Nasty, brutish, and long. That’s what a day’s work used to feel like for many Americans, whether it involved hours in the fields or monotonous repetition on unregulated assembly lines.
But while most jobs have gotten less physically strenuous since our grandparents plied their trades, that doesn’t mean today’s work is necessarily more satisfying, or more likely to make us happy.
And a lot depends on whether you’re a man or a woman.
Only women have really upgraded their working lives, moving into jobs that are more meaningful and leave them happier — thanks in part to the fact that the options for working women have expanded dramatically since the 1950s, and even since the 1990s. But things look wholly different for men, who in recent decades have been shunted into jobs they seem to find less fulfilling.
This, at least, is the conclusion of a provocative new working paper from researchers at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Federal Reserve. Looking across 80 years of workplace history, they found a new way to gauge how Americans feel when they’re at work: happy or sad, stressed or relaxed, in pain or at ease.
It’s a tricky thing to measure over time, because we lack the kind of year-by-year surveys that could tell us more directly. Instead, the researchers found a two-step workaround, building on results from the few solid surveys that do exist. First, they checked to see which occupations provide the most meaning, happiness, pain, and stress for today’s workers. Then, they worked backward to test whether the meaningful and low-stress jobs have grown more or less prevalent.
The clearest big-picture finding is that the average job isn’t nearly as painful as it used to be, largely because people have moved out of hard-labor and heavy-lifting jobs like construction and mining. Workplace fatigue is less common, too, most likely for a similar reason: Physically demanding work is less common than it used to be.
But the other big story is that women and men have had very different experiences in the workplace over the last two generations.
For women overall, work seems to have improved markedly. Not only have changing social norms allowed more women to enter the workplace, but working women have been shifting into better jobs. That means reduced clerical activity, fewer spots on assembly lines, and greater representation in the kinds of professional and managerial roles where they report less physical pain and more happiness.
Lower-educated women have enjoyed the greatest boost in workplace satisfaction —
possibly because they were the most constrained to begin with, obliged to take whatever unpleasant jobs that were allowed them under the old gendered rules.
Turn to men, though, and the situation is reversed. While women’s overall workplace happiness is up, men’s is down. And one surprising reason is that men seem to enjoy factory work much more than women do. So while the shift from assembly lines to desks boosted women’s sense of workplace satisfaction, it left men feeling more stressed and less content.
There’s a potential problem with this research, however, which the authors readily acknowledge. Their method depends on the assumption — almost certainly erroneous — that workplace experiences don’t change over time, and that the way 21st-century workers feel about a particular kind of job is how their 20th-century predecessors felt.
But think of automobile assembly lines, for example, where union membership and job security
have been eroded, potentially increasing stress. Or try to account for how completely computers have transformed the daily duties of clerical and back-office workers.
It’s also true that this research functions at a very high level, focusing largely on the gender gap, without enough data to say how workplace happiness has been affected by America’s growing diversity, or its shifting regional makeup.
Still, the basic conclusion — that women find work increasingly meaningful, men less so — is consistent with a growing body of research about the struggles of men: their stagnant wages, their elevated suicide rates, and their declining marriage prospects.
It also provides yet another explanation for why President Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogan have proved far more popular among men than women. When it comes to the workplace, they have more reason to feel nostalgic.