‘Golden handcuffs,’ defined, refers to special benefits offered to an employee as an inducement to continue service.
The meaning can be both positive and negative.
In a positive spin, companies invest significant resources in the hiring and training of employees. ‘Golden handcuffs’ (such as benefits) are intended to help employers hold onto employees that they’ve invested in and ensure that their best employees do not leave.
In a negative sense, the phrase is often associated with individuals staying at a job they are not happy in, but not willing to leave because the financial loss would be significant.
(The negative connotation is the most common use of the phrase in the English language).
Here’s the thing about golden handcuffs, and why the negative connotation is the most common use, most people wearing them don’t realize they’re wearing them. That’s why it works.
I have a friend in the Pacific Northwest who coaches unhappy, but otherwise successful businessmen and businesswomen. When she explained her work to me, she put it this way, “The thing is that most of these men and women can’t even imagine another way. They’ve become so accustomed to their salary and benefit package, they can’t see there is another way to live. They are not happy, but feel trapped in their own lifestyle. But there is always a way out.”
I have begun to move beyond the employer-employee relationship when using the phrase: golden handcuffs.
I see golden handcuffs as the proper term for anybody who has begun to embrace a higher standard of living that they see no escape from.
Lifestyle inflation has become the norm and stepping back from it is difficult—regardless of where you started or where you end. When comforts and luxuries become needs, lowering the floor of a lifestyle becomes increasingly difficult. We become bound to the lifestyle we begin living—even if we’re unhappy in it.
This lifestyle inflation may occur because of income or credit, but once a level of lifestyle has become realized, it is virtually impossible to willingly step away from it:
- It’s hard to imagine a 1,400 square ft home is sufficient, once you live in 2,000.
- It’s hard to imagine a vacation down the road can be just as enjoyable as a holiday in Europe.
- It’s hard to imagine a 2005 Honda Accord can get you the same place as a 2020 Lexus.
- And it’s hard to image a $20 purse can function as well as a $200 designer bag.
As our lifestyle inflates, so does our expectation. Walking away from it, in any and every sense, becomes unthinkable. Golden handcuffs.
Of course, it is also important to point out that the term “golden” misrepresents the deceptive nature of riches and lifestyle.
Whenever we throw around phrases like “rich,” “successful,” or “golden,” we immediately excuse ourselves from the label.
“I’m not rich.” “I’m not wealthy.” “I’m not part of the 1%.” Those phrases always define the other guy—the one with more money than me.
When we do, we immediately excuse ourselves from the conversation. And the deceptive nature of the golden handcuff lifestyle goes unrecognized.
- My life isn’t golden… it’s just middle of the road.
- My house isn’t too big… it’s just the size we need.
- My car isn’t too expensive… it’s what I deserve.
- I don’t buy things I don’t need… I need everything I own.
- I can’t be wearing golden handcuffs… I’m barely paying my bills.
When we fall into the trap of thinking lifestyle inflation has only affected “the other guy,” we fall into the exact trap the phrase golden handcuffs was meant to define. We’ve become so accustomed to our current lifestyle or standard of living, that we can see no other way to live.
And suddenly, we are trapped.
Golden handcuffs don’t have to be golden, sometimes they are silver.
And more of us are wearing them than we realize.
But there is always a way out.