“When I was a college senior in 1939, we used to sing a plaintive song about going out into the ‘cold, cold world.’ It wasn’t really so very cold then, but we did enjoy meditating on the fraughtness of it all. It was a big break we were facing, we told ourselves, and those of us who were going to try our luck in the commercial world could be patronizing toward those who were going on to graduate work or academic life. We were taking the leap.” When William H. Whyte Jr. wrote that description in “The Organization Man,” in 1956, he was chronicling the birth of “a generation of bureaucrats.”
Whyte’s book advanced a simple yet damning argument about the nature of work in the old economy: The power of the organization had increased so much that workers had been forced to surrender their individuality. The problem, Whyte said, was not that work and life were too much in conflict. In fact, the opposite was true: The inherent conflict between the interests of the organization and those of the individual had been completely neutralized. Conformity, congeniality, and conspicuous consumption had converged to create a kind of suburban womb. The “organization man” gladly surrendered his opinions, his outside interests — and, potentially, his personality — to fit the requirements of life inside the organization. In return, he got a warm, comfortable, yet totally homogeneous world of work.
That was the social compact, the unspoken agreement that defined the arrangement between the company and the individual for most of the post – World War II period. Companies got reliable, predictable, stable employees. Workers got jobs that had many of the same attributes. And if the arrangement seemed a little too confining, a little too complacent, and a little too boring, well, it was a compact that fit the temper of the times.
But times change. Today, we’re witnessing the emergence of a generation of entrepreneurially minded change agents and free agents — along with a renegotiation of the social compact between company and worker. According to the new social compact, we’re not consigned to our fathers’ workplace, or even to our mothers’ workplace. It’s a new economy, and we’ve got a new deal.
That deal begins with the promise that we will be rewarded for our contribution. Yes, we will work long and hard — probably longer and harder than we would like to. But justification will arrive in the form of remuneration that acknowledges our value to the organization. “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” the old trade-union battle cry, doesn’t stir the juices the way it used to. The new deal not only says that we will be paid well — it says that our pay will reflect our true worth.
And our true worth will increase because we will be responsible for what we do. The organization man had to check his identity at the office door. People today, meanwhile, are demanding the right to display their integrity and the opportunity for self-expression. In the new-economy organization, employees define what they do and make real decisions in their work. They think for themselves. In fact, their success depends on their ability to do so.
The new workplace also holds forth the promise of community — or some semblance thereof. Because we spend so much time at work, and because teamwork is a core organizational value, we expect to develop close bonds with our teammates. We confide in them, we party with them, and they become friends as well as colleagues. More likely than not, our relationship with our boss also transcends professional bounds. The workplace provides a sort of home. Indeed, for better and for worse, work and life outside work blur into each other.
Jobs are not just “jobs,” nor are they simply a means to a paycheck. They absorb and challenge us. They offer fulfillment. We enjoy going to the office — because doing so clarifies our sense of possibility.
The reality? There are, of course, many realities. For a surprising number of people, the new-economy canon is delivering exactly as advertised. For a smaller number of people, the promise has proved crushingly empty: They feel betrayed. Between those two poles lie the majority of respondents, whose hopes have been neither fully realized nor hopelessly dashed. For them, work is eminently enjoyable — but not as meaningful or as fulfilling as they had once hoped it would be.
This month’s Fast Company – Roper Starch Worldwide survey explores this treacherous ground between expectations and reality. In an online poll of 1,122 college-educated, working adults, we probed the proposition that work is, indeed, personal.
Our expectation: People’s relative satisfaction with their work would correspond to the gap between what they thought had been promised to them and what they have actually experienced. No great intellectual leap there: Disappointment, as we learned in Psych 101, bums most folks out. More interesting are the subtle motivators — including satisfaction or dissatisfaction itself — that determine that gap in the first place. Work truly is personal, and our attitudes toward work are truly human, truly emotional, and truly complex. Here is our reading of the swirling tea leaves.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Broadly speaking, people are reasonably content with how their work has turned out. More than half of respondents (52%) say that their job has met their expectations; a smaller percentage, 16%, say that their job has exceeded their expectations. Those who are disappointed, however, make up a substantial minority: 32% report that their work hasn’t proven to be what they thought it would be — and that includes the 4% who are “completely” disappointed.
