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Myths About the Work Itself

There has long been a widespread belief—quite deeply engrained in our culture—that most people, of whatever generation, simply don’t like to work. This is an ancient point of view (after all, work was one of Adam’s punishments for eating fruit in Eden: “In the sweat of thy brows shalt thou eat thy bread”), and for millennia a lot of work was, indeed, extremely hard and often performed under dangerous, even brutal, conditions. But much has changed, especially in today’s developed economies. Backbreaking, endless labor has to a large extent disappeared, replaced by the tools of the industrial and information revolutions and constrained by societal norms and labor laws. And yet, the view persists that work is inherently distasteful to almost everybody.

In our employee surveys, we regularly ask people specifically how they feel about the work itself, as opposed to other aspects of their employment, such as their pay or their relationship with their supervisors. Our job satisfaction “norm” is 78 percent. This means that, on average, 78 percent of all workers across all the organizations surveyed generally enjoy the work they do. Although a 78 percent average satisfaction rate does not approach unanimity, it appears to belie the notion that work for most employees is somehow intrinsically unsatisfying.

Further, contrary to unsupported theories about worker attitudes, such as the generational-difference and job-enrichment fads, we find that the overall satisfaction of workers with the type of work they do is strong and constant over a wide variety of ages, industries, and occupations. For example, on the high end, the job-satisfaction figure for those working in the insurance industry is 83 percent. At the low end is the job satisfaction of retail workers, which is at 75 percent. That’s not much of a difference. Management across all industries is somewhat more positive than non-management (84 percent versus 77 percent on the average), and the higher the management level, the more positive. Historically, non-management professionals (such as engineers, accountants, and salespeople) have a slightly higher satisfaction rate than other salaried employees (such as clerical workers) who, in turn, are higher than hourly (mostly blue-collar) employees. But, over the past eight years, hourly attitudes have improved and are now on a par with other salaried, nonprofessional employees. Therefore, the percentage of people satisfied with their work is high for every group; most of the remaining employees are neutral, and a small percentage express dissatisfaction. The differences among the various groups are small and, by and large, in line with what one might expect.

Also, there is no evidence that younger workers are more (or less) disenchanted than their elders. Racial and gender differences are also small or nonexistent, as are those by regions of the world. Appendix C, “Job Satisfaction: Demographic, Occupational, and Regional Breaks,” details the job-satisfaction data for the various demographic, occupational, and regional groups and can be found on our website at www.sirota.com/enthusiastic-employee.

Our results on job satisfaction may seem counterintuitive to those unfamiliar with employee attitude survey findings. However, as noted in the Introduction (and summarized in Appendix D, “Comparisons with Other Norms,” on the aforementioned website), our data are similar to those collected by other researchers. Furthermore, going back to 1972 when Sirota began its surveys, we find hardly any change at all. The average level of job satisfaction on our surveys in 1972–1982 was 73 percent and in 2002–2012 it was 77 percent.

If, contrary to popular social myth, people generally like the work they do, why is it that some workers nonetheless appear more highly motivated than others, that workforces in some companies routinely perform better than others, and that workers are often unmotivated to do their jobs well, despite apparently liking what they do? In other words, if people generally like the work they do, why are they often unhappy with their work situations? Are they being irrational? What accounts for this apparent disparity? We find out by going directly to the workers.

Let’s Ask

What can you learn by asking workers about their goals and views in a simple and direct way? First, that identifying what most motivates employees is a waste of time. The vast majority of employees want a lot of things “most.” Indeed, it is a psychological illness to want just one thing, such as money to the exclusion of everything else, or affection to the point that one is willing to sacrifice anything for it, including fair compensation for one’s labor.

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