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Job satisfaction at record lows: will we ever be satisfied?

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New Conference Board survey finds fewer than half of US employees are happy at their jobs. Maybe it's not such a bad thing, and here's why.

The Conference Board just released the results of its annual job satisfaction survey, and finds plenty of discontent out there. Only 45% of the people it surveyed say they are happy with their jobs, down from 61% in 1987, the first year the survey was conducted. Last year, 52% reported job satisfaction.

The Conference Board Job Dissatisfaction Index

But is this necessarily a bad thing? There has been plenty of attention given to this perception over the past few decades, and an entire industry has grown around books, DVDs, and seminars offered to increase employee and career satisfaction.

The report, based on a survey of 5,000 U.S. households conducted for The Conference Board, blames the recent recession for part of the dissatisfaction, but something else lurks beneath the numbers. "Through both economic boom and bust during the past two decades, our job satisfaction numbers have shown a consistent downward trend," says Lynn Franco, director of the Consumer Research Center of The Conference Board.

"The downward trend in job satisfaction could spell trouble for the overall engagement of U.S. employees and ultimately employee productivity," she adds.

But could it?  Perhaps this high level of discontent is a healthy thing for the productivity and innovation of our organizations. It appears that employees are not content to sit in their cubicles and churn out the work asked of them. Perhaps there's entrepreneurial yearnings that eventually manifest themselves as fresh ideas, new startups, and new products.

Maybe we should be more concerned if too many people were overly contented with their jobs.

In one of her latest posts, my colleague Heather Clancy discusses just that -- how most employees do not feel challenged by their work, and companies aren't doing a whole lot to push them to their limits.

Perhaps it presents an opportunity for forward-thinking businesses that do place high value on employee relations to move ahead of those that don't seem to get it. It's smart business to offer a challenging workplace where innovation and pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities is encouraged. As this survey hints, as the economy starts expanding again, those employers that don't offer challenging work may get left behind in the dust as their talent heads for the doors. What a great window for enlightened companies to jump ahead!

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure