If you reflect honestly on your past career moves, how motivated to job hunt were you when your job was unbearable, compared with the times you’ve been unsatisfied yet comfortable? After all, it’s human nature. Freudian theory, according to the pleasure–pain principle, says we’re conditioned to move away from pain and towards pleasure. If something is bang in the middle, we can get stuck. Your job might not set your soul on fire, but it doesn’t send you to the work toilets in tears either. Here at Refinery29, we’re calling it “safe settling.”
Charlie*, 28, who doesn’t want to use her real name to protect her career prospects, believes she’s missed many opportunities through safe settling in jobs she hasn’t loved. “I’ve stayed in roles longer than I should have because I’ve felt comfortable,” she says. “I think feeling comfortable is a dangerous place to be because I start not caring as much, or stop trying and learning something new. I’ve been there before and missed opportunities I should have taken, like jobs that would have been more fulfilling and challenging. As soon as I start feeling comfortable, I now think that’s the time I should start looking to move so I can grow.”
One study that involved 13,000 people in the US found that employees’ intent to stay in their jobs increases by 18% when they’re satisfied with the fundamentals of their salary, job security, and workplace. Ambition and striving for the next step can go out of the window when these basic needs are met — and understandably so, especially against the backdrop of high inflation and a cost of living crisis — but it does mean that people can become complacent. Charlie gets this, feeling that those fundamentals are met in her current job, even though she’s not enamored by the work she does. “I’m not unhappy where I am and my salary is good, but I’m not in love with my job. I’m neutral and indifferent, so in order for me to move and rock the boat, it needs to be a job that feels worth the energy. This won’t be a forever job, I’ll get what I need out of it then make sure I move on before becoming too comfortable again.” Ideally, she’d like to work in the charity sector, as she feels her work now is “trivial.”
Meanwhile, Justine*, 26, who also doesn’t want us to use her real name, has been in her current job for over six years — and she’s been “bored” since year two. “I’ve felt deflated and wanted a change since the second year in the job, but there are good aspects which is why I’ve stayed,” she says. “Though as a teacher my income is bad, it’s steady and reliable, and my partner and I want to buy a house so it’s not a good time to change. We need a regular supply of income coming in, and if I were to change my career, I think I’d want to become a freelance writer.” The routine and expectations make Justine’s job comfortable, as do the people she works with. She also enjoys the perks of long summer holidays as a teacher, and knows a career change would involve saying goodbye to that benefit. All of this means it’s easier to settle into what she knows than to take a risk and commit to something new. “Luckily, my employer has a high retention rate, but it’s starting to get dull, repetitive and I’ve noticed that I am becoming more irritated at work with the same old routine,” she adds. How much longer this will continue, she isn’t sure.
Ian Nicholas, global managing director at Reed, says “a strong reason why people stay where they are, especially during straining financial climates, is for job security. People are often wary of leaving a role they feel is secure for another that may not be a longstanding opportunity. Of course, there’s a risk of redundancy anywhere and no job is 100% safe forever.” In Reed’s 2024 salary survey on 5,000 UK workers the top reason people leave is when their salary doesn’t feel sufficient. “If employees have this along with benefits, it can easily play a part in people staying in a job — even if the day–to–day work isn’t challenging for them, or they feel they could get more exciting responsibilities elsewhere.”
Another reason people safe settle is because their job is within their comfort zone, as Laura Kingston, director of Leap Career Coaching, puts it. “Even if they don’t enjoy their job, it can be scary to make changes and do something different. It can be fear around losing what they do have, but more so fear of the unknown, fear of having to prove themselves again, of judgement of others or embarrassment of telling friends and family they were unsuccessful in a job interview,” she explains. “We have been built for survival and that is what keeps us safe from risk — risks that ultimately could make our work lives happier.”
Getting comfy isn’t all bad news though. The idea of the dream job has long been dead for Gen Z — as the financial reward isn’t always worth it — and constantly striving for more is exhausting. Sometimes it’s okay to enjoy plateauing, being content in the ease and skill at which you’ve learned to master your job. The career trend of “coasting” might come to mind, but this is about intentionally doing the bare minimum to get by, while safe settling doesn’t have to mean giving minimal effort — you’re simply comfortable where you are and can do the job without feeling overly challenged. Kingston says: “Often in life and our careers, we’re striving to be or do better, to continuously improve, earn more, learn and grow and it can be tiring. Sometimes we need to simply enjoy how far we have come. It’s good to take time to relax, and living in the moment is the tonic we need to avoid burnout.”
The key is to know the difference between contentment and your career coming to a standstill. Ellie*, 27, who also wants to remain anonymous, says “I’m one of the best in my team without blowing my own trumpet, so I know I’m good at what I do, even though I think about other career paths. Starting fresh somewhere is so daunting. I’m familiar with the processes and everyone here. The salary is comfortable too.” However, she wonders if she’d be happier in an entirely different career. Three years ago, she was at a crossroads in her career choices: a graduate job linked to her degree and an offer from the police force arrived in the same week. She picked the graduate job, and a “part of [her] thinks about the what ifs.”
Nicholas says Gen Z and millennials want a “sense of satisfaction and purpose from their role.” There are positives within that, as he explains: “Gen Zs and millennials are more willing to turn down jobs and assignments that don’t align with their values. This means they are more likely to leave their job than previous generations if they are not progressing in their career, being mentally stimulated or being at a company that lines up with their personal ethics.” We just need to learn when it’s time to stop settling, and call it.
Kingston says the key question she asks her clients in this predicament is: Fast forward three years and ask yourself how you would feel if you were still in this job? Usually, that will bring up an instinctive answer. “My advice to clients is to dig deep and go back to their core values: what is truly important to them? If security is a top priority, perhaps settling is best for now,” she says. “I recommend thinking of a medium-term plan, which might involve looking for career opportunities within your current organisation so that you can still progress without creating the biggest change, while having a long-term plan at the back of your mind”. She suggests doing research on the companies you’re considering moving to, to check how financially secure they are currently before leaving a “safe” job you’re settled in — though she stresses, again, that no job is ever completely safe. Though it’s a scary thought, some comfort might be gained in realising that both staying and going comes with potential risks and gains — there is no “right” answer.
If you’re happy enough, safe settling might be fine temporarily, especially if you’re looking to buy a house or are going through some other big life change and need stability. “However, is it worth staying where you are?” Kingston asks. If the job isn’t bringing you joy or challenging you, she says it’s a sign to move on. “People increase their salary quicker by moving companies as a general rule, as you are in a better position to negotiate,” she adds, which is another reason to stop settling at work. “Variety is one of our core human needs. We all would feel a little stale in the same place doing the same thing. It comes back to what you truly want to achieve in your career and your life.” If your job doesn’t align with this, it’s time to rethink.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.