America's Workforce Woes

Posted by Brian Beutler

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America's latest job satisfaction numbers aren't good. To turn them around, workers need to demand more leverage.

You've probably been told, and have likely told others, that some people live to work, while others work to live. Sound familiar? Well in addition to being a tired cliché, it's also a false dichotomy. There are any number of other categories to describe how people relate to their jobs, but for millions of Americans, working simply makes them hate life.An annual survey by the Conference Board research group finds that, in 2009, only 45 percent of workers were happily employed, down four percent from the year before. According to the study,  two factors contributing to the drop were stagnant incomes and general dismay: A lot of jobs are really lame.There is, of course, no shortage of people who happily accept, or even relish, their professional lots in life. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist (high job satisfaction) to see that a depressing array of structural problems make working in America dreadful for millions.For instance: The vast majority of Americans with health insurance get their coverage from their employers. That sounds like an important benefit, and in many ways it is, but in others it's an anachronism, and a double-edged sword. For untold hundreds of thousands of unhappily employed Americans, the only thing stopping them from making the leap to entrepreneurship or a more fulfilling job, is the fear of being without insurance. It's a trap. And it gives employers-not all of whom are in the business of pleasing their workers-a ton of leverage.But wait! There's more! Because U.S. health care is so expensive, and because those costs are rising faster than inflation, employers are spending more and more every year to provide that health insurance. That's money that isn't being put toward paying higher wages and salaries, contributing to the stagnation that makes people feel like their years of work aren't adequately valued.And it's not just health care. Union density in America is near historic lows, while jobs have become hyper-specialized. Workers with no leverage stuck at tediously repetitive jobs. What could possibly go wrong? Our counterparts in European countries, by contrast, enjoy shorter work hours and more vacation time, without sacrificing productivity.Add to all this the wrenching uncertainty that comes with the worst economy in almost a century, and it actually seems surprising that even 45 percent of people say things are groovy at work.Fortunately all of these contributing factors can be mitigated. The health care system in this country will change over time. It has to-eventually, in a way that disarms the booby trapped employer-provided insurance system. Labor laws can also be changed. This is a top priority for unions, which remain a force-though a diminished one-in Democratic politics. Their signature legislative initiative-the Employee Free Choice Act-would go a long way toward giving workers more to show for all their labor.Somewhat less structurally, the economy is still in the pits, and the nation's infrastructure is crumbling. As a result there will in the future be more of the sort of project-based, nuts and bolts jobs that may not top the job satisfaction charts, but that can't be outsourced.There's some reason, then, to believe that worker satisfaction is actually at its nadir. Major factors-the economy, the health care crisis, the decline of unions-are aligning to push happiness to a historic low. But even as those trends change it's hard to imagine America becoming a worker-friendly country. That won't happen until workers start to make the connection between the organization of our economy and their role in it-and demand we start to do things differently.Read more