Is employment in the public sector (particularly government) truly better than employment in the private sector?

For the past decade I have chased the buck for financial gain in the private sector. Now that I’ve finally caught it, I’m beginning to realize how much I’ve lost and suppressed along the way. Although I’m ready for change and I’m ready to follow my heart… I just have one concern:

Is employment in the public sector (particularly government) truly better than employment in the private sector? Generally speaking. What are it’s advantages and disadvantages?

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Mark Hammer

Adam Grant, now at the Wharton School, had a lovely article in Academy of Management Review a few years ago, entitled:”Relational job design and the motivation to make a prosocial difference” You can download it here: It appears to be a component of an ongoing program of research examining work motivation as a function of the kind and amount of contact people have with the consequences of their role/job/organization.

The punchline is basically that people ARE motivated by prosocial consequences, but those consequences are not intrinsic to the sector they work in, or the organization. I can work as a cashier in a supermarket and feel like I make the day just a little bit better for all the fixed income folks who come in to my store, and I can feel like a cog in a vast paper-work machine, working for a public-sector organization, never really having the sense of consequence I thought I would have. And it can be the complete inverse, too. Certainly the purpose of public sector organizations, prima facie, ought to be associated with having prosocial impact, or at least expectations of having such impact, but there is nothing that says any and ALL roles within that structure have the degree or form of impact that is meaningful to you, personally. And there is nothing that declares private-sector work necessarily prevents having positive impact on the world.

If there is anything to differentiate the two, it would simply be that there is but one government for the nation, for the state, for the municipality, and the vast majority of jobs in the public sector can not be outsourced, nor is there any likelihood that, say the public sector of Delaware would be “acquired” by Maryland, and downsized to increase shareholder profits. On the other hand, there are plenty of small businesses that are probably more stable than many public services.

Kristi Aday

All depends on how you define “better.” Everyone defines it differently and its measured against your own values. Personally, I like to see the results of my work in the community I live. I like to know what I do makes a difference. Idealistic? Sure. But it’s what I do and what motivates me. And I hold on to that when I’m confronted with the various idiosyncrasies and sometimes confounding requirements I encounter in getting my job done. But I doubt those are things exclusive to e public sector.

Kevin Lanahan

I chased the dollar for 10 years before realizing that having to sacrifice what is right for what is profitable was killing me. I got into state government and have spent nearly 20 years here.

You have an opportunity in government to make a difference and see that difference in the market, especially at state and local levels. If you are coming straight from the private sector, you have an opportunity to radically change how government works by applying your experience to the public sector. You frequently get work with motivated experts in your field.

On the downside, you rarely get financial incentives to do great work. If that’s what motivates you, stay in the private sector. You will be misunderstood by the public at large and demonized by candidates for public office. You will have to work with the same type of unmotivated people that you had to work with in the private sector.

Is is better? It all depends on you. It was better for me, but I have hundreds of ex-coworkers who have returned to the private sector.

Jack Shaw

I was more in need of security than a big paycheck and the idea of working just for money never appealed to me. I’m sure there is a more complicated answer, but ultimately what you need in life depends on where you are at the time. I was in no position to risk doing what I loved; I had no back up system. No one I could fall back on if I failed. No savings to invest in a business and keep me going until it flourished–if it did. The one thing government offered me was security. I can’t say it offered me flexibility, but I wasn’t concerned the company bottom line affected me; I even felt reasonably secure during the budget battles and furloughs.

Now I am in a position to go after what I love to do and doing it. I’m not richer, but more secure than before. I am happier. I think it depends on where you are and what you want. If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen–even if it takes a little extra time. I’d love to have been doing what I’m doing now 20 years ago but that wasn’t to be. It’s just the way it is. How we come into this world. Can’t pick your parents and the financial situation you were brought up. Some options aren’t there for you, while others are. It’s up to us to choose.

Wendell Black


It seems everyone is coming to the same conclusion, and that is that it’s up to you and what you want to do, make a boat load of money or serve the public. Me personally, I was never the type to start my own business, too much of a headache. And as for working in the private sector, I did that before I started with the federal government in 1992, and believe me when I say that I prefer the fed over the private sector any day, even with all the lambasting that’s getting thrown at us by politicians. I can wake up in the morning knowing that I’m serving the public and that I have a job that will be there. Just remember, if you’re looking for a big paycheck when you come to government service, then you’ve joined up for all of the wrong reasons.

Good luck in your search. :o)

Allison Merkley

I will agree with everyone that has commented already. I will also add that depending on your profession, the private sector is more likely to quickly establish a plateauing salary (e.g., start high, but within two years you are at the top unless you can leap to a promotion), where in the government the salary progression is exponential for much longer. This of course, may change if legislation or performance systems are altered.

In the current economic situation, I favor public sector jobs because I have an ability to stay in a stable environment while greatly increasing my experiences. I have worked both public and private and as many have mentioned, have found both to be worthwhile and socially forward while others were stagnant. My advice is to research the agency, mission, and organization you would want to work for before drawing conclusions. If you find a place that is a good fit for your aspirations and needs, it is a great place to be.

Anne Hasselbrack

I left the government for the 2nd time in 2009, basically taking a “lateral” – i.e., no raise. Had I stayed in government, I’d be making more money right now even if all I got was step increases and not another grade. However, I much prefer the private sector – at least small business – because there are more opportunities to have more diverse experiences. Also, I have found that in the private sector, people aren’t managed to the “lowest common denominator” in the office… (e.g., you can’t work at home because we can’t trust joe to work at home, and such). Also, the work I was doing, while sometimes engaging, wasn’t always so. The one thing I will say about government is that the training opportunities are unequalled. You will NOT get unlimited training ops in the private sector, so if you’re there now and considering a move, take advantage of it while you can 🙂