In America, love of labor isn't lost

LABOR Day, finally. Three days off. Time for Americans to get away from work - that deadening, overtime-laden, about-to-be-shipped-to-Bhutan-anyway thing called a job.

That's the way hard-pressed workers feel, right? Not necessarily. For many Americans, the words satisfied and work often appear together in the same sentence.

It's true. Americans are a hard-working people who view employment as more than just a means to a big-screen TV, if polls are any guide. From actors to accountants, salesmen to CEOs, US workers generally like their employment and their employer and are even proud of what they do.

There's stress, sure, and almost everyone wants higher pay and more time with family. But for the vast majority, "Dilbert" is a comic caricature - not their real life. "I don't recall any demographic or income group that was particularly dissatisfied," says Lydia Sadd of the Gallup poll.

Consider Chris Morrison. He's a Tucson, Ariz., surveyor who started out working in the field but for the past several years has stayed indoors interpreting data and producing drawings.

The economy has been great, he says, which means he's busy all the time. When co-workers leave, his boss has a hard time finding replacements.

The firm has projects stacked up for months to come. "I like what I do, and there are very few mornings I dread coming to work," says Mr. Morrison. "I kind of miss going out in the field - except when it's 110 [degrees]."

The Rev. Mary Robinson White is an assistant rector at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal church in Poway, Calif. She was a full-time school teacher and part-time minister until 1997, when the church was able to hire her full time. The congregation is growing, and her church has opened a new preschool and is building a new edifice. She has three children, works 60 hours a week, and will soon be starting a doctoral program.

"I adore my work - even when it's a bad day," says Ms. White. "I have the best job in the world."

Not everyone's work offers the emotional rewards that come to the clergy. In America, millions of workers are stuck in dead-end jobs, earning minimum wage, with bosses that view them as dispensable cogs.

Single mothers often face particularly difficult conflicts between responsibilities - and they are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the workforce, in part because of the job requirements under welfare reform. In 1994, 58 percent of single mothers worked. Today, 71 percent do.

But taken as a whole, most research shows that the US workforce is remarkably content. Nine of 10 employed adults are generally satisfied with their jobs, according to a 1999 Gallup survey.

Satisfaction levels were remarkably similar across all income levels - except for the lower end of the pay spectrum. Those making less than $30,000 a year had half the satisfaction level of those making $30,000 or more.

Some 72 percent of Americans say they do important work most or all of the time, according to a survey conducted by MeaningfulWorkplace.com. Their biggest gripe: workplace bureaucracy.

But pride in the job done is not necessarily the same as pride in the process. Muddied goals, pointless meetings, clueless bosses - the whole gamut of "Dilbert"-like behavior - can take their toll. "A person can love doing their job yet [still have reservations about the workplace]," says Tom Terez, head of MeaningfulWorkplace.com.

And pride in work is not the same as assurance of stability. Many workers worry about the effect of a recession - or a downturn specific to their business.

Sherrill Biggerstaff has worked for 14 years as a union costumer on a popular, long-running daytime television soap opera. She enjoys what she does, but her Hollywood job is not as glamorous as it sounds.

"I always tell people I'm a glorified maid," says Ms. Biggerstaff.

Seventy-hour weeks are common, meaning overtime accounts for about one-third of her income. She received healthcare coverage only within the past five years. After all this time, she is still considered a daily hire, with no pension benefits.

And she knows a fickle public could turn her and her co-workers out on the street faster than you can say "Emmy winner Susan Lucci."

"My job isn't linked to the economy but to how good the ratings are," she says.

Nor is work the most important thing in many employees' lives, all those Fortune Magazine profiles of striving dotcom workers notwithstanding.

Family trumps work for most workers. And the demands of caring for children in an increasingly 24/7 economy mean some things, like the concept of a job as something that usually occurs between 9 and 5, are changing.

According to an AFL-CIO survey, 46 percent of women who are married or living with someone work a different schedule than their partners. Though one-third said they had no choice in the matter, two-thirds said they had opted for different work hours to accommodate kids and family.

"Everyone seems to want family-friendly jobs," says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a labor scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Ms. Furchtgott-Roth cautions that good data about workplace attitudes are hard to come by. People are often reluctant to share their true feelings about employment with all but close friends or family.

And in at least one aspect, workplace polls tend to be demonstrably untrue. All workers reject labeling themselves as "underachievers who get by with the bare minimum to keep their jobs," according to Gallup.

For all you deadwood out there: Wise up. Your co-workers know who you are.

*James Blair in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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