Take this job and…

Roughly half of our nation’s workers are not satisfied with their jobs. Young workers are the least satisfied, while older workers are considerably more satisfied (probably because they get to retire sooner).

For many of our parents and grandparents, the idea of job satisfaction was meaningless. It would not compute. One worked to eat and was truly grateful to have a steady job. Satisfaction revolved around home, family, friends, church, baseball and the neighborhood bar.

It would be easier to explain a Carnival cruise to a nomadic desert Bedouin than to explain “self-actualization” and “human potential” to a man who fought in World War II or a woman who struggled to raise a family during the Great Depression.

But for younger workers who benefited either directly or indirectly from the general affluence of the 1990s, there is a yawning chasm between their job expectations and the reality of increasing technological complexity in the workplace.

Two long-term trends are now on a collision course in the American workplace.

The first is the widely held belief in “The American Dream,” the idea that hard work, honesty and personal initiative will pay off through ever-rising standards of living for today’s workers, their children and their grandchildren.

The second trend is an increasingly productive and efficient Global Economy — which is just a contemporary manifestation of the “scientific management” pioneered by F.W. Taylor in the early part of the 20th century. In contemporary terms, this boils down to two basic concepts —

  • If you can measure it, you can manage it better.
  • Any task that can be mathematically modeled can be automated.

Taylorism is not some sort of historical curiosity; rather, it’s the major source of anxiety and heartbreak for both low-level service workers and high-level technical professionals. Just consider the plight of Publix grocery store personnel, whose performance can be so carefully monitored and analyzed that they must continually exceed their own benchmarks or be penalized. See Publix pay fallout: Readers give their 2 cents over losing a quarter.

Ironically, the dilemma of American engineers is becoming increasingly similar to issues encountered by cashiers. If they are not constantly improving and adding measurable economic value to their tasks, the work will go overseas or be handled by ever-more-powerful computers. The business logic is crystal-clear — if we want to enjoy an abundance of inexpensive and high-quality consumer products, a sizable number of American workers should expect stagnant wages and deteriorating benefits.

Perhaps the one bright trend in this conflicted picture of American labor is the growth of the Creative Economy. The traditional mantra for independent creative types has always been “I am as good as my last job.”

We never expected to have lifetime employment, sweetheart union contracts or someone else to think for us. For the most part, highly creative and artistic people operate at the margins of mainstream business. We provide all sorts of services and products that are concerned with beauty, grace, and human expression. Our financial expectations for our work roles coincide nicely with a workplace that increasingly rewards the most productive and inventive.

Furthermore, we creative types generally like or even love what we do and we take pride in the fruits of our labor. I rarely meet a seasoned professional painter, graphic designer, musician, filmmaker, writer, choreographer, art therapist, etc., who was suffering a “crisis of meaning” about their craft. Maybe a crisis of direction, style or vision, but not a crisis of meaning.

Sure, there is the usual complaining about how the world refuses to recognize one’s super-sized genius. But whining and self-aggrandizement have always been an integral part of the creative scene. (Check out the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini.)

I am frequently confronted by friends and acquaintances who are conventionally successful lawyers, doctors, accountants, managers and teachers. They are all grandmasters of the passive-aggressive game. My apparent crime against humanity is that I seem to be enjoying life a lot more they are. And that doesn’t seem quite fair in their cosmic scheme of things.

But I assure these “winners” that as a balding and beleaguered member of the creative class, my life isn’t getting any better…it’s just that their jobs are getting worse.

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