For many Americans, the poll and follow-up interviews suggest, the sustained slowdown in the growth of living standards--the median income remains lower today than when Bill Clinton left office--translates as much into a shortage of time as of money, as workers try to offset stagnant wages by shifting more hours from family to work. It is perhaps a measure of that strain that in the survey, by a decisive margin of 67 percent to 26 percent, adults said they would choose a job that provided "more flexibility and shorter hours "... but less pay" over one that provided "more pay "... but less flexibility and longer hours that gives you less time for yourself and your family." Other responses likewise show a consistent tilt toward craving--and prioritizing--more family time in an economy where that can be difficult to preserve.
The sense of general contentment with work is shared relatively broadly. In the poll, 63 percent of the formerly employed and 54 percent of those currently employed said they were very satisfied with their job. Looking across both the currently and formerly employed, whites (at 60 percent) were only slightly more likely than nonwhites (at 54 percent) and women (at 61 percent) were only slightly more likely than men (at 54 percent) to describe themselves as very satisfied. Even 54 percent of those who describe their finances as only fair or poor say they are very satisfied--only modestly less than the 63 percent of those who say their finances are good or excellent.
William, a marketing director from Richmond, Va., who responded to the poll but asked not to reveal his last name, expressed the sense of accomplishment common among many of those surveyed. "I feel like this is me winning, compared to the opportunities that I have anywhere in the world," he said. "We all would like to think that perhaps it could be a little better, but the big picture is that I have had fantastic opportunities handed to me, and I have been able to do it."
Devin McQuade, a 28-year-old car salesman from Freehold, N.J., was similarly upbeat. "Things could be better, but I'm not going to complain," he said. "I'm in a good spot. My wife and I aren't hurting for money, and we have a beautiful house."
Still, some fissures emerged. Echoing other concerns from those in their prime working years, current and former workers under 50 (at 51 percent) were considerably less likely than those over 50 (67 percent) to call themselves very satisfied. Looking solely at the currently employed, almost two-thirds of workers whose position on the job qualified them as senior employees said they were very satisfied, and almost three-fifths of managers agreed. But only half of workers classified as staff concurred.
Yet as with other broad measures in the survey, the verdict generally leaned positive on this overview question. That tilt repeated on the question that asked workers whether they were successful in their job. Not only did two-thirds of current and former workers describe themselves as very successful but on this self-assessment there was virtually no difference between men and women, whites and nonwhites, those with and without college degrees, and only modest variation between senior employees, managers, and staff. (As in the mythical Lake Wobegon, the workplace seems to be another place where everyone is above average--at least in their own eyes.)