I recently came across an interesting piece by The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, a keen observer of trends in business and the workplace. In this article, he pushes back on three elements of the prevailing narrative around the so-called "Great Resignation." His argument is condensed in the following tweet:
Let's focus on #2--the claim that people aren't quitting because they hate their job, since most workers are actually pretty satisfied with their gig. Here the evidence mustered by Derek:
The story that most Americans hate their job doesn’t hold up, either. In April 2021, the Conference Board reported that job satisfaction in the first year of the pandemic was the highest that the organization had recorded since 1995. The Conference Board is a membership of corporations, and perhaps you’re disinclined to believe an organization of employers telling us about the sentiments of employees. Fair enough! Let’s check with a gold-standard pollster, like the General Social Survey, which has been asking Americans about their working life since 2002. Every year of the survey, more than 80 percent of respondents have said that they’re “very” or “moderately” satisfied with their job. From 2018 to 2021—after an economic crisis, mass layoffs, and a surge in unemployment—the share of very or moderately satisfied workers fell from about 88 percent to … about 84 percent. These numbers aren’t outliers. They’re part of a boring tradition of American workers telling pollsters that they aren’t drowning in a sea of misery. A 2016 Pew survey poll found that American workers are “generally satisfied with their jobs”; more than half of full-time workers said they were “very satisfied.”
I have no issue with this survey data, which is pretty solid. But there are at least a couple of reasons not to be complacent about the relatively high job satisfaction rates. The first is that job satisfaction varies significantly by occupation, with frontline workers--i.e., those showing the greatest quit and switch rates in recent months--being the least satisfied. Gallup's Great Jobs survey has the most granular and recent breakdown of these differences:
Not surprisingly, frontline workers have also been the one seeing a worsening in key indicators of job satisfaction during the pandemic. The Zooming class is instead reporting some big improvements when it comes to flexibility over hours and location.
Second, and more importantly, just because people are generally satisfied with their job doesn't mean those jobs don't suck (to be fair, Derek seems to agree with this point). The problem is less what people do at work, but how they're managed. We discuss this in Humanocracy:
You might argue that disengagement is inevitable. After all, a lot of jobs aren’t very appealing. Every day you meet people with jobs you wouldn’t want. Maybe it’s a retail clerk, a service center rep, a short-order cook, a delivery driver, a gardener, or a housekeeper. You can hardly expect these people to be enthusiastic about their jobs, right? Actually, wrong. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of employees said they were either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their daily activities.
The engagement deficit isn’t about what people do at work, but how they’re managed. In Gallup’s research, 70 percent of the variation in engagement scores was explained by differences in the attitudes and behaviors of the employee’s boss. For example, employees who felt they could approach their boss with any type of question were more engaged than those who couldn’t.
There's no doubt that people in frontline positions are treated with less respect...
... and have limited scope to develop and apply their skills and gifts. Think about the fact that only 1 in 5 non-managerial employee strongly agrees with the statement that "my opinions seem to count" at work, for instance. Or that less than 1 in 10 feels confident they have the autonomy to take risks to improve products and services. What a terrible waste of human capacity.
These aspects of job quality have been pretty low and stable for a long time, which is why measures of employee engagement (Gallup's being the most robust) haven't improved much. This is problematic because there's tons of evidence showing that engagement--not job satisfaction--is a key driver of productivity & well being.
And speaking of well-being, the surge of optimism about employers finally "getting it" at the start of the pandemic seems to have waned rapidly.
So yes, people don't hate their job, but they certainly hate working in needlessly disempowering organizations. These work environments are sadly the norm--and they impose a big economic and human cost that should be taken much more seriously.