The Loss of the American Dream

Those who have jobs in America may be glad they’re employed – but they’re not happy.

According to a report of The Conference Board:  “Twenty years ago, some 60 percent of [the baby boomer] generation was satisfied with their jobs. Today, that figure is roughly 46 percent.”  But that’s not all: “the youngest cohort of employees (those currently under age 25) expresses the highest level of dissatisfaction ever recorded by the survey for that age group.”  (See, “U.S. Job Satisfaction at Lowest Level in Two Decades.”)

There is no single reason for that dissatisfaction, according to the report:  “The drop in job satisfaction between 1987 and 2009 covers all categories in the survey, from interest in work (down 18.9 percentage points) to job security (down 17.5 percentage points).”

This is one of those big facts about life in America that we know without knowing.  The optimism that supported self-discipline and ambition has eroded.  The promise of opportunity is not what it was.  But what accounts for this steady decline?

I suspect that we have all come to understand that America has gradually become a stratified society of classes with different interests and increasingly rigid boundaries.  The rich are not only richer but they have foreclosed opportunities for others.  The gap in corporate salaries between top executives and entry-level workers is far greater than it ever was.  The political class increasingly depends on personal wealth, family connections, and special interests.  Immigrants are no longer welcome.  And the poor are getting poorer – even as they gain access of unemployment insurance and health care.

And, then, workers are pressured to become more productive while accepting lower job security and fewer work place amenities and benefits.  The pressures of investment capitalism – in which the profits of our system are siphoned off to stockholders – allow for only restricted distribution to those who work.  Paying those who produce value is a drag on profits, while what is not skimmed off by management to support their own demands and growing life-style expectations is distributed to investors who are focused more and more on increasing the value of their investments through mergers and acquisitions.

I doubt that most workers grasp the nature of the system in which they are working.  But it is unlikely that they fail to grasp that it no longer supports their dreams and aspirations.  America is no longer the land of opportunity it was for those who started out at the bottom of the ladder.

So it is becoming more and more difficult to tolerate the frustrations and indignities of the workplace, and that is reflected in surveys of job satisfaction.  In essence, the problem is that there is actually less and less satisfaction in work.  That can’t be disguised.