The Inc./Gallup Survey

Does the average U.S. worker feel fairly paid? Badly managed? Worried about the future? Answers below

The secret of life is authority," Groucho Marx once explained. "If you can fake that, you've got it made." Actually, Groucho said "honesty," not "authority." But that was before the 1990s--before cable news channels, before demand for expertise so painfully outstripped supply, before it became the worst sin in public life to be caught without "a take." (As in, "What's your take on the aftereffects of NAFTA?" Or, "Olympic ice dance--got a take on that bloc judging?") In the '90s a thinking person responds with authority. Whether it's ersatz or not.

That epidemic of glib authority seemed to us especially worrisome back in 1995, when we launched our annual survey of U.S. workers. The country was heading toward a presidential election, and the politicians, the pundits, and the press--all interpreting for the average and apparently inarticulate citizen--were making "economic anxiety" a headline cliché. By the end of 1995, corporate layoffs had resulted in the loss of 440,000 jobs, and by March 1996, the New York Times had launched its seven-day-long, Pulitzer-chasing (but not -winning) screed on the plight of the beleaguered U.S. worker. Very authoritative stuff--even if by that juncture in the media's coverage of downsizing, the Times was just piling it on. The workplace, by all accounts, was filled with fear and anger.

Maybe so, we at Inc. thought at the time. Nevertheless, something troubled us: for all the authority with which the experts gave their take on how workers were feeling, no one seemed to have conscientiously questioned actual workers--so we decided we would. Hence the annual Inc./Gallup survey of Americans at work.

Then, as now, our idea was straightforward: we would ask workers to answer for themselves. How satisfied do you feel at work? Are you managed well or poorly? Is your pay fair? (Is your boss's?) How does work affect the rest of your life? And, finally, what do you expect of your economic future?

Simple questions, all. Not that they yielded simple answers. This poll, like most, doesn't serve up fully cooked conclusions even when it initially appears to. For instance, this year a whopping 83% of U.S. workers said stress had never caused them to miss a day on the job. But what does that mean? Is stress overrated as a modern workplace malady? Or could it be that stress has become such an accepted condition of employment that we've all just figured out how to cope with it? Then again, is it cause for alarm that one out of six workers had missed time because of stress? Or all of the above?

The point is, surveys don't result in unambiguous findings. At best they call into question the supposedly unassailable wisdom of experts, from the most cynical demagogues to the most well-intentioned analysts. That's certainly what our first Inc./Gallup survey did when we published it, in 1996. It showed that "economic anxiety" was a lie. And this year's survey reconfirms that. Once again, workers testify to widespread general satisfaction. Have global competition, technological change, and the careering velocity of the new economy placed the American worker under threat? Nope. At least not so that he or she has noticed.

Of course, it's no longer news to discover happy employees--not in a business climate flush with theoretical full employment and heaven's own stock market. But in its own--perhaps more modest--way, this year's survey (our third) remains as startling as the first.

For one thing, its results across the board are virtually unchanged from two years ago. Amid the most upbeat economic news in a generation, Americans feel about their work the same way they did when the news was almost uniformly bad.

Still more interesting, though, is the picture the survey begins to paint of the typical U.S. workplace--a workplace in which employees aren't just satisfied (as 72% said they were) but feel respected, counted on, communicated with, and cared for as people. It's a workplace that sounds more than enlightened; it sounds almost nurturing. Does that mean that 15 years of post-Tom Peters management science has achieved its aims? Or did we not need "management by walking around" in the first place?

Here's more of what we heard from workers in this year's Inc./Gallup survey:

The incredible lightness of being employed
As noted, employee satisfaction reigns. Back in 1995, when we asked workers to rate their level of job satisfaction on a five-point scale (5 meaning "extremely satisfied"), 71% of them answered with a 4 or a 5. This year 72% did--a statistically insignificant difference in the context of this survey. (See the note on how the survey was conducted, at the end of the story.) Compare those figures with separate survey results for other countries, as compiled in 1997 by International Survey Research, in Chicago. Asked how satisfied they were with their workplaces, 55% of workers in the United Kingdom responded favorably; in France, 56% did; and in Japan, only 44%.

