Americans' job satisfaction falls to record low

Published January 4, 2010 10:10 pm
Workplace » Utahns join chorus of those whose unhappiness grows.
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We can't get no job satisfaction.

Even Americans lucky enough to have work in this economy are becoming more unhappy with their jobs. A new survey found only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their employment.

That is the lowest level ever recorded by the Conference Board research group in 22 years of studying the issue. In 2008, 49 percent of those surveyed were satisfied.

When the first survey was conducted in 1987, most workers -- 61 percent -- said they were happy in their jobs.

The drop in workers' happiness can be partly blamed on the worst recession since the 1930s, which made it difficult for some to find challenging and suitable jobs. But worker dissatisfaction has been rising for more than two decades.

"It says something troubling about work in America. It is not about the business cycle or one grumpy generation," said Linda Barrington of the Conference Board, who helped write the report being released today.

Workers have grown more unhappy for various reasons:

» Fewer consider their jobs to be interesting.

» Incomes have not kept up with inflation.

» Soaring health insurance costs have eaten into take-home pay.

The sentiments don't surprise Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

"Generally, if you're dissatisfied with a job, you go look for a better one. But if you're in a downturn like this, and there's not another job to jump to, you have to sit and stew," he said. "Obviously, that's a much bigger issue than it was just two or three years ago."

In addition, Knold said, health care is an issue across the job spectrum. "It won't improve no matter where you go. Even in good times that can be an issue. It just accelerates during a downturn."

Workers interviewed Monday in Salt Lake City echoed survey frustrations and added a couple of other complaints. Gripes ranged from too much government taxation and a lack of support for small businesses to bosses who won't listen to front-line workers.

"I wish more managers knew what was actually going on in the store instead just pushing papers all the time," said Jamie Spence, 29, of West Valley City, a retailer. "Things could be so much better."

If the job satisfaction trend is not reversed, economists say it could stifle innovation and hurt America's competitiveness and productivity. And unhappy older workers could be less inclined to share their knowledge and skills with younger workers.

One clue that may explain the growing dissatisfaction is only 51 percent find their jobs interesting -- another low in the survey's 22 years. In 1987, nearly 70 percent said they were interested in their work.

Workers who find their jobs interesting are more likely to be innovative and to take the calculated risks and the initiative that drive productivity and contribute to economic growth, Barrington said.

Conference Board officials and outside economists suggested weak wage growth helps explain why workers' unhappiness has risen. After growing in the 1980s and 1990s, inflation-adjusted household incomes have been shrinking since 2000.

Also, compared with 1980, three times as many workers help pay for the cost of their health insurance -- and their contributions have gone up. The average employee contribution for single-coverage medical care benefits rose from $48 to $76 a month between 1999 and 2006.

Workers under 25 expressed the most dissatisfaction. Roughly 64 percent said they were unhappy, supporting analyst perception that young workers face fewer opportunities and lower wages because of the recession.

The most satisfied were those ages 25 to 34, who may see opportunities for upward mobility as baby boomers retire. Around 47 percent said they were happy in their jobs.

Other key findings:

» 43 percent of workers feel secure in their jobs, down from 47 percent in 2008 and 59 percent in 1987.

» 56 percent like their co-workers, down from 68 percent in 1987.

» 56 percent are satisfied with their commute to work, even as commute times have grown longer. That compares with 54 percent in 2008 and 63 percent in 1987.

» 51 percent are satisfied with their bosses, down from 55 percent in 2008 and 60 percent two decades ago.

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