Past Event

Unhappy on the job: Is that why they call it “work”?

A few days into 2010, the Conference Board, a global market research group, released a study, titled “I Can’t Get No…Job Satisfaction, That Is: America’s Unhappy Workers.” This study showed that job satisfaction had plummeted like much of the country’s temperatures to a record low. According to the report, just 45 percent of U.S. workers are satisfied with their jobs, the lowest level since recordkeeping began 22 years ago. That’s down from 61.1 percent in 1987, the first year the survey was conducted. Last year, 52 percent reported job satisfaction. The percentage feeling secure in their jobs? Only 43.

“It says something troubling about work in America. It is not about the business cycle or one grumpy generation,” said Linda Barrington, managing director of human capital at the Conference Board, who helped write the report.

Workers have become increasingly dissatisfied for a variety of reasons, according to the study, but the major factors are:

  • Fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting.
  • Incomes have not kept up with inflation.
  • The soaring cost of health insurance has eaten into workers’ take-home pay.

Economists see more trouble for the U.S. economy if the job satisfaction trend is not reversed, believing that it could stifle innovation and hurt America’s competitiveness and productivity. They also fear the trend could make unhappy older workers less inclined to take the time to share their knowledge and skills with younger workers.

Lynn Franco, another author of the report and director of the Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center, said: “What’s really disturbing about growing job dissatisfaction is the way it can play into the competitive nature of the U.S. work force down the road and on the growth of the U.S. economy — all in a negative way.”

One factor in all this dissatisfaction may be the weak wage growth of the last few decades. After growing in the 1980s and 1990s, average household incomes adjusted for inflation have been shrinking since 2000, the Associated Press reported. Another is the rising cost of health insurance. Since 1980, three times as many workers contribute to the cost of their health insurance, and those contributions have gone up over time. The average employee contribution for single-coverage medical care benefits rose from $48 a month to $76 a month between 1999 and 2006.

In a post on her blog, Suzanne Bates, author of Speak Like a CEO, wrote: “Certainly, a lot of people complain about their jobs. But that’s always been the case. Recently, other surveys have shown that people are more satisfied because they’re grateful to HAVE a job in this economy. …The bigger question isn’t whether AMERICANS are satisfied, but whether YOU are satisfied. You deserve to be engaged in work that you find rewarding, interesting and meaningful. Work is the way most of us express our purpose and passion. If you aren’t inspired, it’s time to figure out why.” 

For a huge majority of workers, however, finding their passion on the job isn’t something they can afford to do. Keeping the bills paid is their priority—and that’s about all that work affords them.  “It’s surely debatable whether a (working) life governed by passion is necessarily that desirable anyway,” says Oliver Burkeman, a UK writer. “And don’t get me started on managers who seek to ‘cultivate passion’ in employees. If ‘finding one’s passion’ means anything, it’s surely an intrinsically personal process. The act of presuming to help me with it, when you’ve got a vested financial interest in the fruits of that effort, is doomed from the start, no matter how well-meaning you may be.”

Additionally, there are plenty of people who eschew the notion that work should make one happy. Instead, they view it as just a way to pay the bills. As the saying goes, “Sure, work sucks. That’s why they call it ‘work.’ ”

What about your work makes you happy? Makes you unhappy? Is it even realistic to think that work should make one happy? How do you see the continued dissatisfaction with work affecting the U.S. economy? Do you know any unemployed people who are truly happy? What would it take to make you happy with your job? Are jobs, by their nature, able to deliver any measure of happiness? What do you hear people complain about most when it comes to their jobs?

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