From Speculation to Substantiation: Is Job Satisfaction Changing?

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks
The authors’ findings suggest that workers in recent years are more dissatisfied by jobs that do not meet their desires for intrinsically motivating work. (Image: Calendar page for August in Queen Mary’s Psalter)

In this article, authors Mindy Shoss, an associate professor of psychology in the industrial/organizational psychology program at the University of Central Florida, and Clair Kueny, an assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, reflect on their research surrounding the testing of societal changes over nearly 30 years that was published in Group & Organization Management.

There is much speculation about how workers’ expectations and attitudes towards their jobs have changed over the past several decades. The business, popular, and academic presses are replete with articles proclaiming that workers are more focused than ever on making sure their jobs meet their checklists of ideal job characteristics. Employees are told to “find their passion” and to “take charge of their careers.” Employers are advised to stay on top of these changing trends or risk losing people and productivity due to job dissatisfaction.

Although these presumed changes are frequently discussed, very little data has been used to shed light on whether these changes have actually occurred. We realized that a large national survey, the Work Orientations Modules of the International Social Survey Programme, would have data to test this question. In 1989, 1998, 2006, and 2016, samples of workers were asked questions about (1) their ideal job characteristics, (2) the job characteristics on their current job, and (3) their job satisfaction. Specifically, workers were asked to consider how important it is to them that a job is (1) meaningful, (2) helps other people, and (3) is useful to society. Then, they were asked to indicate the extent to which their current job had those characteristics. These three characteristics capture work that is said to be intrinsically-motivating—motivation which comes from the work itself.

Mindy Shoss, left, and Clair Kueny

Through advanced statistical methods, we found that there is indeed some evidence to suggest that workers’ reactions to fit between ideal and actual job characteristics has changed over time. Our findings suggest that workers in recent years are more dissatisfied by jobs that do not meet their desires for intrinsically motivating work. That is, for those who desire work that is meaningful, helps others, and is useful for society, not getting this type of work has become a greater source of dissatisfaction in recent decades.

What does this mean for employers and for the broader narrative that how workers approach work has changed? In more recent times, workers do appear to be more dissatisfied by work that does not meet their expectations. We see this as something positive. Workers who want to make a difference are less satisfied in positions where they can’t accomplish these goals. Given major societal needs/challenges at present, those anticipated to occur in the future, and the psychological benefits of intrinsically-motivating work, we see anything that may move organizations to offer more work that is meaningful and beneficial for society as a good thing.

As for our understanding of the psychology of the workforce, our research suggests that theories and methods should consider that people may evaluate job characteristics in light of broader social/economic/historical trends. We hope our work encourages other research along these lines.

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Mindy Shoss and Clair Kueny

Mindy Shoss, (pictured) is an associate professor of psychology in the industrial/organizational psychology program at the University of Central Florida. Clair Kueny is an associate professor of psychological sciences at Missouri S&T.

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