Apparently many of us are feeling more content at work these days. Thanks to higher pay, better benefits and increasingly flexible work arrangements, employees surveyed in 2022 reported the highest rates of job satisfaction since the Conference Board began asking the question nearly 40 years ago.
The belief that a job must be satisfying is a distinctly modern conceit. After all, medieval peasants didn’t ask themselves whether shoveling slop and threshing grain was satisfying. In fact, the idea that a job should pay emotional dividends — and not just the bills — would have seemed strange to most people before the 20th century.
But then something changed. Much of the credit for the transformation goes to a man named Robert Hoppock, who spent his early years feeling quite dissatisfied with work. When he finally found his calling, he did more than make himself happy; he transformed our relationship to work from a means to an end to an end in itself.
The story begins a little more than a century ago, when industrial psychologists belatedly realized that how workers felt about their jobs might affect the bottom line. As one early researcher wrote in 1930: “Management’s interest in employee attitudes arises from the belief that attitudes are important determinants of efficiency.”
But there wasn’t really a way to measure employee attitudes, much less a language to describe the problem. It would fall to Hoppock to turn a vague interest in measuring employee attitudes into something more meaningful, even spiritual: the idea that our work should be fulfilling and, above all, satisfying.
Hoppock, born and raised at the start of the 20th century in Lambertville, New Jersey, was a self-described “unmotivated underachiever.” He stumbled through school, rarely excelling. He had no idea what he should do with his life. One day, though, an outside speaker came to his high school and delivered a rather unconventional message.
As Hoppock later recalled, the speaker “talked about how important it was to choose and plan your career. His idea was that if you could get into a job you like, it would contribute to your happiness and satisfaction.” It was at that moment, Hoppock wrote, that he “began to think of a job not just as a means of making a living but as a means to a kind of self-fulfillment.”
But he didn’t feel fulfilled by college, much less his first jobs: dishwasher, deliveryman, camp counselor, clerk and high school English teacher. In desperation, he consulted with a “character analyst” who measured Hoppock’s forehead and told him to go into advertising. He hated that idea, too.
Hoppock was searching for information on possible occupations when he came across an emerging field of education called “vocational guidance,” which sought to steer students toward appropriate careers. Soon afterward he landed a job at a public high school working as what we would today call a “guidance counselor.”
At long last, Hoppock had found satisfaction, and he resolved to help others do the same. He accumulated graduate degrees in education, conducting research on how ordinary workers viewed their jobs so that he could better understand the connection between the individual, the job and the occupation.
As he surveyed different communities — unemployed workers, the residents of a small town and hundreds of teachers — the most critical data derived from four simple questions.
Consider question No. 2: “Which one of the following best tells how you feel about changing your job?” Respondents had to choose between answer No. 1 (“I would quit this job at once if I could”) and answer No. 7 (“I would not exchange this job with any other”). Various shades of satisfaction lay between these extremes, such as No. 5 (“I am not eager to change my job, but would do so if I could get a better job”).
In 1935, Hoppock published his landmark study, “Job Satisfaction.” His findings weren’t exactly shocking: People in skilled professions often reported higher levels of satisfaction, as did older workers and those who enjoyed close emotional ties with co-workers. Hoppock’s real contribution lay in popularizing the belief that job satisfaction was worthy of study and measurement — and that workers should settle for nothing less.
In the postwar era, a growing number of academics joined Hoppock in researching the relationship between job satisfaction, productivity and profitability. Others focused on the ways that job satisfaction related to individual emotional needs. Much of this work found a receptive audience in management circles.
In 1951, for example, Donald David, dean of Harvard Business School, gave an address in which he recognized that creating a satisfying work atmosphere required more than managers just “putting new drapes in the ladies’ room or building a new employee recreation center.”
The growing interest in cultivating job satisfaction dovetailed with a larger cultural shift toward individual self-fulfillment that reached new levels by the 1960s and 1970s. A job, like an unhappy marriage, should be abandoned if it no longer met a person’s emotional needs. Managers eager to retain valuable workers took notice.
But satisfaction ebbed by the early 1980s as declining wages and job insecurity shifted priorities. Between 1987 and 2010, the number of workers reporting themselves satisfied with their jobs declined to 42% from about 61%. Since that time, the numbers have rebounded slowly but steadily, reaching an all-time high last week.
Perhaps this improvement will reverse again. But one thing is here to stay: the belief, first articulated by Hoppock nearly a century ago, that we deserve to find satisfaction, even fulfillment, in the work we do — and doing so is mutually beneficial to employer and employee.
Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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