This Labor Day, How Satisfied Are America's Workers?

As many Americans take a long-weekend reprieve from work, most seem quite content with their jobs.

So says a new study by the University of Chicago, which shows 86 percent of people interviewed between 1972 and 2006 saying they were satisfied with their jobs.

“The most important factors contributing to more job satisfaction in descending order of importance are holding a job with high prestige, being older, being non-black and earning more from a job,” said Tom W. Smith, author of the report and director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

But a Conference Board report released earlier this year paints a different picture, saying less than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs.

Who's right?

Interpreting Job Satisfaction Surveys

At first blush, the reports appear at odds. But Ken Goldstein, an economist with The Conference Board, said they may not be entirely different. "There are different ways of asking the same question," he explained. Goldstein said there are two different aspects to what the average American thinks about his or her job: most are happy to be employed, but if offered a better opportunity, most would jump at the chance.

"The number-one gripe people have is that, 'I'm not being paid what I'm worth,'" Goldstein said. Over the last few years, workers have seen the economy bouncing back and wonder why their paychecks aren't hitting such high marks, he explained. Many employers would like to offer bigger raises, he said, but they often grapple with constrained budgets. A recent BusinessWeek story reports that, when adjusted for inflation, the real wages and salaries of U.S. workers with at least a bachelor's degree are barely higher than in 2000.

Smith of the University of Chicago said the dissimilar results might be attributed to different measures the surveys used to determine job satisfaction.

Both Smith and Goldstein make good points. Perhaps Goldstein's second idea--that most Americans would be up for a better job opportunity--reflects our constant pursuit of a better life. That's a good thing, because being satisfied with the status quo won't make us better workers, or better people, for that matter.

Employee Job Satisfaction Statistics

The Conference Board report shows the least-satisfied people are workers under 25; fewer than 40 percent of them are content with their jobs. Among those expressing greater satisfaction are workers 55 and older (nearly half), and people with yearly salaries above $50,000 (52 percent).

The University of Chicago study offers similar findings: Workers over 65 are among the most satisfied, and 68 percent of people making more than $110,000 a year say they're very satisfied.

Not surprising--the more advanced you are in your career and the more money you make, the happier you are.

In the spring U of C released findings showing professions serving others bring the most satisfaction and happiness. Clergy, firefighters and physical therapists are the top-three jobs when it comes to satisfaction; clergy rank highest for happiness, too, followed by firefighters and transportation ticket and reservation agents.

According to the Census Bureau, in May there were 152.8 million people 16 and older in the nation’s labor force, including 82.1 million men and 70.7 million women.

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