the same types of mistreatment as their nanny counterparts. Legal housekeepers in the U.S. earn $11.05 per hour, on average. But undocumented housekeepers often earn below minimum wage.
People who work on farms in the U.S. are not covered by very many labor protections, regardless of whether or not they are legal residents. So it isn't unusual for undocumented farmworkers to be treated extra badly. Unlike legal farm laborers who make about $10.64 per hour (on average), illegal farm laborers often make money based only on how many crops they pick. And that sometimes amounts to just pennies for each few pounds. Many female farmworkers also experience regular sexual harassment or even assault. Plus, many farmworkers are exposed to high concentrations of pesticides, which can pose major health risks. All of those factors contribute to making this occupation one of the worst trades to work in.
Jobs With Decent Pay But Terrible Downsides
Some of the worst careers in America are the ones that allow you to make a decent wage but that expose you to physical danger, psychological trauma, or other hazards. Of course, a lot of workers feel that these jobs are still worth the downsides. It just depends on each person's individual ability to embrace or tolerate certain hazards and risks. Many people would name the following occupations as possibilities for the worst jobs ever. Would you?
Alaskan King Crab Fisherman
This job is often cited as being among the most dangerous in the world. After all, it is frequently performed during major storms when the seas get rough and waves crash onto the decks of the fishing vessels. Many fishermen work extremely long hours under such conditions. So they sometimes lose focus, which can result in serious injury or even death, especially when they get swept out to the frigid and raging sea. Average annual wages for fishermen in the U.S. total $29,970, on average. But those who catch Alaskan king crab sometimes earn a lot more by enduring horrible conditions and risking their lives for a few months each year.
Adult Film Actor or Actress
Sure, you can make a lot of money in this job. In fact, the average salary is over $60,000.** But the porn industry has a dark underbelly. Aside from a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases or getting injured from certain acts, some porn performers experience emotional problems from being around dysfunctional or abusive people. In some parts of the industry, drug abuse is a daily occurrence. And it can be very difficult to hide your career from your family, form new relationships with those outside of the industry, or transition into a normal life and career once you get out. That's why many people list this occupation as one of the dumbest jobs in America.
Enlisted Military Member
It goes without saying that serving in the U.S. military, especially on the front lines of a conflict, exposes you to a very high risk of life-changing injuries or death. But it also frequently requires many sacrifices, such as leaving behind your loved ones for long periods of time or moving to new locations that you hate. And even if you survive physically intact, you still might develop a psychological disorder such as PTSD, which can have devastating consequences for you and your family. For all of that risk, enlisted members of the U.S. Armed Forces earned salaries of between $18,561.60 and $68,763.60 in 2015, depending on rank and years of service.*** Of course, the military also provides various benefits like health and dental care and college-tuition assistance.
Hazardous Materials Removal Worker
From lead paint to asbestos to radioactive waste, dangerous materials are all over America. Many of them are remnants from the past, discovered during building renovations or new construction. But some of them are used or created during modern industrial processes. And others are biological in nature. Unfortunately, hazmat suits and equipment are not always foolproof. So this job can pose some serious health risks, especially if your employer doesn't follow the most up-to-date safety regulations. The average salary is $44,150.
Also known as crop dusters, these pilots fly low to the ground over farmland. And that puts them in jeopardy of accidently hitting power lines or other obstacles. Plus, most of them disperse chemicals that are known to be toxic to human health, especially when inhaled. Since their cockpits are usually uncovered, they are often exposed to unsafe levels of pesticides and herbicides. On average, they earn yearly pay of $93,530.
These occupations represent only a small fraction of what many might consider to be America's worst jobs. Just consider all of the potential factors that can make a job truly terrible. For example, take sexual harassment. It's something that is known to be pretty widespread in occupational areas like food serving and industries like male athletics. Even a lot of officers in the military have reported it.
Or take factors such as unreliable pay, irregular shift work, or involuntary overtime or part-time hours. They are found in a wide range of occupations, especially those that come with lousy pay or that are filled with poorly educated workers. Oftentimes, the only way to get unstuck from such bad jobs is to discover and create better opportunities through vocational training .
What Can the Worst Jobs in History Teach Us?
It's very common for people to complain about their jobs. In fact, it might be one of America's favorite pastimes. Maybe you're an accomplished complainer yourself. Maybe you wake up on Monday mornings saying, "I want to quit my job so bad."
