Working, but dissatisfied

Tom and Irene Cowan at their home in Plainfield, Ill.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: At this very moment in the American economy, the official unemployment rate stands firm at 9.7 percent. That number is probably going to nudge up or down a tenth percent or two tomorrow morning when we get the February jobs report. But it's still safe to say that there are going to be a lot of people out of work. Many of the people who were able to keep their jobs through the recession are thankful for that small favor. Many of them. But not all.

Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson reports.


JEREMY HOBSON: Tom and Irene Cowan are just getting back from a little cross country skiing near their house in Plainfield, Ill.

That's about 35 miles southwest of Chicago where suburbia meets corn country. They're both still employed, but that is no consolation.

IRENE COWAN: My pay went down to about a quarter of what I was making in 2008, and in 2009 it was about a quarter of that, and I would say in 2010 it will probably be a quarter of that.

Tom Cowan's pay has decreased too. By half, he says. He's in real estate, but the only work he can find now is managing a construction project in Wisconsin. It takes a couple of hours to get there, so he rents a crash pad.

TOM COWAN: Very long hours, more expense, just away from the family for the whole week.

Looking for other work is tough, he says, because with the commute and a 60-80 hour work week, there's just no time. And forget about having fun. Their last vacation?

Tom: Oh, two, three years ago, maybe?

Irene: Oh, it's more like five.

Tom: Oh, five. Five years ago. OK. Yeah, that's true.

The Cowans don't want to dip into their retirement savings, so they say they're lucky to have work at all.

But Irene Cowan says the freedom they once had to work the jobs they wanted for more pay is gone.

IRENE: I think I feel more like I'm stuck, like my feet are in concrete or something. Every time I think, well, I'll do this, I just feel like I can't make the move. You know, the insurance issue, the bills, the cutting back on different things, which is all, you know, everybody has to do it. We're all learning a different lesson here.

Seven hundred miles to the east, similar lessons are being learned by an employed 20-something in Maryland. He didn't want us to use his name, because he wants to stay employed at a consulting firm. But he says work just isn't as much fun as it used to be before the layoffs.

MARYLAND WORKER: I think one of the biggest things was just losing a lot of friends. This was a firm where a lot of people in their twenties, a very collegial environment. And then on top of that now, we're being asked to kind of pick up the slack in doing the job of a lot of people that are no longer at the firm.

Here in New York, another worker who wishes to remain anonymous took a job at a media company in the midst of the financial crisis. She's hasn't had a raise in a year.

NEW YORK WORKER: The only thing that really keeps me going is knowing that I have a job in my field. And even though everyday, I'm not necessarily doing what I was trained to do. I don't feel like my skills are growing, I don't think I'm acquiring new skills. Still, I don't want to have a hole in my resume. Times are tough.

Changing jobs? Good luck, she says. And the stories go on and on.

When Marketplace sent out an online request for dissatisfied workers, comments poured in from coast to coast.

Lynn Franco, director of the consumer research center at the Conference Board, says the stats she's seeing tell the same tale. A recent survey found the lowest levels of workplace satisfaction measured since the survey began in the '80s.

LYNN FRANCO: Back then, it was about 60 or so percent were satisfied. Today, they're down sort of in the mid-40s.

As employees have taken on more responsibility -- often without pay or benefit increases. The difference in a recession, she says, is immobility.

FRANCO: More than 10 percent of our workers said that they don't intend to be in the same place a year from now. But I think given the environment right now, those who are dissatisfied can't move on. And so that could have repercussions for productivity in companies' bottom lines.

And for the national psyche. Listen to this tidbit from the survey...

Franco: The commute to work ranks number one as the most satisfying aspect of one's job.

Hobson: Driving in traffic, perhaps, is more satisfying than sitting at a desk.

Franco: Perhaps, so, maybe it's the drive home that rates better, but I think that says a lot for the state of the American worker.

In New York, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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