Who are the dissatisfied? They include men and women in roughly equal measure. They are likely to be older: 37% of respondents between the ages of 50 and 64 say that work has “fallen short” of their expectations or has been “completely disappointing,” compared with 28% of those between the ages of 21 and 29. Experience, it appears, bears regret. Predictably, the dissatisfied tend to be paid less than those who express a degree of satisfaction. Of respondents who have household incomes of $40,000 a year or less, 43% say that their jobs haven’t met their expectations. Among those with household incomes of $100,000 or higher, the disgruntled number just 20%.
But here’s the rub: The disappointed began their current jobs with approximately the same expectations for their pay as everyone else did: 31% thought that over time their pay would be “above average,” and 50% figured that it would be “about average.” At the same time, they anticipated working less. Just 27% of those who are now disappointed figured that they would be spending “a lot of time” working or thinking about work, compared with 49% of those whose job now exceeds their expectations.
In other words, the disaffected group comprises a large number of people who wanted something for nothing: same (or greater) pay, fewer hours. They’re now working about the same number of hours as everyone else — roughly 59 hours a week among full-time employees — but they’re making less money.
So what’s the cause, and what’s the effect? One reasonable hypothesis: Some workers go into their jobs less prepared than others to invest the time and effort that success demands. They lose ground to colleagues who know that achieving greater rewards requires greater effort — and they get stuck working long hours just to survive. When you think about it, that sounds like ample grounds for resentment.
The Proof Is in the Paycheck
Of course, pay isn’t an issue only for those who find work disappointing. Money is, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone’s professional motivator, justification, and yardstick. And, by the yardsticks of most survey respondents, financial compensation doesn’t measure up. An even 60% of them grumble that they’re underpaid.
No news there, certainly. More revealing is the distance between what people expected to earn and how much they actually earn today. About 80% of respondents say that when they started their current job, they expected their pay to be average or above average. Meanwhile, a majority of respondents complain that today they are not paid enough. Women are even less satisfied with their compensation than men are: 68% say that they don’t make enough — which is not surprising, given that in our survey universe (as in real life), women’s self-reported pay is substantially lower than that of men.
And yet, even though women are paid less than men and feel less content with their pay, they are no less satisfied than men with their jobs in general. A lack of money, in itself, does not lead to disappointment. Ultimately, what matters is how people are rewarded. And in this area, the new workplace canon clearly hasn’t delivered on its promise.
When they started working for their current employers, 31% of respondents thought that they would be “rewarded for the value that [they] help create” — a response that reflects a fundamental new-economy premise. Meanwhile, 43% believed that they would be “given steady pay increases to reward [their] experience” — another response that reflects the expectation of a reasonable degree of equity.
The reality: Just 19% of all respondents say that today they are “rewarded for the value that [they] help create.” Among those who are disappointed with their job, the number who say that they are paid according to how much value they create is only 5%, compared with the 34% who had expected such an arrangement. Only 24% of all respondents report getting steady pay increases that reward their experience, and only 21% think that they are paid “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” On the other hand, 30% say that they aren’t paid fairly at all, and of those respondents, 64% belong to the ranks of the disappointed.
The moral: Pay people poorly, and they’ll grumble a bit. Treat them unfairly, and they’ll scream “Betrayal!”
Work Is Personal, But It’s Not a Rec Hall
Is the workplace a forum for community? Do we find friendship, comfort, and a sense of belonging in the company canteen? Some social critics decry the erosion of civic communities, as evidenced by declining rates of volunteerism and bowling-league membership. In the new economy, they argue, everyone is working so much that a different sort of community has emerged within the confines of the corporate office park.
But that’s not how our survey respondents see it. For most of them, the notion of finding community at work is another new-economy myth. If anything, many people appear to be disengaging themselves from the social aspects of their work, seeking a balanced life in which personal fulfillment doesn’t depend so completely on their job.
We asked respondents to characterize their relationships with colleagues at work. More than one-third (36%) say that they would be friends with their coworkers “even if we didn’t work together.” Those who develop such bonds tend to be younger. Among people in their forties and fifties, just 30% view their colleagues as friends. In any case, slightly more than half of all respondents (50.3%) agree with the statement “My coworkers and I make a good team, but we’re not friends.” And 9% say that while they tolerate their officemates, they “would rather not work with them.”
A surprisingly high number of workers call their boss a friend. Nearly 21% agree with the statement “I love my boss.” Boss lovers, like those who view their coworkers as close friends, tend to be on the younger side. They are also more likely to be women. Indeed, this question was one of the few in our survey that revealed a notable difference in men’s and women’s attitudes toward the workplace: 25% of women say that they love their boss, compared with only 18% of men.
