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Workers Are Happier Than They’ve Been in Decades

Job satisfaction hit a 36-year high in 2022, reflecting two effects of the tight pandemic labor market: The quality of jobs improved as wages and work flexibility increased, and workers moved into positions that were a better fit.

Last year 62.3% of U.S. workers said they were satisfied with their jobs, according to new data from the Conference Board, up from 60.2% in 2021 and 56.8% in 2020. The business-research organization polled workers on 26 aspects of work and found that people were most content with their commutes, their co-workers, the physical environment of their workplace, and job security.

Among the happiest workers: people who voluntarily switched jobs during the pandemic and individuals working in hybrid roles with a mix of in-person and remote work. Men’s satisfaction was higher than women’s in every component, especially in areas such as leave policies, bonus plans, promotions, communication and organizational culture.

The survey of 1,680 workers was conducted in November, before a spate of layoffs at high-profile companies and rising worries about a potential recession. While unemployment remains low, a recent decline in job openings suggests that workers have fewer options and might be feeling more anxious about their job security, said Selcuk Eren, a senior economist at the Conference Board. 

The organization predicts that the U.S. will enter a short, shallow recession later this year and that unemployment will rise to 4.4% from the current 3.4% by the first quarter of 2024.

“Once unemployment goes up, once we hit a recession, there will be fewer people changing jobs they were unhappy with,” Mr. Eren said. The satisfaction measure hit its lowest point—42.6%—in 2010, in the aftermath of the 2007-09 recession. The Conference Board began surveying workers on satisfaction in 1987.

Of the 26 measures the Conference Board polled workers on, the biggest year-over-year increases in satisfaction came from work-life balance and workload. Some of those metrics might look different today, as many employers have reversed policies or toughened requirements for in-person work.

Naveen Radhakrishna, 39 years old, has changed jobs twice in the past year after a 10-year career with Xerox and spinoffs. The Phoenix resident did a five-month stint with a transportation agency in California but left after his wife developed health concerns that made regular travel to the agency untenable. 

He put out feelers with a few large companies and got some interest, including at tech companies that had recently announced layoffs. When the insurer Nationwide made him an offer for an all-remote job as a director of business program management, he took it. While some of the other roles might have paid more, he said, he valued the security of a large company whose business seemed more stable.

The opportunity to stay remote “was a key differentiator for me,” said Mr. Radhakrishna, who has two young children. “You have the autonomy to do work when you want to. Some people on my team start at 6 in the morning and end at 3, some start late and end late. If you have to run chores during the day, we make room for that.”

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said: “Midcareer people, people with kids, seem to be benefiting a lot” from recent shifts in work, especially hybrid and remote arrangements that allow for better work-life balance.

Meanwhile, pay increases have been more pronounced in lower-wage jobs such as warehousing, retail, and restaurants, improving many workers’ views of those jobs, Mr. Hershbein said.

“A lot of people in leisure and hospitality left and took jobs in, say, logistics or warehouse chains like Costco, where the hours and pay are better,” he said. “You’ve got stable schedules, you can plan for child care and transportation, you’re not dealing with irate customers, it can be a more pleasant working environment.”

Within hospitality jobs, some conditions improved during the pandemic. Average hourly earnings for leisure and hospitality workers rose to $21.01 in April 2023 from $16.91 in February 2020, according to government data. Some employers in the industry said they recognized the pandemic’s toll on their workers and tried not to overburden them during a labor shortage.

Sean Watterson, co-owner of the Happy Dog restaurant and live-music venue in Cleveland, shut down for 15 months during the pandemic and only recently returned to a full, seven-day schedule. “I attribute that partly to not wanting to burn out our best people by working them too hard,” he said.

Women’s satisfaction trailed men’s, despite a greater focus in many organizations on flexibility, communication, and other aspects of the work experience. In the area of job security, 61.8% of women were satisfied, compared with 68.7% of men, the Conference Board found.

Kathryn Bolz, 30, loved her job in sales operations with a technology company near Salt Lake City. Her role was cut last December, the second time she had been swept up in a tech layoff in the past few years.

“With all the corporate jobs I’ve had, I’ve been rewarded for all my hard work, and still to be laid off twice is demoralizing,” said Ms. Bolz. 

Before losing her job, Ms. Bolz and her husband had signed a contract to purchase a motel in Torrey, Utah, near Capitol Reef National Park. They hoped to turn it into a side project that would cater to hikers and serve their own love of the outdoors. Managing the planning and property renovation is now Ms. Bolz’s full-time job, which she fits in with parenting the couple’s toddler. She expects the motel, which is being renamed Casitas at Capitol Reef, will open this summer.

“I wanted something I could have control over and build my own wealth,” she said. “For that reason, I don’t think I’ll ever have another traditional job again.”

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