What is the root cause of job dissatisfaction?
That’s a question I’ve been pondering for quite some time. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it off and on since starting the blog and being introduced to the concept of FIRE (financially independent, retire early).
You see, both Sebastian and I take some issue with the concept of FIRE. Don’t get us wrong, we fully support the idea of financial independence, it’s the early-retired part we’re not so sure about.
First off, we don’t feel that someone who leaves a traditional 9-5 to pursue another line of work is really retired. Many have disagreed with us, but that’s our opinion.
Furthermore, we feel that those pursuing and advocating for FIRE don’t always recognize the privilege inherent in being able to pursue and achieve something like FIRE. Alas, that’s an article for another time.
But aside from all that, the biggest question we have about FIRE is why so many people are so hell-bent on leaving their 9-5? In fact, for many achieving FIRE has become sort of like a pilgrimage that consumes most of their time and effort.
Why? What is driving this desire? Are their jobs THAT bad?
And why now? Why is FIRE taking off now? Are jobs worse now than they were previously?
Or, could the cause have more to do with us than the actual jobs themselves?
Why do people hate their jobs and what’s to blame for job dissatisfaction?
Job Dissatisfaction: Then and Now
What’s really interesting when you look at job satisfaction over time is that it’s actually been trending upward recently.
According to The Conference Board job satisfaction survey data, job satisfaction was at its highest in 1987 with 61.1% of workers being satisfied with their job (the first year of the survey).
By 2000, job satisfaction had dipped to 50.7%, where it ebbed and flowed until just after the recession in 2008. Job satisfaction hit its lowest in 2010 at 42.6%, and has been climbing ever since to the most recent survey in 2016, where it was at 50.8%.
What caused job satisfaction to dip?
According to The Conference Board this dip was due to several long-standing trends in the labor market. These trends include:
- Weak earnings growth
- Rising income inequality
- Declining job security
- An increase in work intensity
Furthermore, The Conference Board name a myriad of reasons for the trends listed above. From the 1940’s to 1970’s the labor market was tight, meaning unemployment rate was low, but then things began to change.
The following factors led to an abundance of labor supply from the 1970’s onward that have resulted in the trends listed above and the decline of job satisfaction:
- The large baby boomer generation that began working in the 1960’s through 1980’s
- The increased number of women working
- Automation and outsourcing
- The recession and job loss
In other words, the factors listed above have led to a loose labor market over the past 40 years. A loose labor market means higher unemployment, and less power for workers compared to their employers.
With this historical knowledge, it’s easy to see why job dissatisfaction has taken a hit since the 1970’s, but will this trend continue?
The Future of Job Satisfaction
Although job satisfaction rates are still nowhere near where they were in the late 80’s and 90’s, researchers with The Conference Board anticipate that it will continue to improve.
Their reason for hypothesizing the increase in job satisfaction has to do with the fact that the U.S. labor market has been tightening since just after the recession. The reasons for this tightening include:
- The retirement of the baby boomer generation
- Weak growth in the working age population
- Decrease in immigration to the U.S. due to the current political climate
Furthermore, with the high likelihood of labor shortages they predict that wage growth and job security will increase, and that income inequality may decline.
However, they do not predict that job satisfaction levels will reach the high levels of the past because the U.S. labor market is different than it was 30 years ago.
Why Are People so FIREd Up?
Placing historical context on the labor market and job satisfaction may partially explain why many people are so focused on pursing FIRE, but it doesn’t explain everything.
In fact, most don’t even know what they’re missing out on.
Yes, historically job quality was higher, but the majority of today’s labor force is made up of millennials who have never known anything else. Thus, many may be satisfied with their jobs simply because things are improving from when they entered the workforce.
While many FIRE folks may understand that things used to be different (as I do), they’ve never personally experienced it.
Another reason why trends in the labor market can’t fully be to blame for job dissatisfaction is that FIRE folks don’t tend to fit the characteristics of those most likely to be dissatisfied.
In fact, while The Conference Board does believe job satisfaction will continue to trend upwards, they also feel that a decrease in unionization and an increase in the outsourcing of low-skilled jobs will make job satisfaction less likely for those at the bottom of the labor market.
On the other hand, studies have found that highly educated and high-income workers are among the most satisfied with their jobs.
Specifically, 65% of those with high family incomes (75k or more) say they are very satisfied with the kind of work they do compared to 49% of those making 30-74.9k and 51% of those making less than 30k.
Of course, anyone can pursue FIRE, but the vast majority of those seriously pursuing it or who have achieved it fit a certain demographic.
The majority of people in this demographic includes people who are white, high-income earners (or formerly high-income earners), and who are highly educated (and not just with degrees).
