Does Higher Learning = Higher Job Satisfaction?

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

In theory, education is an express train. The longer you stay on, the farther you go, and the farther you go, the better the scenery. Several degrees should speed you to the grand destination of career success and satisfaction. By these lights, high school graduates and minimum-wage earners should be the least satisfied of all workers, right?

Actually, no. Although Gallup polling has shown that level of education does tend to impact the type of job that a person has (see "How Is a Degree Likely to Shape Your Work Life?" in Related Items), combined results of Gallup's 2001 and 2002 polls on workplace issues* indicate that regardless of education, American workers across the board are generally quite satisfied with their jobs. But the survey results also indicate that satisfaction with the traditional fruits of education -- such as more vacation time and a job's income -- don't vary much with educational achievement.

Sheepskins and Satisfaction

Gallup analyzed the survey results according to three educational achievement categories: high school or less, college graduate and college postgraduate. The results suggest that educational achievement doesn't guarantee you'll like your job -- in fact, it seems to have very little to do with overall job satisfaction. Ninety-two percent of postgrads are "completely" or "somewhat" satisfied with their jobs. So are 88% of college graduates. And people who didn't go to college at all? Eighty-seven percent of them are satisfied with their jobs.

Time or Money

Time and money have been long held to be important components of job satisfaction -- the more you get of both, the happier you're supposed to be. And supposedly, the more education you have, the more of both you get.

Whether or not that's true, beyond a minimal threshold satisfaction with your income and time flexibility doesn't seem to have much to do with your educational attainment. The vast majority of postgrads say they're completely or somewhat satisfied with the flexibility of their hours and their vacation time -- 87% and 80%, respectively. But college grads with no postgraduate work are as satisfied: 88% of them are happy with the flexibility of their hours, and 76% with their amount of time off. People who have no more than a high school degree show about the same amount of satisfaction. Eighty-nine percent of them are somewhat or completely satisfied with their hour flexibility, and 75% are satisfied with their vacation time.

Furthermore, while it's certainly true that people with a wall full of degrees tend to earn more than people with none, they aren't more satisfied with their incomes. Seventy-one percent of postgrads are somewhat or completely satisfied with the amount of money they earn, as are 74% of college graduates, and 72% of those with a high school education or less.

So what really makes us happy? When looking at ratings of 15 individual workplace factors, the one that correlates most highly with overall job satisfaction is having the opportunity to do what you do best -- whatever that may be. The amount of money you earn is fifth on the list.

Key Points

Educational attainment isn't entirely unrelated to job satisfaction, but these data show that its influence may be overestimated. As noted psychologist Martin Seligman discusses in his new book, Authentic Happiness, the key to contentment with a job has less to do with material compensation than with the way performing the job successfully makes one feel.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1183 adults, aged 18 and older, employed full or part time, conducted Aug. 16-19 2001 and 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 ±3%.

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