Opinion Research Corporation, a Princeton, N.J., firm that conducts attitude surveys for hundreds of American employers, has identified a trend that ought to be of concern to everyone who is interested in the quality of American work life: a new generation of managers and employes has come along that has become increasingly dissatisfied with the companies they work for.

ORC's most recent surveys found that employes' images of their companies have worsened, that fewer like their companies as places to work and fewer said they would choose that company to work for again. Faith in top management has declined among employes, including managers. Decision-making is perceived as becoming more top-down and the companies as more hierarchical. Employes, as a result, see the company as less responsive to their problems. In an abstract prepared for human resources executives, ORC warned: "to the extent that employees respond in kind, by attending less to solving their companies' problems, productivity will suffer, management will tighten controls, and the cycle will repeat itself."

Employes also rated benefits far more critically than they have in the past, respect for supervisors has declined, and stress on the job is increasing, particularly among managers. The ORC abstract warned that the trends it has spotted, "suggest that the entire work force is becoming more vulnerable to unionization."

The findings are based on surveys of 250,000 employes at all corporate levels in 200 of the organizations that ORC has surveyed since the 1950s. Companies represent a broad range of industries, service, utilities, insurance, chemical and pharmaceutical, as well as financial, concerns across the country.

"I think a lot of people want to pin the downturn in attitudes on the recession," says Brian S. Morgan, research executive at ORC. "Some of that is legitimate, but some of the downturns began to occur long before the economy began to worsen. A lot of this has to do with a communications gap between top management and the rest of the organization," which is partly caused by increasingly complex organizations and the need of top management to be accountable to a variety of constituencies, ranging from regulatory agencies, to unions, to stockholders, he says.

But another important cause is the emergence in management levels of a generation of workers whose values were forged in the Vietnam era. While previous generations were oriented stereotypically to job security, pay and benefits, the new generation of managers, who range in age from late twenties to early forties, is also demanding more involvement in decision-making and wants more meaning out of work, says Morgan.

The war, he says, was "a major factor in what it did to people's faith in institutions and faith in their leaders and their willingness to criticize people in leadership positions. That generation and the people since have sort of opened up the climate for criticism so that even older employees are more willing to voice criticism."

This new generation of managers arrived just as companies were beginning to tighten controls over employes in reaction to the recession. "Employees remember how they were treated," says Morgan. In the long run, "it will be costly to management both in terms of increased turnover and decreased loyalty on the part of the workforce."

While turnover has generally been lower in the recession, he says, "as things get better, they will be more likely to leave."

The implications of ORC's findings are profound for American employers whose employes are finding them wanting. ORC has advised human resource executives to adjust to the changing work force by opening up lines of communication, by delegating more authority to make employes more a part of the team, by ensuring fair treatment of employes and by improving pay, benefit and promotional opportunities, where possible.

There are, in other words, intelligent responses to the souring of attitudes infecting American workers that can benefit both the workers and the companies that employ them. And as economic conditions improve and job opportunities expand, it seems likely that the companies that understand the new American worker will be the ones that attract the best and the brightest, while those that do not will find them moving on.