Not long ago, the Gallup organization stunned HR professionals (and many others) with a report on the State of the American Workplace in which it was found that 70% of American workers either hate their jobs or have “checked out,” at a net cost to the U.S. economy of $550 billion per year.
The findings come as no surprise to the 81 million Americans listed as “working poor” or the more than half of Americans who struggle with joblessness, near-poverty, or reliance on social services. Those who daily live the kind of working life depicted in Barbara Ehrenreich‘s poignant 2001 classic, Nickled and Dimed, know only too well the folly of trying to paint America as a Land of Opportunity. For many Americans, it simply isn’t.
On the other hand, you don’t have to be working a minimum-wage job at Walmart to feel job-disenchantment. Shows like The Office (and innumerable movies, from “Nine to Five” and “Office Space” to “Falling Down” and even “The Matrix”) depict office work as inane and degrading. They resonate with viewers precisely because so many viewers are themselves stuck in well-paid but meaningless “good jobs.”
And yet, ironically, there is fierce hatred in America (and Great Britain, actually; and elsewhere) for those who don’t excel in an economic system that’s clearly broken. If you don’t like your job (or can’t become a self-made millionaire), there’s something wrong with you.
“The economic downturn has made the middle class less generous toward others,” says Guy Molyneux, a researcher at Washington, D.C. based Hart Research Associates. “People are less supportive of the government helping the poor, because they feel they’re not getting enough help themselves.”
If you can’t make it in The Land of the Free, you’re defective—that’s the default assumption, the core belief that allows Americans who aren’t hurting, who aren’t unhappy with their lot, to cling to quaint mid-twentieth-century Walt Disney notions about the inherent wonderfulness of American life. It’s far harder to confront a reality that says maybe, just maybe, 70% of Americans despise their jobs because 70% of jobs really do suck. This is the painful hypothesis that HR managers (and others) need to confront head-on, immediately. (Good luck getting employees to discuss it honestly on-the-job, though.)
If it’s true, as the Gallup authors say, that “Engaged employees provide the vital competitive advantage U.S. companies need to regain their stature in the global marketplace,” then America is in very deep trouble indeed. American workers are not engaged. By all accounts, they’re enraged.