JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Most workers say they’re satisfied

Published 3:42 pm Thursday, October 5, 2023

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John Hood

RALEIGH — Most North Carolinians aren’t happy with the way things are going in the country. They are dismayed by recent increases in the cost of living. They are discouraged by recent declines in student attendance, classroom discipline and academic performance in our schools, among other negative social and cultural trends. And they are disappointed by the coarse rhetoric and clownish behavior of many politicians who purport to represent them and their interests.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that most of our fellow citizens are deeply dissatisfied with their own personal and professional lives. That’s not how they feel.

The Gallup Organization, for example, has long asked a representative sample of adults this question: “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in your personal life at this time?” If you graph how respondents have answered the question since 1979, the line looks virtually horizontal. Every year, about 80% of Americans, give or take a few percentage points, say they are satisfied (it was 83% earlier this year). About half of Americans typically say they are “very satisfied.”

When asked follow-up questions, 90% say they’re satisfied with their family life, 87% say the same about their jobs and educations, and 84% are satisfied with the communities in which they reside. Even if we focus only on those who say they’re “very satisfied,” about two-thirds say that about their family lives and just over half say the same about their jobs, educations, and communities.

Regarding workplaces, in particular, you will get an extremely distorted picture of reality if you rely solely on what stories make headlines or what causes politicians see it in their interest to champion.

In a 2022 poll for the Survey Center on American Life, the vast majority of workers said their jobs aligned well with their aptitudes and preferences. While older workers were more likely to express satisfaction with their jobs than younger workers were — I’d be very surprised if that hasn’t always been the pattern — fully 75% of Americans aged 18 to 29 said that their employment was “a good fit for my personal interests and abilities.” Among those 50 and older, this share approached 90%.

Are these national sentiments reflected in North Carolina? Yes, as far as I can tell. Earlier this year, the North Carolina Chamber released a survey conducted in partnership with East Carolina University’s polling unit. Asked whether they enjoyed their jobs, 61% of North Carolinians said they did so most of the time, with another 27% saying some of the time. Most workers in our state also said their employers cared about their well-being (73%) and provided the flexibility needed to balance work and home life (77%).

Naturally, many workers say they wish they were paid more. And when asked polarizing political issues, they exhibit the same range of polarized responses you’ll see in surveys of the overall population.
Still, it would be impossible to read the available survey data — or simply to talk to a broad spectrum of residents of any community in North Carolina — and draw the conclusion that most are so disaffected or angry that they’d be willing to support radical changes to the structure of our economy.

They are properly concerned about inflation, which has contributed to a 2.3% drop in median household income last year and a 4.7% drop since 2019. They are properly concerned about fiscal irresponsibility in Washington, and about the quality of education, infrastructure and other public services delivered closer to home.

We can have productive debates about the real causes and realistic solutions to these and other problems. By engaging in such debates, enacting policies, and evaluating the results, we can produce incremental improvements — and in some cases dramatic ones.
But revolutionary action? That’s not in the cards. There is no deep reservoir of radicalism for either left-wing progressives or right-wing populists to tap.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.