Results of polls on job satisfaction are at odds

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

If you're feeling unhappy with your job, you have lots of company. Or you're in a distinct minority. Depends on what poll you read.

In a time of double-digit unemployment, a widely publicized survey released Tuesday showed U.S. job satisfaction at its lowest level in two decades. But the finding flies in the face of polling by both Gallup and the University of Chicago showing that job satisfaction has been remarkably stable over several decades.

The latest survey, titled "I Can't Get No . . . Job Satisfaction, That Is," was commissioned by the Conference Board a research firm funded by about 2,000 corporations around the world.

Its conclusion, that "Americans of all ages and income brackets continue to grow increasingly unhappy at work," saturated the airways, broadcast on stations as diverse as the BBC and the Christian Broadcasting Network. Other pollsters have raised questions about some of the Conference Board's earlier surveys because the 5,000 households polled every month, although representing a wide range of ethnicities, ages and incomes, are not chosen at random and the phrasing in questions about matters such as job satisfaction is open to interpretation.

This survey was based on the answers of 2,900 respondents to a July mail-in questionnaire gauging consumer confidence who also were asked to rate how satisfied they are at work on a scale of one to five, with five being the most content, said Lynn Franco, a co-author of the report. Just 45 percent marked four or five, the lowest level since the board started asking the question in 1987, when 61 percent expressed satisfaction. The number of people who marked one or two was not tallied.

Tellingly, when asked to name the most enjoyable part of their jobs, the top answer -- just above enjoying the company of co-workers -- was the commute.

"If the commute is one of the best aspects of your job, that really illustrates how much dissatisfaction there is," Franco said.

Other pollsters who have measured job satisfaction in boom and bust times typically have found almost nine of 10 people are happy with the work they do.

In Gallup polls taken every August from 1989 to 2009, 85 percent to 94 percent say they were either completely or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. In the General Social Survey taken by University of Chicago researchers between 1972 and 2008, people who said they were very or moderately happy consistently range from 85 to 87 percent.

The best predictor of job satisfaction is age, said Tom W. Smith, head of the polling center at the University of Chicago. Smith said people in their 50s are usually the most gratified by their work, as they have found a field they do well in, been promoted and are given a degree of autonomy on the job.

The happiest workers are people in helping professions or doing creative work. Smith said firefighters, clergy and physical therapists are most likely to describe themselves as very satisfied with their work, along with people in jobs that involve caring for, teaching and protecting others. The least happy are roofers, he said, with only 25 percent saying they find their work satisfying. Generally, people in low skill jobs that involve customer service and serving food are an unhappy lot, according to his research. Bartenders, clothing and home furnishing salespeople, cashiers and meatpackers all rank low on the satisfaction scale.

Unhappy people tend to change jobs or change their attitudes, some observers say.

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams wrote last month in his blog that there is a limit to how happy anyone can be at work. Many people trapped in lousy jobs rationalize that they're satisfied so they don't have to admit they probably couldn't get a better job, he said.

"When the economy was good, everybody was happier, no matter what the job was," he said in an interview Tuesday. "The fact you can't change jobs in this economy makes you think your current job is worse."

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