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Work in America

January 6, 2010 - Jim Anderson
Job satisfaction in the United States is at its lowest level since the Conference Board (a non-profit global business organization supported by business executives) began conducting surveys 22 years ago.

This year’s survey of 5,000 households found that 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work, down from 49 percent in 2008. The recession, no doubt, is a factor. Many people lucky enough to have jobs still consider themselves “underemployed.”

But it’s more than that. Worker dissatisfaction has been on the rise for more than two decades.

When the Conference Board’s first survey was conducted in 1987, 61 percent of respondents said they were happy in their jobs.

‘‘It says something troubling about work in America,” said Linda Barrington, managing director of human capital at the Conference Board. “It is not about the business cycle or one grumpy generation,” she told the Associated Press.

The surveyors cited some reasons why workers are less happy:

— Fewer people consider their jobs to be interesting. According to the survey, only 51 percent now find their jobs interesting. That’s down from 70 percent in 1987.

— Incomes have not kept up with inflation. After growing in the 1980s and 1990s, average household incomes adjusted for inflation have been shrinking since 2000.

— The soaring cost of health insurance has eaten into workers’ take-home pay. Compared with 1980, three times as many workers contribute to the cost of their health insurance — and in many cases those contributions have gone up dramatically.

Concerning the above list, I have to confess that I don’t have a good idea of what it’s like to have a job that’s not interesting. The nearest I come to boredom is deleting junk e-mails.

On the other hand, I’m well acquainted with the financial issues that trouble so many workers.

Robert Freeman noted recently that one of the most under-reported stories of the past decade is that two-thirds of all economic growth has gone to the top 1 percent of income earners.

“The banking bailout and the health care ‘reform’ debate showed as never before the extent to which corporations have captured government and use it to redirect national wealth to themselves and their owners,” he writes.

At, Freeman discusses what he calls the “neo-feudalization of the American economy.”

“The top 1 percent of wealth holders own 41 percent of all the assets in the country while the bottom 40 percent own absolutely nothing,” he writes. “Meanwhile, workers are saddled with $12 trillion of national debt, an effective indentured servitude that will bind them to their corporate masters for the rest of their lives. This is the working definition of feudalism, where the rich own everything and everybody else has nothing but their proffered labor and their obligations to their masters.”

Freeman’s notion that American workers are becoming little more than corporate “serfs” is over the top and an insult to the prosperity that this nation still enjoys.

It is also a valid warning. Americans still embrace a free market economy, but they also want an economy that’s fair.

Fair capitalism? The warning in the job satisfaction trend is that we’re falling short, in both reality and perception.

If 55 percent of workers to some degree see themselves as “losers” in their occupations — and dissatisfaction keeps growing as opposed to reversing — how long can such capitalism survive?


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