Yet the vast majority of respondents maintain a mostly professional relationship with their superiors. About 45% say that they and their boss are “cordial, but nothing more,” while 24% agree with the statement “My boss tries to be a friend — but the boss is still the boss.” How many people actually hate their boss? Fewer than you might expect — only 3%. Even among those who dislike their job, only 15% actually despise the person in charge.
Regardless of how we feel about our colleagues, we spend a lot of time at work. On average, respondents reported working 41 hours “at an office or somewhere else outside the home” — and working 6.5 hours at home. And they spend about 9 hours thinking about their job while doing “nonwork activities.”
But at day’s end, most people are able to leave work behind. We proposed a scenario: “You’ve had a bad day at work. One project bombed, and another project received a mediocre reception from a customer. The boss grumbled. A coworker quit.” In the face of such a disastrous day, 46% of respondents said they would be “relieved just to be away from the office,” while 29% claimed that they would be “able to leave work behind and to enjoy [their] home life.” Only about one-quarter predicted that they would come home “in a horrible mood because of the day’s events.”
The exception: People who dislike their jobs in general. Of those, 38% say that they would bring the bad day home with them. Work is especially personal, in other words, if you hate it.
An Empowered Worker Is a Happy Worker
Empowerment: In the workplace, that’s where the rubber meets the road. One crucial promise of the new economy is that people will be able to take responsibility for their work. They will make their own decisions, and those decisions will really matter. They will have clout.
Delivery on this promise, as it turns out, is the most dramatic indicator of workplace satisfaction. Most people go into a new job expecting empowerment, and whether they actually get it largely determines whether they gain a sense of fulfillment from their work.
We asked respondents, “When you started to work for your current employer, to what extent were you promised . . . ?” Four-fifths say that they were promised “the authority to define [their] work.” To an even greater degree, they say that employers promised them “the power to make important decisions” about their work (78%); “a role as part of a team” (91%); “the chance to be an ‘impact player’ ” (82%); “the opportunity to think creatively” (87%); and “the freedom to be who [they] are” (85%).
Such responses represent a powerful articulation and endorsement of the new workplace canon. People strongly associate those promises with the ability to find meaning in their work. Moreover, that view was generally consistent across various demographic and attitudinal lines.
And the reality? Remarkably, in the aggregate, people’s experiences match their expectations almost exactly. But look closer, and a curious divide becomes apparent. Those who generally like or love their jobs tend to enjoy the manifestations of empowerment to a much greater degree than they had expected to. For example, 80% of that group expected to have the authority to define their work. Today, 87% say that they actually enjoy such authority. Similarly, 79% expected to make important decisions about their work, and 83% say that they do so today.
Among respondents who dislike their jobs, a much different pattern emerges. Their experience of workplace democracy falls far short of what they thought they had been promised. For example, 84% thought that they would have the opportunity to think creatively, but only 62% say that they are able to do so today. The chance to be an “impact player”? A large proportion of this group (79%) expected to have that opportunity, but only 47% say that they enjoy that opportunity now.
We also framed this issue a slightly different way, asking people to indicate how decisions about their work agenda were made. What they told us went straight to the core of the new-economy canon. When they started their current job, 22% of respondents expected complete self-determination: They would “set the agenda [themselves] and then decide the specifics on [their] own.” About half of them thought that they would “get the big picture from the boss and then fill in the details.” Just 21% believed that they would be doing whatever the boss told them.
But for many respondents, workplace reality has outstripped previously held assumptions. Referring to their work life today, more than 35% say that they set the agenda and then decide the specifics of their job — a clear testament to the power of the individual in today’s economy. Tellingly, there was a strong correlation between self-determination and income: 46% of respondents with household incomes of $100,000 or more say that they, rather than their boss, set their work agenda.
On the other hand, the percentage of respondents who say that their boss provides the big picture and that they fill in the details is 44% — down from the 51% who had expected such an arrangement. And just 16% of employees say that they do exactly what they are told to do. Not surprisingly, 28% of those who express general disappointment with their job also put themselves in this category. At the same time, though, 30% of the disaffected say that they set their own agenda — whereas only 20% of that group had expected that they would be doing so. One reasonable hypothesis is that many people in this group are disappointed by work because they have acquired responsibility that they don’t really want.
What do we make of all this information — this jumble of people’s gauzy remembrances of past expectations and equally blurred perceptions of their present condition?
