May 12, 2023 - Economy

Americans haven't been this happy at work since the 1980s

Data: The Conference Board; Note: Surveys became annual in 2005; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: The Conference Board; Note: Surveys became annual in 2005; Chart: Axios Visuals

Turns out workers in the U.S. are pretty happy: Job satisfaction is at a 35-year-high, according to Conference Board data released Thursday.

Why it matters: The numbers complicate the popular narrative about unmotivated workers quiet quitting or putting in the bare minimum.

How they did it: Job satisfaction is measured by asking workers about 26 different aspects of their work — from pay to work-life balance to promotion policy and health benefits.

  • Satisfaction along nearly all measures increased in 2022 from the year before, with the biggest gains in work-life balance — 60% of respondents said they were happy on that measure compared to 54% the year before.

Job switching and a strong labor market play a big role here. Those who recently started a new job — a number that's been historically high over the past few years in the wake of the pandemic — saw much bigger jumps in work satisfaction.

  • A lot of lower-wage workers left leisure and hospitality jobs and went to work in logistics or retail chains like Costco for better pay and hours, an economist told the Wall Street Journal's Lauren Weber, who first wrote about the survey.
  • If more people who are unhappy in a job are able to quickly find another one they like better, than it stands to reason satisfaction would rise.

Yes, but: The survey took place in November 2022, before layoffs really walloped a few industries, multiple bank failures led to increased worries about a credit crunch, and the number of job openings declined overall.

  • That could all add up to fewer opportunities for unhappy workers to find new roles, leaving them stuck.

Of note: Women are less satisfied at work than men along most measures, the survey finds. Only 51% of women were happy with their company's sick day policy compared to 60% of men.

  • There were also big gender gaps when it comes to feelings on their employer's bonus plan, mental health benefits and promotions.
  • Plus: Those with hybrid work arrangements were happier than folks working either in-person or fully remote.

The bottom line: The tight labor market has meant increases in pay, workplace flexibility and opportunities for a lot of people. And they're happier as a result.

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