Why These Happy New Job Satisfaction Numbers Aren’t As Encouraging As They Seem

It touches everything from marriage to drugs.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

For the first time in a decade, more than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. According to the Conference Board, a research group, a full 50.8 percent of U.S. workers are content with their gigs. That’s about a percentage point higher than last year, nudging the national number over 50 percent for the first time since 2005.

But, as Jena McGregor notes at the Washington Post, that’s far below historical numbers. In 1995, 58.7 percent of Americans said they liked their jobs. The numbers were even better 30 years ago: 61.1 of workers were satisfied with their jobs in 1987. That’s the bad news: those watermark numbers aren’t coming back, at least not in the foreseeable future.

“Is it going to go back to the 1987 or 1995 levels? We speculate that it won’t,” explains Conference Board economist Gad Levanon. “We do think we’ll see more improvement because we think the labor market is going to be tighter than usual as the Baby Boomers continue to retire in large numbers. But the U.S. labor market has changed in the past decades in a way that reduced job quality and job satisfaction.”

The survey, which queried 1,600 respondents, asked about 23 dimensions that relate to job satisfaction. People were least satisfied with not only pay-oriented things like bonuses and promotions, but also more social-organizational issues, like patterns of office communication and the recognition, validation and acknowledgement that respondents may or may not receive at work.

The geographic differences were fascinating: With 56 percent of workers, Texas had the highest work satisfaction numbers. Arkansas and Mississippi, where just 37 percent of workers felt good about their jobs, had the lowest.

Even though the recent bump is good news, the long national downward trend in satisfaction looks like a symptom of the same forces that have lead to the opioid epidemic. These are huge structural changes, like the decline of manufacturing jobs—which don’t require lots of education, but yield much in the way of pay and identity—due to automation and offshoring, not to mention the fall of labor unions. It’s also part of why American men are getting less marriageable. Job satisfaction might be going up, but satisfying jobs are harder to find than they were a generation ago. 

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