Why so many Americans hate their jobs



The American workforce is not in a good state. While the "quiet quitting" trend went viral in 2022, things have actually gotten worse in American workplaces since then. Employee engagement has hit an 11-year low, with only 30% of US workers reporting being fully engaged with their jobs as of February 2024. 


There are many potential causes for this growing crisis, from remote work to layoffs to a lack of loyalty among employers. However, one possibility that hasn't been as widely discussed is a fundamental problem with the work people are being asked to do. While some find their jobs meaningful and fulfilling, many others simply see their jobs as a way to pay the bills.


In a 2021 survey, only about half of Americans felt their job made "a meaningful contribution to the world" - and this sentiment was even lower among younger generations like millennials and Gen Z. Compared to other countries like Italy and Spain, where work is seen as a major source of meaning, only 17% of Americans mentioned work as a source of meaning in their lives, down from 33% just four years prior.


When people feel their jobs don't matter, they tend to feel unfulfilled. Over 50% of those who said their job had no meaning also felt unfulfilled by it, compared to 88% of those who found their work meaningful. In other words, the work engagement crisis may actually be a crisis of meaning.


Research has long shown that job satisfaction and engagement are linked to whether someone can find meaning in their work. Employees who find their jobs meaningful are more engaged, show up more, and are healthier. Companies, where employees feel their jobs, have meaning also tend to have higher staff retention and job satisfaction, especially among millennials and women.


Some jobs naturally lend themselves to a sense of meaning, like healthcare, social work, and education. But other sectors struggle to instill in their staff the feeling that their work matters, with people in sales, media, communications, and real estate rating their jobs among the least meaningful. Many refer to these as "fake email jobs" - office roles that largely involve sending emails without producing anything tangible.


Researchers have found that the negative feelings around these "bullshit jobs" stem more from problems with the work environment than the work itself. Factors like bad management, lack of connection with coworkers, and feeling disconnected from the company's purpose can all contribute to the sense that one's work is useless or meaningless.


Employers need to focus on making the work itself more meaningful for their staff, whatever their role or level. This could involve explicitly recognizing how each employee's work contributes to the company and its customers/clients. Providing opportunities for participation, using one's own ideas, and having adequate time to do a good job can also help foster a sense of meaning.


Without such improvements, the US workforce risks a continued spiral of declining engagement. As more people seek out self-employment or entrepreneurship to find more meaning, employers will need to step up to make their jobs feel worthwhile again. 

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