But if you think your job sucks, then you should stick your nose into some of history's most unpleasant jobs. From ancient Rome to medieval Europe to the Victorian age, humanity's past is full of candidates for history's worst job. So, what is the worst job ever? Maybe it's one of the examples below. Can you imagine having any of the following jobs?
- Vomit collector—Collecting the vomit of emperors and noble guests during large banquets so that they can keep stuffing more food into their bellies, throwing it up, and repeating that cycle throughout their long feasts of gluttony.
- Butt wiper—Wiping the precious butts of members of royalty after they've used the toilet.
- Grave robber—Illegally digging up fresh graves (while trying to make them look undisturbed) so that medical students and researchers have non-decayed bodies to dissect.
- Sewer scavenger—Scavenging for valuable items in dark, noxious, germ-ridden sewers so that you can try cleaning them up and selling them.
- Plague victim burier—Burying a seemingly never-ending amount of plague-infested people who were killed by the Black Death.
- Blood and gore cleaner—Cleaning an army's weapons and pieces of armor after each day of gory battles.
- Chimney sweeper—Climbing into dark and narrow chimneys in order to sweep out the soot, all while trying to avoid getting stuck or breathing the black stuff into your lungs.
Those jobs might not have even been considered the worst career choices during their times. It probably depended on whom you asked. Chances are, many of the people who had those jobs felt lucky, or even proud, to have them. From their perspectives, the possible alternatives might have been worse. Not everyone is born into nobility.
Today, of course, most Americans wouldn't give even the slightest consideration to jobs like those. So the era you live in matters. Living in past civilizations came with different expectations and possibilities than living in 21st-century America.
Aside From Those Already Mentioned, What Are Today's Worst Careers?
That's impossible to answer without focusing on the factors that are most important to you. After all, it's common to see the same occupations included on different "best of" and "worst of" lists. For instance, one list might focus mainly on high-paying jobs whereas another list might place more focus on job growth. So you might encounter some of the same jobs on both kinds of lists if they are very strong in one area but very weak in another.
That isn't to say there aren't other modern-day jobs that would repulse the average American. A few that come to mind involve duties such as:
- Allowing mosquitoes to bite you for research
- Sniffing armpits to test the effectiveness of deodorant products
- Cleaning up bloody crime scenes
- Tasting pet food
- Collecting road kill
- Cleaning sewers
- Cleaning porta-potties
And, of course, geography matters when you're talking about people's attitudes about work. What a modern-day American views as the worst job in the world can be very different from what somebody in a developing nation sees. As the old cliché goes, one person's trash is another person's treasure.
But even within the U.S., opinions vary greatly. All manner of jobs are deemed "bad" even though many of the people who have them feel proud of their work. It just depends who you're asking. For example, a lot of Americans might consider the following jobs to be some of the worst:
- Coal miner
- Bathroom attendant
- Call-center customer service representative
- Meter maid
- Door-to-door salesperson
- Taxi driver
- Mail carrier
The bottom line is that real objectivity is hard to find. The only way to come close to a truly objective list of the worst jobs is to narrow the focus down to just one aspect of comparison at a time.
The Worst-Paying Jobs in America
Wages and salaries are the most common metrics used for comparing different jobs. It makes sense; earning money is the primary goal for most people when getting a job. But salary estimates don't always tell the whole story. After all, within any given occupational area, some people will earn a lot more or less than what might be listed as an average wage. And for some low-paying service jobs, the statistics often don't account for the money earned from tips.
Nevertheless, here are some of the worst-paying jobs in the U.S. according to median yearly wage estimates from 2015:****
- Gaming dealers—$19,000
- Fast-food cooks—$19,080
- Ushers, lobby attendants, and ticket takers—$19,180
- Food servers—$19,250
- Amusement park and recreation attendants—$19,280
- Life guards—$19,500
- Parking lot attendants—$20,630
The Worst Occupations in the U.S. for Job Prospects
Another common metric for comparing jobs is projected employment growth. Typically, you'll see comparisons based on a certain time period such as the coming decade. The higher the growth percentage, the better a person's chances are of finding work. But, of course, even some people in declining occupations are able to find work. It often just comes down to a combination of your talents, qualifications, determination, social appeal, location, and luck.
