University of Southern California

New Book: Workers More Satisfied Than in the '70s
Women Make Workplace Progress and Unions Lose Influence, Say USC Researchers
December 30, 2007 • by News at Marshall

In The New American Workplace (St. Martin's Press, due July 6), James O'Toole and Edward Lawler of the USC Marshall School of Business update a groundbreaking study they helped publish in 1972.

The "Work in America" report, released by Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Elliot L. Richardson in December 1972, was front-page news nationwide.

Praised by The New York Times and condemned by the Wall Street Journal, the report said that working conditions of the day were damaging the physical and mental health of many Americans, leading to low industrial productivity and poor product quality.

Corporations across the continent responded to the report's call for reform, transforming the workplace over the next decade.

The New American Workplace revisits the data and documents the dramatic changes that have taken place. The book addresses such issues as off-shoring, outsourcing, technology, work/family balance, medical and retirement benefits, executive compensation, immigration and education.

O'Toole and Lawler found that American workers generally are more satisfied today than they were in the 1970s, and women have made clear progress. Many more Americans now work for themselves or in small companies; unions have lost significant influence.

Local retailers and old-line manufacturing companies have been supplanted by three emerging types of organizations: low-cost operators (such as Wal-Mart), global-competitor corporations (Microsoft), and high-involvement companies (WL Gore).

Americans face an increasing number of choices concerning which careers to pursue, how much and what kind of education to obtain, where to work, when to change jobs and how to mesh work and family life.

At the same time, employers have shifted much of the burden of risk to workers. The New American Workplace points out that if workers make poor decisions, their job security, health care, career, and retirement will be lost.

According to O'Toole and Lawler, today's biggest workplace winners are the top executives in major corporations, who are paid hundreds of times more than their average employees.

Working women are winners compared to their 1972 status, now earning salaries closer to their male counterparts and getting jobs in the executive suite.

"The government does not even keep statistics on 'secretaries' anymore, and the great majority of women are no longer trapped in low-paying 'women's jobs' as they were in the past," the authors said. "The gender wage gap has closed remarkably — particularly as women are now more likely than men to attend college and thus, get better jobs."

The clearest losers are the poorly educated 5 to 10 percent of the population whose low-skilled manufacturing jobs are disappearing with the unions that once protected them.

Positive workplace trends:

  • Americans say their job satisfaction is higher today than it has been since the first national surveys of working conditions began (41 percent very satisfied in 1977 vs. 51 percent in 2002). Their reported job satisfaction is also higher than their satisfaction with family and personal life (54 percent vs. 34 percent very satisfied).
  • Many boring, repetitive jobs have disappeared because of technology and off-shoring, but manufacturing itself hasn't disappeared. There are 100,000 manufacturing companies in the U.S., but only 10 percent of Americans work there, versus 25 percent in 1970.
  • Participation in decision-making, profit sharing and stock ownership leads to worker loyalty and motivation. National surveys show that the greater the degree of such participation, the greater the employee job commitment and satisfaction.
  • Many American companies have adopted high-involvement work practices such as self-managing teams (64 percent), reduced supervision (94 percent) and pay based on business performance (70 percent). In most cases, this has led to higher productivity and better financial performance.
  • A major increase in employee stock ownership — up to 30 percent currently — has made a positive impact on company performance and employee satisfaction.
  • American women have ascended to managerial and professional positions in record numbers. Young female workers now earn 94 percent of what young males earn. Men spend one hour more per day in the workplace; however, women do 60 percent of housework.

Negative workplace trends:

  • Americans report having to work harder than they have in the past: 58 percent said they had to work hard in 2002, up from 25 percent in 1977. They also said they are less likely to have enough time to get everything done on the job (13 percent in 1977 vs. 27 percent in 2002). A surprising 14 percent of middle-class, two-income couples said they need a second job.
  • Levels of job-induced stress have increased, along with worker risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Trends in compensation show growing economic inequality and a decline in mobility.
  • A great many new jobs being created in retailing and services lack the characteristics that lead to high job satisfaction and worker productivity.

Important general trends:

  • While many Americans say they like the idea of being represented by a union (50 percent according to 2005 survey data), they increasingly resist joining. Unions now represent less than 8 percent of the private sector workforce and no longer have a major positive impact on working conditions and pay levels.
  • Many Americans don't want to retire, and many others are financially unable to retire. As a result, there is unlikely to be a shortage of workers as baby boomers reach retirement age.


About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.