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Most US Workers Happy, New Poll Shows - 2001-08-28

Monday September 3, is Labor Day in the United States, and as is the custom at this time of the year, U.S. public-opinion poll takers have been canvassing the nation to assess the mood of the American worker.

Most U.S. workers say they like what they are doing and that they are treated with respect at work. Seventy percent think they are being fairly compensated.

But Guy Molyneaux, of the Peter D. Hart polling group says these aggregate numbers hide important group differences. Those making less than $20,000 a year, he says, are less content.

"Only 23 percent of those workers report that they have a pension plan of any kind," he explains. "Only 23 percent report that they get health insurance from their employer. So underneath these numbers of large satisfaction are millions of workers who are reporting very different satisfaction."

More married couples are both working. More husbands are helping out at home, but women still bear the major share of the childcare and housework. As a result, American Enterprise Institute analyst Karlyn Bowman says, women's attitudes about work tend to reflect their age and stage of life.

"Working mothers tell the pollsters that they are satisfied with their jobs, but they are less satisfied with the amount of free time they have," she says." Married working women with grown children, or with children out of the house were the most satisfied group of working women."

Whereas a job change was once seen as a source of worker insecurity, Karlyn Bowman says, today changing jobs is seen as a means of career advancement, especially for the young.

"Forty-seven percent of the teens in a 1977 survey said having a secure, steady job would be a top factor in considering a job. Today just 21 percent do," Ms. Bowman says.

Another trend, according to Pollster Tom Reihle, is that technology is causing work and leisure to overlap among professional workers.

"Thirty percent of Americans confess that they spend time at work using the Internet to handle personal matters. Is that fair to the employer?," he asks, "sure, because 43 percent a much larger number say they spend time in their off hours dealing with work issues."

Poll taker Tom Reihle says the results of a special poll he conducted during the weekend of August 24, one week before Labor Day 2001, point to a blurring of the boundaries between home and work.

"Eighteen percent of all workers now work at home on a regular basis. And 23 percent of all workers say that they are enjoying their work so much that they just have a hard time putting it down," he says.

The work ethic has always been strong in the United States. In a 1973 poll, for example, 68 percent of Americans said they would continue to work even if they could live comfortably without working. A poll last year that asked the same question got precisely the same response.

But American Enterprise Institute Analyst Karlyn Bowman says recent poll results also indicate U.S. attitudes toward leisure are changing.

"In 1975, 48 percent told interviewers ' work is the most important thing and the purpose of leisure is to recharge people's batteries so they can do a better job.' That is now 34 percent," Ms. Bowman explains. " Those choosing the other response: 'Leisure is the important thing. The purpose of work is to make it possible to have leisure time to enjoy life' has inched up to 40 percent from 36 percent, and more Americans are finding it difficult to choose."

Although 70 percent of U.S. workers say they have either the same amount or more leisure time than their parents had, Ms. Bowman says, more workers today are saying they want more leisure time.

When asked whether they would like more leisure time or more money, polltaker Guy Molineux says, most choose the money. But, he says, when the choices are narrowed to "a week's vacation or a week's salary," the majority chooses a week's vacation.

"That is a pretty fundamental cultural shift in this country's underlying Protestant work ethic," says Mr. Molineux. "And I think if that continues to change, you may see American workers start to notice that, while they do well, compared to workers in the rest of the industrial world on many measures, when it comes to vacation and time off, we trail much of the rest of the world."

At one time, Mr. Molineux says, Americans measured themselves by their work and what happened outside work was less important. He says today's workers appear to be saying that "job satisfaction" requires an adequate balance between work and leisure.

The new numbers also underscore a shift in workload. Karlyn Bowman says 100 years ago U.S. workers with incomes in the bottom 10 percent worked, on average, 600 hours a year more than those in the top. Today they work 400 hours less.