The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Job satisfaction is up, but still well below one-time highs

Workers pack and ship customer orders at the 750,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Romeoville, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With Labor Day weekend upon us, a little good news: For the first time in more than a decade, the majority of U.S. workers are satisfied with their jobs.

According to new data from the Conference Board, the research group, job satisfaction climbed for the sixth year in a row, reaching 50.8 percent, up from 49.6 percent last year and above the 50 percent threshold for the first time since 2005.

But while that trend may be encouraging, it's still far below the 61.1 percent of American workers who liked their jobs in 1987 and the 58.6 percent who said they did in 1995. And the lower numbers may be permanent -- at least for the foreseeable future -- thanks to fundamental changes in the U.S. workforce such as the decline in labor unions, the increase in outsourcing and income inequality, and the erosion of the social contract between workers and companies for long-term employment.

Glassdoor ranks the 25 best jobs in America

"Is it going to go back to the 1987 or 1995 levels? We speculate that it won’t," said Gad Levanon, chief economist for the Conference Board in North America. "We do think we’ll see more improvement because we think the labor market is going to be tighter than usual as the Baby Boomers continue to retire in large numbers. But the U.S. labor market has changed in the past decades in a way that reduced job quality and job satisfaction."

Levanon said the uptick in satisfaction is the result of an improved labor market, one that has been in recovery mode for years.

"There are a bunch of people who had to settle for jobs they didn't want," he said. "In recent years they have been able to move into jobs they like better. We think that's the main reason for the improvement."

While the survey questions, which are asked as part of the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Survey each year, did not directly ask workers about what they expect to get out of their jobs, report co-author Michelle Kan said that has been changing. Following decades of layoffs, reduced pension plans, diminished loyalty and less investment in worker training, "the employee and employer social contract -- this relationship between workers and employers -- is not what it used to be," she said. "People just have a different sense of their work."

The Conference Board's survey asks respondents how they feel about 23 components of their job, such as their health plan or how heavy their workload is, and workers are most satisfied with their colleagues, their boss and -- of all things -- their commute to work. They tend to be least satisfied with things like their bonus, the company's promotion policy and its performance review process.

But employers who want to improve satisfaction may be focusing on some of the wrong components. In recent years, many companies have expanded the benefits and perks they offer employees in lieu of higher wages. That's both to compete with Silicon Valley upstarts and improve jobs without having to make long-term financial commitments amid uncertainty: It's much easier to take away a new perk than it is to take back an increase in base pay.

Yet some of these extras simply aren't among the most important factors that drive workers' overall satisfaction in their jobs. As part of its research, the Conference Board also conducted an analysis of how much each of these aspects matter for retention and satisfaction, and found that things like family leave plans, flexible work programs and vacation policies rank relatively low on the list.

Far more important to employees are factors that leave plenty of room for improvement when it comes to satisfaction: Their workload, the communication channels they deal with at work and the recognition and acknowledgement they do (or don't) receive. "These do not seem that hard for companies to improve," said Levanon.

The Conference Board's report also examined data over the past five years to examine geographic differences in job satisfaction. (Because of lower sample sizes in some regions, some states were combined to make a composite region; Washington D.C. was also excluded because of low sample sizes.) Texans turn out to be happiest in their jobs, with 56.3 percent saying they were satisfied. The least happy workers were in Arkansas and Mississippi, where just 37.6 percent of workers said they were content on the job.

Read also:

Retirement, deferred: Workers — and companies — grapple with a new reality

This big change was supposed to make performance reviews better. Could it be making them worse?

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.