Locating the source of the average U.S. worker's relative sense of fulfillment is impossible, but two other Inc./Gallup questions may offer clues. In the United States, 82% of workers said they had the opportunity to do what they do best every day. In Japan and Germany, by comparison, recent surveys yielded responses of 65% and 64%, respectively, to the same question. In the United States, 84% of workers claimed they had the opportunity to learn and grow on the job. In Germany, only 68% did.

However high the U.S. satisfaction numbers are, though, you might still question why they've remained unchanged over the course of three yearly surveys. Why, given an economy as robust as any in 24 years, isn't satisfaction rising?

Could it be because, in the new economy, even the good times come with a lot of turmoil? Whereas "job churn" may have been blown out of proportion in 1995, this year it's gone woefully underreported. Sure, unemployment rates are down to 4.6%, but downsizing is hotter than ever. In January alone, 72,193 jobs were cut, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the Chicago-based outplacement company that tracks such numbers. That's up from the 58,293 that were cut in December 1997, and far more than the 43,595 jobs that were cut in January 1997. Workers are still satisfied, yes. But in an environment in which job cuts are climbing, why should it come as a surprise that workers are no more satisfied than they were in 1995 or 1996?

One other thing about the job-satisfaction responses caught our attention: the demographic distinctions. It turns out that workers are more likely to be satisfied if they're older than 50 or married. (Married workers were "extremely satisfied" 28% more often than unmarried workers--a huge gap.) Does that suggest that as you cross major milestones in life, you begin to place work and what's expected of it in a different perspective? It could be that how people view work has as much to do with stage of life as it does with the work itself.

Empowerment zones
Confronted with what workers said about how well their workplaces were managed, it's hard not to reach one of two conclusions. Either the United States has bred a race of supermanagers, or workers expect so little of their leaders that they're appallingly easy to please. Whatever the explanation, most of us at Inc. find these survey responses astonishing:

Yes No
Do you know what's expected of you at work? 96% 3%
At work, do your opinions seem to count? 84% 15%
Is there someone at work who encourages your development? 71% 28%
Does your supervisor or someone at work seem to care about you as a person? 84% 13%

It's not just the high scores that make those results noteworthy. It's the way the scores testify to management behavior that sounds like a checklist of HR best practices. Workers claimed to feel empowered to contribute ideas and feel they're respected as individuals. They know exactly what's expected of them. And companies appear to have embraced the notion that investing in the growth of the individual employee is a potent way to grow the business as a whole. Once again, in this section of the survey, positive responses were skewed a tad higher among married workers, but overall it's hard to read the numbers as anything other than a ringing endorsement of how U.S. companies conduct their operations. Fully 84% of those surveyed went so far as to say that the mission of their employer makes them feel their job is important; 20 years ago nobody knew what a "mission" was.

All that apparently good management hasn't gone uncredited: 39% of workers said their boss was more intelligent than they were (11% said less); 51% said the boss was more committed to work (12% said less); and 43% said their boss had more talent (16% said less).

The spoils
Of course, this climate of good feeling isn't hurt by the fact that nearly three-quarters (74%) of workers think they're fairly paid. Should we be surprised? Given watercooler talk that so often centers on some poor jamoke yawping about how poorly he's compensated for his efforts, it's a higher percentage than one might expect. Evidently, the whiners aren't representative.

Only slightly more men (76%) than women (71%) said they were compensated fairly last year, which is somewhat surprising given reports that women continue to lag behind men in average wages (earning 74¢ to each man's dollar).

More noteworthy, especially in the context of the publicity given to "obscene" CEO compensation, is how workers felt about what their bosses took home. The vast majority--64%--said their company CEO's compensation was fair. Does that mean that the public outcry over greedy CEOs is overstated? Or is it that when it comes to their own companies, workers just don't begrudge their chief his or her due for making their workplace as satisfying as it is?