We concede, first of all, that the workplace is as imperfect as the people who populate it. The new-economy canon sounds great — but amid the thicket of human aspirations, emotions, and politics, it doesn’t always work out as advertised. The workplace isn’t a perfect substitute for community. The ideal of being paid according to one’s value still gives way to more conventional (and less democratic) reward systems. And people don’t always get the autonomy or the respect that they deserve. What can we say? The new economy didn’t promise you a rose garden: It only promised a better system than the one created by the old economy.
We also suggest that expectations are often meant to be broken. We asked respondents to compare the work that they dreamed of pursuing when they left college with the job that they have today. Remarkably, given the impossibly lofty ideals and ambitions that are typical of people fresh out of college, only 44% of respondents admit that their work today isn’t as fulfilling as they had expected it to be. Yet, even among those who like or love their jobs, 38% say that their current work doesn’t match what they had once hoped for.
An even 50% of respondents agree that their job “has made some promises . . . that it didn’t keep.” Well, of course it has! Stuff happens. The rules change constantly. Jobs, projects, strategies, coworkers, and bosses shift in and shift out. That only one in 20 respondents agrees with the statement “My current job has betrayed me” is, in today’s world, something of a miracle.
Just as jobs and working conditions change, moreover, so do we. As we move forward in life, some priorities wax and others wane. What seemed important to us in our twenties may seem inadequate or pointless as our hair grays and our bellies sag.
An acid test of how work fits into people’s changing priorities: We asked people to describe the relative meaning of work in their lives. Only 5% of respondents say that when they started working with their current employer, work was “the most meaningful thing in [their] life.” But 46% say that it was “just as meaningful as family life and other activities.” Meanwhile, 37% say that it was “meaningful, but not as meaningful as the rest of [their] life,” and 12% say that it was simply “a way to make money.”
Today, however, people are more circumspect about their jobs. Because of increasing commitments and responsibilities outside of work, work itself has become less central to people’s lives. In fact, just 26% of all respondents say that their job is “just as meaningful as family life and other activities,” and 52% say that it is “meaningful, but not as meaningful as the rest of [their] life.” And 18% say that work is just a means to a paycheck.
Interestingly, this gap between expectations and reality is mostly attributable to older workers. Respondents in their twenties and thirties appear to have gone into their current jobs with lower expectations about the centrality of work in their lives. Here, too, we touch on an important tenet in the new-economy workplace canon: Work is important and meaningful, but not crucial. It can be fulfilling, but it’s more likely to be so when it is balanced with outside interests and other meaningful pursuits.
Ultimately, we are left to puzzle over the Riddle of the Disaffected. One-third of our respondents recall their earlier expectations about work, look at their current situation, and are disappointed by the comparison. Why? What separates the disaffected from everyone else? Is their unhappiness simply a result of the expectations gap, as we originally postulated?
Or is there something more important going on? Disaffection, for example, can feed on itself. Perhaps members of this unhappy third bring baggage to the party — a defeatist attitude, or an unwillingness to take charge of their work. And such baggage may limit their chances both for success and for satisfaction. Maybe they just weren’t meant to play in the new economy.
We arrive at a classic nature-versus-nurture conundrum. The highest-income respondents — arguably, those who have succeeded at work — tend to be less disappointed by their jobs than those with lower incomes. They’re also more likely to say that they are able to make decisions about what they do, that they’re free to be creative, and that they are an “impact player” in their organization. So do people in this group enjoy higher pay because they’re happier, or because they exercise more autonomy? Or are they happier because they’re better paid? Or, simpler still, do the jobs that involve the most appealing work also tend to be the jobs that pay the highest wages — both of which are factors that inspire satisfaction?
The answers are elusive. They’re also important — because happier workers tend to be better workers, and because they tend to stick around longer. We proposed a scenario: An employer, having fallen on difficult times, announces an across-the-board, 10% pay cut; raises are unlikely for some time. Which workers will remain loyal in such times? Certainly not those who dislike their job, 54% of whom say that they would start looking for new work — pronto. A disproportionate number of younger workers say that they would be out the door too. Satisfied workers, meanwhile — those whose job meets or exceeds their expectations — are glued to their companies: 50% of satisfied workers say that they would work as hard as before, and 20% promise that they would “work harder than ever to help the company.” When the going gets tough, the contented get going.
More to the point, work (as we have noted) is personal. It helps define who we are. When we find meaning and fulfillment in our jobs, we become more complete as human beings. Our completeness enriches not only ourselves but also our families and our communities. Society wins.
And when we’re disappointed at work, we become, well, not much fun to hang out with.
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