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Most people are as happy in their jobs as they were 30 years ago — but low earners have lost out, reporting far more stress and less autonomy in their working lives, new research has shown.
A report, published on Monday by the Resolution Foundation, points to some of the long-running issues lying behind the current hiring crunch in skilled manual jobs such as care or driving.
Overall, 54 per cent of employees said they were satisfied with their jobs in the decade up to 2019 — down slightly from 59 per cent in the early 1990s, due to a dip following the 2008 financial crisis. Other measures of wellbeing at work have improved over a similar period, with four-fifths of employees viewing their job as “helpful to others” in 2015 and a growing proportion of employees saying they were “proud” to work in their organisation and shared its values.
This consistency in people’s feelings about work — set out in analysis of existing survey data by the foundation — is surprising given the huge changes that have swept the workplace over the intervening years. Service-sector jobs have proliferated as those in manufacturing have disappeared; graduates, women and those born outside the UK have taken up a growing share of the workforce; union membership has shrunk and many workers are now employed on more precarious contracts.
“While some commentators have decried this as the rise of so-called ‘B*llshit Jobs’, in fact workers appear to have a greater sense of pride and purpose in the jobs they do today,” said Krishnan Shah, a researcher at the think-tank and author of the report.
But the lowest earners are the one clear group whose experience of work has clearly worsened over the period — even though their relative earnings improved with the advent of the minimum wage.
The think-tank said this finding showed that policymakers could not rely solely on higher wages to boost low-paid workers’ wellbeing as Britain’s economy edged towards recovery from the pandemic.
In the early 1990s, 73 per cent of low earners said they were satisfied with their job — making them far happier as a group than professionals with stress levels matching their salaries. But by the start of the pandemic their satisfaction levels had already been “levelled down”, to just under 60 per cent at both ends of the earning spectrum, the Resolution Foundation said.
This change seemed to be driven by rising levels of intensity and stress, and falling control over their work, the think-tank concluded.
A growing share of employees found their jobs stressful — and this increase was concentrated among people in skilled manual jobs, where the proportion working under stress had doubled. Low earners were far more likely than in the past to say that they were working under “a great deal” of tension. And work appeared to have become more intense for women in particular, with a rising share reporting that they worked “very hard” or to tight deadlines.
For employees in hospitality, retail and driving in particular, there had been a stark change in the amount of autonomy people had at work, with a much higher share saying they had little control of what tasks they did or how they carried them out — while in manufacturing, there was no change.