I get by with a little help...
Questions about the relationship between job and life--that changing, challenging, confusing, and occasionally catalyzing relationship--yielded some of the survey's most intriguing results. To the question "Do you have a best friend at work?" 54% of respondents answered yes. But here was one of the largest disparities between men (50% of whom said they had a best friend at work) and women (58%) on the entire survey. It's not surprising, then, that 54% of women--compared with just 38% of men--said that when things got tough at work, they got "a great deal of support" from friends.

We were surprised, though, to learn that business owners, by 47% to 54%, weren't much less likely than nonowners to have a best friend at work; what does that suggest about the supposed isolation of the CEO?

It was interesting to learn that the average American takes 13.27 vacation days a year--and that owners (who take 13.99 days) and nonowners (13.17 days) aren't as different in their vacation habits as married workers (14.24 days) and unmarried workers (12.01 days) are. However, in an age in which the boundaries between work and personal life are increasingly blurred, vacations aren't the complete getaway they're cracked up to be, as these responses show:

Did you do any of the following on vacation last year?

Percentage said who yes
Work 17%
Make phone calls to work 35%
Check E-mail 19%
Leave vacation for a meeting 5%
Cut vacation short because of work demands 11%

Men were 54% more likely than women to say they worked on vacation last year, and business owners were more than twice as likely as nonowners to say they did. Far more men (what's with them, anyway?) than women phoned in to work while on vacation, and twice as many men as women checked E-mail. It would appear that men can't figure out how to separate themselves from work--or maybe, compared with women, they're just better at ignoring the work of running the family.

Here's what workers said about how work affected their lives and relationships:

Job has improved it Job has worsened it
Professional life 62% 11%
Intellectual life 56% 15%
Financial life 61% 13%
Home life 41% 21%
Marriage or primary relationship 35% 21%
Sex life 21% 23%
Personal growth 59% 13%
Spiritual life 32% 25%

Work enriches the aspects of our lives that are isolated--our intellectual and financial lives--and has more mixed effects on the parts that involve connection (our marriages, our spiritual lives). Then there's sex, the only aspect of our lives that work is more likely to worsen than improve. And is there a paradox in the apparent fact that work can damage our spiritual lives, sex lives, and partnerships, but still profoundly promote our personal growth?

The effect of work on the spiritual life is particularly interesting. The number of workers who said their job "greatly improved" it (18%) is close to the number who said their job "greatly worsened" it (15%). The largest number of workers (36%) fell squarely in the middle (saying work neither improved nor worsened their spiritual life), one of the few such splits on the entire survey.

Onward and upward

Where workers feel they're headed economically may have something to do with where they think they've been. The vast majority of American workers said they were better off than their parents were.

Are you better off or worse off than your parents were at the same stage of life?

Better off
Worse off
68% 18%

On the other hand, despite both the feeling of having made progress as a generation and employees' generally lofty level of satisfaction with their working lot, just about half of survey respondents said they'd choose a different line of work if they had the chance to start over. Far more business owners (60%) than nonowners (49%) said they would choose the same line of work--which perhaps shouldn't surprise us, given how owners get to control their own destiny and all.

What's ahead for workers considering a change? Maybe company building. Of those workers who didn't currently own a business, 43% said they dreamed of starting one. That dream was far more common among men (49%) than women (36%), and slightly more common among employees at small companies (49%) than at large ones (41%).

Finally, there's the survey response that may tell us the most about how workers view the economic future. Whatever fears exist about a business climate overdue for a down cycle, a stock market in need of a correction, and jobs that don't always serve one's spirit, American workers sure don't fear for their kids.

Do you expect your children to be better off or worse off than you are when they reach your stage of life?

Better off
Worse off
74% 13%

Of course, what with all that high-quality managing going on, what would workers have to be afraid of?

How the Inc./Gallup survey was conducted: In February 1998 the Gallup Organization conducted a nationwide survey for Inc. magazine. All participants were required to be at least 18 years old and employed at least 30 hours a week. With the survey methods used and a sample of 800 respondents, the resulting maximum expected error range, at a 95% confidence level, is plus or minus 3%. Percentages do not add up to 100% for some questions because of rounding and "don't know" responses.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is an executive editor at Inc. magazine. He's a 1998-1999 fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University.