Does Job Satisfaction Really Improve With Age?

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

Horatio Alger Jr. wrote more than 100 books suggesting that those who work hard and diligently will rise through the ranks and attain success and satisfaction in their old age. Over the years, the mailroom-to-boardroom job trajectory became a touchstone of the American dream. But if it actually works, does it increase job satisfaction? An August 2002 Gallup survey* asked 18- to 29-year-olds, 30- to 49-year-olds, and 50- to 64-year-olds who are employed full or part time about their satisfaction with work. It found that the benefits of Alger's trajectory may have been overstated.

The Young Ones

Most job perks -- prestige, money, authority -- accumulate with experience. Do 18- to 29-year-olds look forward to them, and find the lack of them galling? Not if overall satisfaction is any indication: 39% of this cohort are completely satisfied with their jobs and another 45% are somewhat satisfied. Only 16% are either somewhat or completely dissatisfied.

Many things influence job satisfaction, but money and hours mean a great deal to most workers -- even young ones, who perhaps shouldn't expect the best of either and don't seem to. Sixty-one percent of the youngest worker group is completely satisfied with the flexibility of their hours. Forty-three percent are completely satisfied with their vacation time. Just over half (54%) are completely satisfied with their job security, and 56% are completely satisfied with their bosses or supervisors. The least satisfying aspect of young workers' jobs is their income. Only 16% are completely satisfied -- but only 27% of all workers are completely satisfied with the amount of money they earn.

The Middle Ages

Thirty- to 49-year-olds are presumed most likely to be on the career track they want. These are the years when, according to Alger, diligence and hard work start paying off. But the numbers don't indicate a clear transformation. Forty-two percent of 30- to 49-year-olds are completely satisfied with their jobs (compared to 39% of 18- to 29-year-old workers), and 49% are somewhat satisfied (among younger workers that figure is 45%). So, 10 or 12 years of experience increase one's "total satisfaction level" only marginally at best -- 91% compared to 84% of the younger group.

Sixty-one percent of 30- to 49-year-olds are completely satisfied with their job flexibility -- a number identical to that of the younger group. The two age groups are also similarly satisfied with their job security (56% among the older group, 54% among the younger) and their bosses (56% in each group). On the other hand, workers in the older age group is quite a bit more satisfied with vacation time (52%), than are their juniors (43%). And 30- to 49 -year-olds are almost twice as satisfied as their juniors with their income -- 30% versus 16%.

The End of the Trail

The decade before retirement is supposed to be a career's golden period. But was Alger right -- do 30 or 40 years of hard work and career development increase job satisfaction? Apparently, not much more than 10 years of it. There is only a seven percentage-point difference in those completely satisfied with their jobs between 50- to 64 -year-olds (49%) and 30- to 49-year-olds (42%).

The oldest group is the most contradictory about several aspects of job satisfaction. It is no more satisfied with vacation time than the middle group -- 53% are completely satisfied. However, it is the happiest of all groups with the flexibility of hours, with 68% completely satisfied. Members of this age group are about as satisfied with job security as everybody else -- 56% completely satisfied -- and, somewhat surprisingly, they are no more satisfied with their incomes than the middle group -- 31% completely satisfied. The only measure for which the oldest group emerges as the happiest is satisfaction with the boss -- 61% say are completely satisfied in this regard, compared with 56% of younger workers.

Key Points

The vast majority of all workers are satisfied with their jobs. Satisfaction with one's income level is the biggest differentiator -- the youngest workers are least satisfied -- but few workers of any age are completely satisfied with the amount of money they make. Overall job satisfaction increases slightly with age, but fails to register above 49% with any age group. However, workers in the oldest cohort are more satisfied with their bosses -- perhaps because they have become bosses themselves.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 584 adults, aged 18 and older, employed full or part time, conducted Aug. 5-8, 2002. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4%.

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