The Myth That Most Americans Hate Their Job

Perhaps you’ve heard: Everybody hates their job now.

“No One Wants to Work,” The New York Times Magazine declared on its cover in February. In the issue, the writer Noreen Malone explained that amid “widespread employee dissatisfaction” in the Great Resignation, the pandemic had “alerted new swaths of people to their distaste for their jobs.” New York magazine agreed: Under the headline “Everyone Has a Job and Nobody’s Happy,” Kevin T. Dugan wrote that “even though the number of jobs may be outstanding, the quality of those jobs have been eroding.” This might explain why the subreddit Antiwork—tagline: “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”—grew from a couple hundred thousand subscribers at the beginning of 2021 to more than 1 million by the end of the year. Kevin McKenzie, a site moderator, told Rolling Stone that the channel reflected “the general displeasure with working, as a whole, and not feeling fulfilled.” Perfectly encapsulating all this outrage, Recode’s Rani Molla wrote: “Hating work is having a moment.” Even Kim Kardashian agrees, recently claiming that “nobody wants to work.”

If you cut through the rhetoric and the vibes, three distinct narratives emerge.

  1. Americans don’t want to work anymore.
  2. Most Americans hate their job, and the pandemic made them really hate their job.
  3. The Great Resignation is a reflection of that job hatred.

All of these stories are wrong.

The first one is the easiest to debunk. No one wants to work anymore? Well, the unemployment rate is under 4 percent. More than 80 percent of prime-age workers are employed or looking for work. The labor-force-participation rate for workers ages 25 to 54 is now higher than it was for most of the Obama administration. These facts don’t describe a country where “no one” wants to work. They describe a country where almost everybody wants to work, and where many nonworkers—including many mothers and caregivers—“desperately” want to get back to work but can’t.

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 can already hear various accounts screaming at me that I don’t understand the nature of Marxist false consciousness (these people do hate their jobs, they just don’t know it—yet!), or that I don’t grok the fact that most jobs inherently suck. So let me stress: I think that most jobs suck. I think I would be miserable doing just about anything other than writing professionally, eating professionally, or writing professionally about eating. I am shocked by these survey results. But these are the results, and the picture they paint is clear: Most Americans just don’t seem to hate their job as much as extremely online Americans seem to think they do.

Finally, let’s address this pesky claim that the Great Resignation, or “quitagion,” or whatever is a reflection of job hatred and burnout. The Great Resignation isn’t a dramatic shift in worker sentiment. It’s a dramatic shift in worker opportunity.

That was the unmistakable conclusion of a recent survey of workers co-sponsored by the polling company Angus Reid Global. It found that the number of people saying they were thinking about quitting soared to a modern record in 2021, rising significantly more than the change in worker satisfaction. “A greater share of people say they are contemplating quitting than express dissatisfaction with their current job,” wrote Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who helped run the survey. Put simply, resignations are rising because people are seeing more job listings, not because they’re feeling more Marxist.

As I’ve written, the Great Resignation isn’t really about quitting jobs; it’s about switching jobs. In 2021, the accommodations-and-food-services sector (think hotels and restaurants) experienced more quits than any other part of the economy. But rather than losing workers, this sector led all categories in job growth by adding 2 million employees. In other sectors, too, the elevated quit rate is largely the result of workers swapping employers to make more money. For this reason, we probably shouldn’t even call it the Great Resignation. It’s more like the Great Job Switcheroo.

To review:

  • “No one wants to work” … except for the 80-percent-and-rising share of the prime-age workforce that is already working.
  • “Nobody’s happy” in their jobs … except for the majority of Americans, who consistently say they’re satisfied by their job.
  • And “hating work is having a moment” … except that the Great Resignation isn’t so much about people hating work as it is about them switching to a job they want more.

Arguably, this trend represents nothing more than a regrettable habit of the terminally online, which is to interpret minor annoyances (“that afternoon meeting should have been an email”) as high-dudgeon sins of humanity (“my neoliberal boss conscripted my full 2 o’clock hour at threat of permanent termination, because capitalism”).

The deeper issue is that policy makers can’t fix America’s biggest problems if they’re confused about what America’s biggest problems really are. Unlike the perceived misery of everyday work, some things seem calamitous because they actually are. For example, eradicating poverty from the richest country in the world is a moral necessity; so is building sufficient housing and decarbonizing our energy grid. By contrast, claiming that all jobs are inherently terrible is a distraction from the fact that some jobs truly are awful, and we should try to automate or otherwise erase them. People who want to change the world have to engage with reality as it exists. We should all want people to be at least somewhat satisfied with their job. Shouldn’t we reckon with the fact that most of them say they already are?

All Rights Reserved for Derek Thompson

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