According to national projections, the following occupations are all expected to decline by more than 20 percent between 2014 and 2024:****
- Locomotive firers
- Telephone and switchboard operators
- Postal service clerks, carriers, sorters, and processors
- Operators of photo-processing machines
- Mobile home installers
- Shoe machine operators
- Sewing machine operators
- Metal pourers and casters
- Parking enforcement workers
- Various textile machine operators
- Various tool setters
We All Have Jobs That Suck According to Someone
Job quality is relative. It depends on personal preferences, ambitions, abilities, expectations, and whatever specific factors you are comparing.
As humans, we hardly ever get to judge our experiences (or those of others) based on irrefutable facts alone. Instead, we are nearly always influenced by our own opinions, feelings, biases, and assumptions. They color how we categorize and rank nearly everything in our lives.
For example, a Wall Street investment banker who earns a seven-figure salary might think that a janitor who earns minimum wage has the worst job ever. The banker values being able to live in extreme luxury and not having to perform any so-called menial tasks.
But the janitor might enjoy his work. He might even see it as essential, something to take pride in. And he might see the banker as having one of the worst jobs in the world. After all, maybe he assumes that the wealthy banker helped cause the Great Recession, which put many people out of work for several years. He wouldn't want the banker's job because he wouldn't feel like he was living up to his own moral values.
So it's all a matter of perspective. And that changes over time. How you view a particular job will depend on what you compare it to, what you value, where you are in life, and what your own personal filters allow you to see.
We like to tell ourselves that we can be objective. But that's nearly impossible. Quite often, we can't even agree with other people about what the facts are.
Plus, we are often poor at predicting which jobs will make us happy. For instance, a lot of people go to school to become doctors because professional medicine is widely touted as one of the best career paths. But even some doctors have been known to say, "This job sucks!"
What Actually Makes People Unhappy in Their Jobs?
Face it: Human beings are complicated. There is rarely just one factor at play when someone quits his or her job. Most often, people have multiple reasons for not liking their jobs. And guess what? In a lot of research surveys, pay and job growth don't even crack the top three most important contributors to job satisfaction.
For example, in one survey from 2014, American employees ranked the most important factors this way:†
- Respectful treatment
- A trustful relationship with senior management
- Overall employee benefits
- Pay and compensation
- Job security
Of course, what makes people happy varies from person to person. If you've ever found yourself saying, "I suck at my job," then you know what it feels like to be in a position that doesn't match your individual strengths and personality. Feeling that way doesn't mean that you're in one of the world's worst jobs. It just means that you would probably benefit from exploring new career options that better align with what makes you happy.
That being said, all kinds of factors can make people feel unsatisfied with their jobs. Some common ones include:
- Having a boss that is too controlling, self-obsessed, or hungry for power
- Feeling overworked or permanently behind
- Not having a voice or having little or no appreciation shown for your ideas
- Having to deal with cumbersome rules and red tape
- Feeling bullied or ignored
- Being given impossible or unimportant tasks
- Feeling overeducated or underpaid for the position
- Receiving little or no praise or constructive feedback
- Getting no extra training opportunities
- Feeling like the work isn't meaningful or aligned with your values
- Not having a good sense of your employer's long-term vision
- Having a boss who has no interest in your future aspirations
- Being at high risk of injury or exposed to health dangers
Other factors that make people unhappy at work include unpredictable stressors, such as those found in many of the worst retail jobs. For example, beyond having to deal with random and crazy demands from rude customers, many retail workers also have erratic or on-call schedules. They may not get to plan their days in advance. And many of them are involuntarily limited to working part-time hours. So their pay is also erratic.
Discover the Best Jobs for You
Jobs that make people happy do exist. But you probably won't find them by focusing your search on the other end of the spectrum. Instead, it might be more helpful to learn about the value of education so that you can begin exploring the many great careers that can be started with college or vocational training.
Just remember this: Somebody else's list of the worst degrees or worst majors for jobs will not necessarily be relevant to you. It's all relative. You wouldn't want to make the mistake of overlooking what might be a great path for you just because it was included on a subjective and imperfect list.
Don't assume anything. If something interests you, then don't be deterred. Look into it for yourself. Try things out.
At the end of the day, it's all about finding a good path for you. Be mindful of what makes you happy. And go for it.
The school finder below makes it easy to find and explore different training options. Why not enter your zip code to begin that journey?
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on May 4, 2016.
** PayScale, website last visited on February 26, 2016.
*** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website last visited on February 26, 2016.
**** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections, website last visited on January 27, 2017.
† Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: Optimizing Organizational Culture for Success, website last visited on February 18, 2016.