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The Persistent Myth That Most Americans Are Miserable at Work

The Persistent Myth That Most Americans Are Miserable at Work

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The typical career is about 80,000 hours long, or one-sixth of the average person’s waking life. One would love to be deliriously happy for all 80,000 hours. But, alas, we’re not. And the economic-news industry loves nothing more than to remind us of it. In fact, for the past three years, finance media have become so desperate to explain the state of workplace misery to their audience that they’ve often ignored facts, logic, or basic common sense.

In 2021, finance journalism couldn’t stop talking about the “Great Resignation.” Judging by the ample coverage, it appeared that workers everywhere were smashing their laptops and machines in a bacchanal of joblessness. This was all hooey. In reality, more Americans were just breaking up with their old employers to get higher-paying jobs. In professional sports, when star athletes sign larger contracts with different teams in the offseason, ESPN doesn’t call it a “great resignation”; it calls it “free agency.” And that’s what the economy’s Great Resignation really was: a welcome free-agent period for low-income workers looking for higher wages.

Several months later, in 2022, the false idea that Americans were resigning en masse grew into a larger narrative that—to quote both The New York Times Magazine and the economic analysis of Kim Kardashian—“no one wants to work.” Here, again, the vibes were strong and the evidence was weak. Every month, hundreds of thousands of people were joining the workforce, unemployment was nearing multi-decade lows, and one measure of job satisfaction hit an all-time high. Sure, work is terrible sometimes. But of all the years to soft-launch the theory that “nobody wants to work,” this was among the strangest times to do it.

Undaunted, finance media moved on to another bogus trend, as Bloomberg and other news outlets published dozens of articles and podcasts tracking the surge of “quiet quitting” in the labor force. In theory, quiet quitting marked an epidemic of employee boredom and disengagement. And, to be sure, people commonly feel bored and disengaged at work. But again, to the extent that this was any kind of novel or rising trend, there was little empirical meat on the bone. Private surveys and federal data showed that, in a hot labor market, the average worker was roughly as engaged with their work as they had been five years earlier.

The fake unhappiness trend is still going strong. This year the narrative is that workers are more miserable than ever.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an instantly viral essay entitled “Why Is Everyone So Unhappy at Work Right Now?” The article shot to No. 1 on the Journal website, where it remained for several days. The essay’s popularity is fully understandable: Complaining about your job is the oldest job. Long before modern work satires such as Severance and Office Space, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, in Works and Days, complained that the gods kept plenty for themselves and pressed men into hard labor, and the Bible asks, “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?”

But the point of this Journal article was that everybody is “so” unhappy “right now.” Where’s the evidence? The authors cited a new workplace report by Gallup, which allegedly shows that the number of U.S. workers “who say they are angry, stressed and disengaged is climbing.”

Now let’s take a closer look at that Gallup report. For the past 23 years, Gallup has asked American workers questions about their jobs: Are you satisfied? Are you engaged? Is this a good time to find a job? Do you have opportunities to use your skills? In most of these answers, it’s very hard to see that anything new or interesting is happening.

  • In 2013, 30 percent of U.S. employees said they were engaged at their jobs. For a few years, the number bounced around the low-to-mid-30s. Today the number is 32 percent.
  • In 2013, 35 percent of American workers told Gallup that opportunities abounded for them to do “more of what they do best.” In 2023, that number is unchanged.
  • In 2013, less than 40 percent of Americans said it was “a good time to find a job.” Today, almost 60 percent of Americans say so.

Did your eyes sort of sleepily glaze over those numbers? Well, that’s the idea. Americans keep telling Gallup that work is consistently blah, not that they’re more and more miserable.

The real story, to the extent that these surveys are accurate, is that American workers are astonishingly happy and engaged compared with the rest of the rich world. The same international Gallup survey finds that employee engagement in the United States is higher than in Australia, Canada, and every country in Europe, and more than six times higher than in Japan.

Even the authors of the Journal story acknowledge that another survey this year by the Conference Board found that employee satisfaction just set a new record high—as it has for the past 12 straight years since the Great Recession.

Graph showing flat trends in job satisfaction

Could one make the argument that, actually, American workers are happier than they’ve been in decades? Yes. And don’t just take my word for it. The very same Wall Street Journal published exactly that take in a May 11 exclusive entitled “Workers Are Happier Than They’ve Been in Decades.” Best of all, that article claimed that the “the happiest workers” in the country included “individuals working in hybrid roles,” while the November article (yes, in the same newspaper!) claimed that the “isolating aspects of hybrid work” were responsible for making workers especially unhappy.

What do we make of the fact that the same news outlet concluded, within a seven-month period, that Americans were both “happier than in decades” and “so unhappy right now” in articles that both pointed to the same survey and workplace phenomena? If you were defending the Journal, you might note the slight uptick in the unemployment rate since May, or the decline in the quit rate, to show that something major has changed in Americans’ experience of work in the past 200 days.

But trend journalism isn’t really about capturing a statistical truth. It’s about indulging reader anxiety by saying not only Everyone is feeling what you’re feeling, but also This moment is special, and you’re special too. By validating the fears and stresses of workers and managers, these articles succeed as a form of therapy, which is all the more powerful because it is discovered not on a counselor’s couch but in the business section, where it carries a patina of statistical authority.

The truths here are old and familiar. Work is work: mostly necessary, often boring, frequently annoying, occasionally insulting, and sometimes rewarding. The media keep inventing a new lexicon every few months to explain this consistent state of affairs, and readers lap it up, because we demand fresh language to communicate to ourselves the stale drudgery of the 9-to-5. I can live with it. Fake economic-trend spotting might not be one of the world’s 1,000 most important problems. It’s just wrong.

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