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Most Americans say they are satisfied with their job, but pay, schedules, and the opportunity to advance remain sore spots for many, with the large percentage of adults whose work doesn't follow the traditional 9-to-5 track reporting particular difficulty balancing their obligations on the job and at home, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.
In the survey, nearly three-fifths of currently or formerly employed Americans say they are (or were) very satisfied with their work. Nearly two-thirds of current or former workers say they are (or were) very successful at their work, as well.
But those current and former workers expressed considerably less satisfaction on several key specific measures of their employment experience--particularly their pay, opportunities for advancement, and ability to meet responsibilities to both their work and their family. And among the fully 47 percent of those surveyed who say they are now working nontraditional hours, concern spikes about both their schedule and work-life balance.
Like other results already released from the poll, these measures of workplace satisfaction find Americans convinced that their own lives are generally moving in the right direction, even if the country is not. And yet, like the earlier soundings, these findings also capture the strain many Americans feel trying to provide for, and participate in, their family in an age of slow or nonexistent wage growth.
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.)
Asked how they measured their success, workers ranked "making a positive impact," "doing what you love," "a good work-life balance," and "the pay" in that order.
But when the poll turned to the specifics of life on the job, more differences and disgruntlement emerged. On two measures of the workplace experience, big majorities of the currently and formerly employed described themselves as very satisfied: 72 percent expressed that level of contentment about their relationship with their coworkers, and a solid 57 percent did so about their employer's "mission, purpose, and values."
But assessments were more equivocal on the other measures probed. Just over half (54 percent) said they were very satisfied with the required hours at work; that number dropped to 50 percent for both the work-life balance their job provides and the opportunity "to improve your skills and education at work"; 46 percent for paid vacation and sick leave; 45 percent for benefits; 39 percent for the opportunity to advance; and just 34 percent for pay. On each of these questions relatively modest groups described themselves as entirely dissatisfied, but big camps returned the ambivalent verdict of "somewhat satisfied." The somewhat satisfied responders ranged from about one-third on work-life balance, opportunity to advance, and hours, to nearly half for pay.
Brian Olsen, an engineer in Ann Arbor, Mich., reflected this ambivalence. While generally quite satisfied with his employer, and confident he is performing well, he lacks enough sick leave to help care for his daughter when she's too ill for school, and he has exercised similar responsibilities on the job for 15 years, leaving him frustrated about his inability to advance. "They just don't seem to have a lot of opportunities for advancement," he said. "It has kind of stagnated "... because of the economy. There used to be a lot more opportunities before the downturn."
These detailed measures also captured some of the specific strains confronting the nearly half of working adults who say their schedule now doesn't follow the historic 9-to-5 pattern. Those with and without 9-to-5 schedules expressed similar dissatisfaction with their pay (only 31 and 32 percent were very satisfied, respectively). But those working outside the 9-to-5 track were much less likely than conventional 9-to-5 workers to say they were very satisfied with their required hours at work (just 42 percent versus 64 percent) or their ability to balance work and home (40 percent versus 54 percent). Those outside the 9-to-5 world were also somewhat less likely to report satisfaction with their access to paid vacation and sick leave.
Shane Zanke from Bay City, Mich., is among those struggling to integrate his life with an untraditional schedule. Zanke, 44, formerly worked a traditional schedule as a manager for a restaurant, but since that business closed he's been working irregular hours as a cook. The new job has frustrated him over pay, benefits, and the ability to spend time with his family. "I don't really have that much of a life because I work split shifts a lot of the time," Zanke said. "I'll come in during the day for a few hours and then I come back at night for a few more hours. By the time I get home, we eat dinner and [my kids] are going to bed. On weekends, I work most of the day."
Compared to those following a 9-to-5 schedule, the poll found, those working other hours tend to be younger (about two-fifths are under 33), somewhat less likely to hold advanced educational credentials, less affluent, more minority, and more male. Still, in a measure of how deeply untraditional schedules have permeated the workforce, nearly half of those not working 9-to-5 hold college degrees or earn more than $50,000 annually, the survey found. Three-fifths are married or living with a partner.
These assessments on specific aspects of work life also unearthed a kind of upstairs-downstairs pattern in satisfaction. While those whose position qualified them as staff were the least likely to express satisfaction with their pay, benefits, or paid leave, senior managers were the least likely to report themselves very satisfied with their hours or work-life balance. Interestingly, there was little difference between the three groups in their assessment of their opportunities to advance, or to improve their skills at work.
Some of these differences resurfaced when the survey asked current employees to rate a series of steps their employers might take to help them better manage their responsibilities at work with their obligations to their families and communities. Those working outside the 9-to-5 track placed atop their list "more flexibility to work at different hours" (71 percent very or somewhat important); "more certainty and advance notice" in their schedule (70 percent), and "paid time to volunteer for community or charitable causes" (67 percent). Those working 9-to-5 schedules picked paid time to volunteer (65 percent very or somewhat important), followed by more flexibility and more schedule certainty (each at 63 percent). About three-fifths of each group placed an equally high priority on more paid sick leave and more flexibility to work from home. They diverged only on allowing more job-sharing through part-time work: 58 percent of non-9-to-5 workers thought it very important, compared to just 47 percent of those on the traditional schedule.
Despite the difficulty many report meeting their obligations on the job and at home, three-fourths of current and former employees say they put a higher priority on family than their job, with virtually no variation across the key divides of demography or work experience. (The responses of senior employers, managers, and staff, for instance, almost completely converged.) Given that compass, it's not surprising that when asked what they would do if they had more hours available outside of work, 49 percent of past and present workers say they would spend more time with family. Devoting more time to friends, hobbies, and recreation placed a distant second (at 14 percent); learning and continued education were the only other options that drew double-digit support (at 13 percent). Only 9 percent said they would devote more to health and exercise, 8 percent to relaxing, and 5 percent to community service or volunteering. Like so many other responses in the survey, those lopsided priorities underscored the extent to which many Americans are now experiencing the wage squeeze on the job as a time crunch at home.
The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 21st in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll, which explored how Americans rate their progress at navigating their obligations at work, at home, and in their community, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Landau of FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications practice.
Janie Boschma contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.