After six straight years of improving numbers in its annual job satisfaction survey, the Conference Board announced last week that more than 50 percent of US employees are happy with their jobs for the first time since 2005:
The increase in job satisfaction is largely due to the improvement in the labor market in recent years. “Workers are benefiting from historically low layoff rates, which adds to a greater sense of job security,” said Michelle Kan, Associate Director, Knowledge Organization, and a co-author of the report with Rebecca Ray, Executive Vice President, Knowledge Organization and Human Capital Lead, Gad Levanon, Chief Economist, North America, and Allen Li, Associate Economist at The Conference Board. “Employees have more opportunities at other companies and more confidence in pursuing those opportunities. And, as it becomes harder to find qualified workers and retain existing ones, employers are gradually accelerating wage growth and improving other job features.”
“The US labor market will likely remain tight for most of the next fifteen years,” said Levanon. “With the massive retirement of baby boomers continuing through 2030, we expect the US labor market will be quite tight during that period, contributing to higher job satisfaction levels in the coming years.”
Despite the expectation of a continuously tight labor market, Levanon notes that US job satisfaction is unlikely to rebound to the levels seen 20 or 30 years ago, a prediction he attributes to other factors such as “the emphasis on maximizing shareholder value, declining unionization, outsourcing (both domestic and foreign) and market concentration.” While job satisfaction climbed from 49.6 percent last year to 50.8 percent this year, that’s a far cry from the 61.1 percent who said they were happy in their jobs in 1987, Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor points out.
Also tempering the good news, McGregor notes, is the possibility that the percentage of satisfied employees is increasing not because Americans’ jobs are getting better, but rather because they are defining down their expectations of job satisfaction:
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.”
Other experts tell the Wall Street Journal’s Lauren Weber a similar story: Younger employees today “don’t even know what they’re missing” in terms of the benefits their parents used to expect from their jobs, management expert Rick Wartzman 0bserves, while Wharton professor Peter Cappelli adds that workers today are still shell-shocked from the Great Depression. Whereas MBA students a generation ago were expecting to become millionaires in a few years, he tells Weber: “After 2009, we had people who were just glad to get any kind of job.”