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Take This Job and Love It
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, Sept. 4, 2000

It's amazing that more Americans don't whistle while they work. Or giggle. Or smile. Or cry out with glee every time they clock in for another day at the factory, office or jobsite.

That's because Americans simply love to work and love their jobs. Well, maybe "love" is a bit of an exaggeration. But it's safe to say that workers in the United States are, at the least, "broadly satisfied with their jobs," says Karlyn H. Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in the latest issue of Public Perspective magazine.

The title of her article precisely encapsulizes her view of Americans' attitudes toward their jobs: "Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, It's Happily to Work We Go." Forget those dreary stories circa 1995 about McJobs, anxious employees, white-collar blues and disposable workers, and ignore their contemporary equivalents about rising worker stress and dissatisfaction. Everywhere Bowman looked in the polling record, she found happy workers content with their jobs and their pay. Heck, we even like our bosses (sort of).

Rather than ebbing, Bowman found that the proportion of Americans satisfied with their jobs has remained remarkably constant over the past 25 years. In the mid-1970s, nearly nine in 10 — 87 percent — of employed adults interviewed in the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey reported that they were either very satisfied or moderately satisfied with the work they do. More than 20 years later, the GSS reported that 85 percent of employed adults were happy in their work.

Remarkably, job satisfaction varies little by demographic group. Nearly nine in 10 Americans who didn't finish high school told GSS polltakers that they were at least moderately satisfied with their work — and so did nearly nine in 10 Americans who completed a professional or graduate degree. Income seems to matter, but not much: The proportion of satisfied employees who earned less than $10,000 stood at 73 percent in the late 1990s. Among those earning more than $75,000, nine in 10 said they were similarly satisfied with their job. (Nearly three in four workers say they're satisfied with the income their job provides, according to a 1999 survey by Roper Starch Worldwide.)

Other surveys echo America's love affair with its jobs. Nine in 10 workers in a 1997 Harris Poll said the work they did on their job "was meaningful" to them. Three in four say they're "proud" to be working for their current company. A majority — 56 percent — in a 1998 Wirthlin Poll said they felt very committed to their employer, and another 28 percent said they were "moderately committed."

Still, most Americans don't define themselves by what they do. Half — 51 percent — in a Gallup survey in 1999 said they got "a sense of identity" from their job, while 47 percent said their job "is just what they do for a living." Similarly, 56 percent of those interviewed in a Roper Starch Worldwide survey earlier this year said they thought of their job as a "career," while 43 percent merely thought of it as a job.

Not only do most Americans like their jobs, they seem to like — well, at least tolerate — their bosses. Seven in 10 in a 1997 Gallup survey for USA Today and CNN said they would not fire their current boss if they could, though 24 percent said they would give their boss the boot. Perhaps that's because most Americans don't envy their supervisors. Even if they had the chance, six in 10 workers said they'd prefer to keep their own job; only one in four said they'd like to be the man or woman in charge, according to a 1995 Roper Starch Worldwide poll.

One thing has changed in recent decades: attitudes toward work and leisure time. Surveys document a significant shift in the balance of work and play. Surveys conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide found in 1975 that 48 percent of all adults said the purpose of leisure time was to "recharge people's batteries so they can do a better job" at work. Barely a third — 36 percent — disagreed and said it was the purpose of work "to make it possible to have leisure time to enjoy life and pursue one's interests."

That's changed. Today, only a third say leisure is to recharge for work, while 40 percent say leisure for its own sake is more important.

One reason for this change is that Americans seem to be enjoying their leisure time more. In 1955, Gallup interviewers found that the public was divided over whether they more enjoyed their time at work (43 percent) or the time they spent away from their jobs (44 percent).

Today, it's not even close: Seventy-seven percent of those interviewed last year said they enjoyed the hours they spent away from work more than the time on the job, and only 16 percent preferred to be at work.

Bowman notes that longer commutes and changing expectations may erode job satisfaction in the future. Older Americans entered the work force expecting lifetime job tenure, something that younger workers don't expect and many companies no longer promise.

"These factors and others may cause negative job evaluations, but they shouldn't obscure the larger picture of widespread worker satisfaction," she concluded.

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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