‘The Anxious American Worker’: Jobs, the Economy and a Call for Help

‘The Anxious American Worker’: Jobs, the Economy and a Call for Help

Rutgers’ national Work Trends survey reveals deep-seated concerns about the future

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As Americans prepare to celebrate the Labor Day weekend, a comprehensive national survey finds them in a state of anxiety – very concerned about jobs and feeling bleak about their economic future.

The “Anxious American Worker,” a survey of 1,000 randomly selected United States residents released by Rutgers’ John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, reports that many workers fear that their jobs will move to another country, feel undervalued and underpaid, and worry that they may never be able to retire.

Overall, the Work Trends survey results paint a troubling picture of economic and job insecurity, framed by worry and uncertainty over what the future holds. Consider the following:

  •       Just over a third of Americans report having trouble making ends meet.
  •       One worker in three acknowledges concern over personal job security.  
  •         Thirty percent of those in the labor force report that they have more in temporary credit card debt than they do in permanent retirement savings. 
  •         Only half are working the number of hours they want to work.

The survey also finds one-quarter of American workers are flat out dissatisfied with their health benefits; a slightly smaller number are dissatisfied with their level of education. Half the workers surveyed also believe they need more education or training to achieve their work goals.

"Nearly a decade of unaddressed worker concerns is contributing to rising anxiety as many Americans believe they cannot achieve or hold on to the middle-class American dream,” says Carl E. Van Horn, professor and director of the Heldrich Center.

“Technology, globalization and reductions in health and retirement benefits have fundamentally altered the way companies conduct business and engendered fear in the hearts of many American workers,” Van Horn added. “American workers are calling for help.”

Several critical findings from the latest national survey of American workers reveal that they are being forced to make fundamental adjustments in areas that used to be considered stable features of employment life. Here are some examples:

Job Satisfaction

Overall change in this measure suggests a great roiling of the workforce is taking place. About 25 percent say they are less satisfied with their jobs than they were just 12 months ago while 30 percent are more satisfied. Only 44 percent of the workforce say they are “about as satisfied” in their job situation as they were a year ago.

 Not Enough or Too Many Working Hours

One in three workers say there has been a change in the number of hours they work in the last three months, a startling change. Fourteen percent have experienced reductions in work hours, thus reducing their earnings and straining their family budgets; 18 percent are working more hours, often to compensate for laid off workers or vacant positions.

 Job Security and Layoffs

Thirteen percent in the workforce say they have been laid off from a job in the last three years and 15 percent say they anticipate layoffs at their company in the next 12 months.

 Carrying More Debt than Savings

Twenty-nine percent say the amount they owe on their credit cards is greater than their total in retirement savings. Fifty-one percent of the lowest income earners owe more to their creditors than they have saved for retirement, compared to 35 percent of middle-income and 17 percent of upper-income workers.

 The Male/Female Divide

Women are more concerned about the unemployment rate (52 percent of women are very concerned, compared to 40 percent of men), job security (36 percent to 29 percent) and the job market (58 percent to 38 percent). Women who are paid hourly are much less satisfied with their health and medical benefits and their compensation than their male counterparts. Thirty-one percent of these women feel they are paid a lot less than they are worth, compared to 19 percent of men.

 Who Is Responsible?

The vast majority of Americans in the labor force now believe it is government’s responsibility to prevent jobs from moving overseas (80 percent), provide health care for those who lose their jobs (78 percent) and assist people with training or education when they are laid off (73 percent).

 To better understand the nation’s mood and the level of distress among American workers, researchers at the Heldrich Center developed an “Anxiety Index.”

This index combines answers to a series of questions that tap the extent to which one is experiencing fundamental dissatisfaction with central elements of work and financial life. Each condition comprising the index is allocated one point and has the potential to cause personal anxiety. Examples include being unemployed and looking for work, or job dissatisfaction, or not having enough money to make ends meet.

An alarming percentage of Americans are experiencing serious anxiety and distress; 27 percent score a 3.0 or higher, signifying an excessive level of anxiety, and fully 45 percent of the American public is experiencing two or more of these conditions. Only 29 percent of Americans show no signs of distress, scoring zero.

Varying levels of anxiety are felt among different demographic and social groupings. Women with children are experiencing more difficulties, compared to men with children (2.0 versus 1.6, respectively). Those without a college degree (2.1 for high school or less and 2.0 among those with some college) experience more economic stress than college graduates (1.1). Workers earning less than $35,000 a year score highest at 2.9, meaning they are experiencing at least three anxiety-inducing items, significantly higher than the 1.0 score for those who earn more than $70,000 annually.

“At the midpoint of 2008, there is little positive to take away from this reading of the American workforce,” says survey director Cliff Zukin, a senior faculty fellow at the Heldrich Center and a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics and Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Policy. “Workers are in flux, less stable than they would like, less confident and more worried than is a comfortable fit for their efforts and aspirations. It is hard to imagine that these concerns – fundamental as they are to so many lives – would not work their way into the fabric of the 2008 presidential election and well into the next presidential administration.”

The latest Heldrich Center Work Trends Survey was conducted from May 14 to 25, 2008 with a scientifically selected random sample of 1,000 United States residents, 587 of whom were in the labor force.

Beginning Thursday, Aug. 28, the report will be available at www.heldrich.rutgers.edu.

Media Contact: Jeffrey Stoller
732-932-4100, ext. 6311
E-mail: jstoller@rci.rutgers.edu