By all accounts, the demographic that makes up the majority of FIRE enthusiasts should be satisfied with their jobs.
But they’re not.
What’s to Blame for Job Dissatisfaction for Those Pursuing FIRE?
It is a fact that job conditions and benefits are not as good as they were 40 years ago, but the majority of those pursuing (or who have reached) FIRE belong to the demographic that is MOST satisfied with their jobs.
Are people today spoiled? Are people work avoidant? Is it a control thing? Is it our frame of mind?
Or, is it something else entirely?
I recently read an article by Sunday Brunch Café that talked about her struggles with work stress. In it, she details how her burnout snuck up on her despite concerted efforts at self-care, ultimately resulting in her needing to take a medical leave of absence. You can read the full article here.
It was a powerful article, and received a lot of positive feedback on social media and the blog. Many people (including myself) reached out to say how we appreciated her willingness to be vulnerable and speak to a topic so many people shy away from.
What I found most interesting about the comments was how many people could relate to what she was saying. So many people were experiencing (or had experienced) similar things.
And it got me to thinking, could this be some of the source of the job dissatisfaction seen in the FIRE community? Are people experiencing burnout and falling into grass-is-greener syndrome?
Although there are likely a number of factors contributing to people’s desire to pursue FIRE, I do think that unchecked job burnout may play a bigger part than people realize, especially if you think you’re doing a good job with self-care like Sunday Brunch Café thought.
And even if improved self-care doesn’t extinguish your FIRE completely, it’ll sure help you manage the time you have to work while in pursuit.
Tips for Improving Self-Care and Increasing Job Satisfaction
Recent research has shown that the most common reasons for job dissatisfaction are lack of recognition and lack of clear/fair opportunities to advance.
While the most change to these areas would need to come courtesy of your employer, there are many things you can do to reduce burnout and increase your job satisfaction. Some recommended things include:
- Clearly understand your duties – Make sure you understand your job duties so you can focus on them and ignore tasks that are not your responsibility.
- Leave work at work – I struggled with this for several years in my teaching job, until I just decided I was going to leave work at work. Now, when I go home for the evening or the weekend I consciously refuse to think about work. If I find myself thinking about work I push it away and focus on something else.
- Let go of things you can’t control – This was another big one for me. I used to get stressed out about things outside my control, and it really took a toll on my mental health. Parents, administrators, the system, and the treatment agency all impact my job and the lives of the kids I teach. However, when I learned to consciously let go of things I couldn’t control I took a huge step forward in avoiding burnout. Now, I focus on pouring my heart into what I can change.
- Keep learning – Studies on workplace satisfaction consistently show that those with more training are more satisfied than those with less. Most of us have a need to keep advancing and achieving, and regularly engaging in training can help provide that sense of accomplishment. In many cases, you might even be rewarded for additional training with salary increases.
- Take a walk – Regular exercise is good for you no matter what, but breaking up your workday with some exercise is especially helpful. I like to take walks (weather permitting) on my lunch break and I’ve found the fresh air and change of scenery are extremely beneficial.
Some additional tips curtesy of Sunday Brunch Café include:
- Building up an emergency fund – Sunday Brunch Café already had an established emergency fund when she took her leave of absence, which allowed her to focus solely on herself.
- Setting boundaries – At the end of her article, Sunday Brunch Café states that she has learned to set boundaries at work by saying “no,” putting herself first, and asking for help. All three are essential skills to develop in the workplace to avoid burnout and increase job satisfaction.
Moral of the Story
What’s to blame for job dissatisfaction?
Research would suggest a lot of it has to do with 40 years of a loose labor market putting employers in the driver seat and relegating employee control to the rear. Research would also suggest that those most likely to be dissatisfied are at the bottom of the labor force, with less education and a lower income.
Even as job satisfaction is trending up as the market tightens, the FIRE movement has continued to spread.
What’s interesting is that the majority of those pursuing FIRE come from the demographic that would typically be most satisfied with their jobs, that is, highly educated high-income earners.
Could it be that burnout is the answer?
While effectively employing self-care techniques may not fully squelch the FIRE, they are important to develop as long as you’re a member of the 9-5 workforce and even after you’ve moved on to other pursuits.
And for those of you hell-bent on achieving FIRE no matter what, a word of caution.
Being early-retired isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. As with anything, there will be good and bad. Just because you left the 9-5 doesn’t mean the struggles disappear, just that they will take a different form, especially if you’re freelancing or starting your own business.
Make sure you take a good hard look at what’s to blame for your job dissatisfaction. Is leaving the 9-5 to pursue other endeavors really what you want, or is burnout what started your FIRE?
Talk about Money Saved.