Job Dissatisfaction

Last week, the Conference Board released a report on the job satisfaction of American workers, based on a survey of 5,000 households. They found that only 45 percent of respondents were satisfied with their jobs.

You might expect that the current recession would drive up the number of dissatisfied workers. Many workers probably are staying in jobs they don’t like because they have few alternatives; they can’t find new jobs in a highly competitive job market, and the oldest of them may hesitate to retire because their investments have lost value.

However, worker dissatisfaction has been rising for over two decades. (The Conference Board started this study in 1987.) Why are workers so unhappy? I don’t have an authoritative answer, but I can hazard some guesses.

I believe that people’s expectations have been rising for even longer than this study has been around. Career guidance following the Second World War was dominated by the wartime practices of steering people toward work that best served a mobilized nation. It was also influenced by memories of the Great Depression, when people had few career options: "Don’t complain about your job; consider yourself lucky to have job." Both of these forces discouraged people from thinking in terms of workplace satisfactions and instead focused on encouraging people to do work that was (a) available and (b) consistent with their abilities. In career choice, young people’s aptitudes were a key factor, because aptitudes could be matched to the demands of careers that needed workers. The country needs engineers? Find young people with math aptitude.

Then the baby boomer generation, of which I am a proud member, filled the career-preparation pipeline. We expected prosperity to grow endlessly and provide abundant opportunities. We also were encouraged to think of our careers as means for personal fulfillment. Now interests gained importance. The future engineers who were to match the Soviets’ space-race achievements needed to be interested in engineering or they would never endure the many years of rigorous schooling that the career requires. Thus personal fulfillment became part of the decision.

The concept of work-related values, which was even more synonymous with satisfaction than interests, gained prominence in the 1960s (although it never eclipsed interests). Does the occupation afford me opportunities for independence? Leadership? Variety? President Kennedy may have told us to ask what we can do for our country, but he came of age during Depression and war. If we sought to make a contribution to society, it was because that was a value that gave us personal fulfillment; we chose to pursue it.

During the 1970s, many professional-level jobs were becoming open to women for the first time. Women (and some men) who rightly pressed for equality in the workplace encouraged more women to defy career-gender stereotypes, arguing that jobs could be as fulfilling as, or more so than, traditional homemaking roles. This climate raised the job-fulfillment expectations of both sexes.

I do not perceive any recent trends in career development that are trying to discourage these expectations of workplace fulfillment. For example, the trendy constructivist idea—that your career can be perceived as a story—assumes that your plot line, like that of a character in any well-written story, should unfold in keeping with your personality. Ideally, this theory implies, you should achieve your destiny.

For an inside look at how job satisfaction is being promised to career decision makers, I suggest you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, in which she contrasts the encouraging words of job coaches ("Find your passion!") with the realities of job-changing for middle-age workers.

And, in truth, the realities of the workplace can often be discouraging, especially the failure of incomes to keep up with inflation and the erosion of take-home pay by rapidly increasing health-care costs. The Conference Board’s survey notes both of these complaints.

A third discouraging factor the Conference Board mentions was a lack of interesting work. Here, some of the blame may lie with the workers. Presumably, most respondents at one time or another did exercises that clarified their work-related interests. If they now find their work uninteresting, they may have allowed other satisfactions—most likely the desire for higher income, or perhaps security—to overrule their interests when they chose a career or as they climbed a career ladder.

Another possibility is that the putative interest field of the job has turned out not to match the actual work activities, at least in the perceptions of the worker. A frequent complaint I hear is, "I love my job; I just wish they’d let me do it." Sometimes paperwork, travel, meetings, supervisory tasks, and other aspects of a job that seemed marginal from the outside become major irritants over a long career, offsetting the remaining satisfactions.

Still another explanation is that the job has failed to deliver many satisfactions other than interests, but the worker does not have the vocabulary to express exactly what is dissatisfying and therefore latches onto interests, the concept that has been promoted most heavily. For example, the worker may not have realized beforehand that the job lacks the amount of variety (or independence or leadership) that the worker wants. The worker may not have an explicit understanding of how much he or she cherishes these values, so the worker says that the job is not interesting.

Whatever the reason for the dissatisfaction, workers often fail to do much about it other than complain. It’s a natural human tendency to fear the unknown, which causes many workers to continue in a job long after it has lost many of its appealing features.

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