Have you ever listened to a gruff, bald entrepreneur wax lyrical about the crystalline shape of a chandelier? I have, as part of what I call my Love and Work Research Road Trip. Whether I’m at yoga, out to dinner, or on an errand, if I see someone excited about work or evidence of this excitement in my surroundings, I get supercurious. Who did this? How did they get into this job and line of work? Do they feel as much magic in their work as I do on the receiving end? One of my colleagues knew all about my Research Road Trip and suggested we visit the downtown San Diego restaurant Herb & Wood. I took in the sight of the massive marble bar, the ultrahigh wood-beamed warehouse ceilings, and the large brick fireplace encircled by giant palm fronds, then sought out the owner, Chris Puffer, to discuss chandeliers and much more.
Musician, college dropout, dishwasher, kitchen manager, entrepreneur, experience-maker — once I got Chris talking, it was hard to get him to stop. He talked about how the blue in the pictures on the wall is similar, but not quite identical, to the blue leather of the banquets, and how the marble of the bar is thicker than most stone cuts because customers just feel happier and safer sitting at a thick piece of stone. Chris finished his thesis about marble thickness and dove into a treatise on the psychology of entrance design and why the precise position of his host stand makes customers feel smarter.
Chris clearly loves his job. But does that mean his job is a good one? And does it matter?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about our changing relationships to our jobs. Some have said the pandemic has forced us to confront the brevity of our lives and the need to devote ourselves to work that “really matters.” Perhaps this is why around 4 million people in the United States quit their jobs in most months in 2022 so far: to find more-meaningful work.
Others have said that work has this name for a reason. Work is toil, a transaction, a place you’d rather not be and something you’d rather not be doing. You are paid for your time and talents. Employers often view workers’ efforts as a transaction as well, echoing a lament attributed to Henry Ford a century ago: “Why is it that whenever I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?” Many experts — Douglas McGregor, Jane Jacobs, and Warren Bennis, to name a few — have sought to weave “human” characteristics into life and work. Work is still seen as so degrading, so destructive to the human experience, however, that, as I write this article, the United Kingdom is conducting the largest study ever done of the psychological effects of a four-day workweek, based in part on the view that because work is so bad, fewer hours of it must be good.
History informs our ideas about a job’s purpose, too. At the turn of the previous century, for example, Max Weber’s conception of the Protestant work ethic reinforced that all work is good work because our work displays our commitment to values such as discipline and dedication. Then, two world wars not only brought millions of women into the workforce but also reminded us that good work helps a nation prevail against its enemies. Eminent management consultant Peter Drucker was more pragmatic, saying that a good job adds to a firm’s stated objectives.
So, what is the definition of a “good” job? When I worked as a researcher at Gallup, we began with a simple, practical, and noncontroversial definition: A good job is one where you feel you are paid fairly for, and really good at, what you do.
With this in mind, what does research tell us about who has a “good” job, as well as what characteristics of a job can make a worker view it as such?
Who Has a “Good” Job?
Data from the ADP Research Institute (ADPRI), where I’ve been the head of people and performance research since 2017, tells us that someone considered to have a good job likely matches this description: You are a California woman between the ages of 40 and 54 and have a four-year college degree. You work in construction and related trades, are a middle manager who has been with your company for more than eight years, and are allowed to split your work hours between home and the job site. No one in your family, including yourself, has had Covid-19.
“Well, OK, Marcus,” you might say. “That’s just math. Surely there is more to figuring out who has a good job than just running a regression analysis against the dependent variables of ‘paid fairly’ and ‘good at what I do.’”
The stats can be revealing, though they don’t tell the full story. For example, if you use our simple definition, the people least likely to have a good job are teachers and nurses — the people caring for our kids and sick loved ones — who are younger than 40 and work on-site full-time. I think we can all agree that these workers, and the people they serve, deserve better.
What else does research reveal about who has a good job? Longitudinal and global ADPRI survey data offers more insight for answering this question — using stratified random samples, we do a monthly survey of 2,500 U.S. workers each month and a global study of 27,000 workers in 27 countries twice a year.
Perhaps predictably, you are more likely to feel you have a good job if you are male because men, particularly those under 40, report lower levels of discrimination and higher levels of job security than the average worker. Some women, however, say they have a good job; those who feel they are paid fairly fall into this category, and our data reveals that women are more likely than men to feel they are paid fairly, even though, on average, U.S. women earn 83 cents on the dollar compared with men. Women also report higher levels of confidence in their company’s future, a key aspect of the definition of a good job. In these cases, gender isn’t a predictor of whether people believe they have good jobs.
Being a member of a racial minority group, though, can hinder your feeling that you’re in a good job — with caveats. According to our global surveys, individuals from racial minority backgrounds experience levels of discrimination five times higher than what other workers report — which is real, and wrong — but, interestingly, they are more likely to feel engaged and resilient than workers who are part of the racial majority. This is an entire area of work that deserves more study and careful measurement, but for now, what’s apparent is that the feeling of having a good job isn’t tightly or neatly tied to a person’s race or gender.
Instead, with closer scrutiny of the data, it appears that for many workers, their perspective on whether their job is a good one is influenced by not only the job itself but also their personal experience in that position.
A Good Job Defined
During my time at Gallup and ADPRI, I’ve used the surveys we conducted about work to examine how workers’ feelings drive retention or productivity. Using the data we’ve gathered, I’ve extended the simple definition of a good job that I mentioned earlier, because the idea of a good job as merely a transaction where you’re good at what you do and paid fairly is surely incomplete, even cynical. For many of us, work can be one domain — though certainly not the only one — in which we express our unique strengths and are seen for the very best of who we are.
Let’s consider a new and more nuanced definition that covers traits that can be reliably measured by survey instruments: A good job is one where you feel seen for being the best version of yourself; you sense that your colleagues have your back; you don’t feel discriminated against based on your gender, race, or sexual orientation; you feel your position is secure; and you have confidence that you’ll get help navigating constant changes in the working world.
If you want a job that meets these criteria, make sure you are part of a team with a leader you trust. The likelihood that you will actively look for a new job increases dramatically if you report lacking both a team and trust. (So, to all those predicting that the job of the future is one where we are all a bunch of self-employed free agents — sorry, I’m afraid the data doesn’t support this.) A good job always appears to be one where someone is part of a trusted team. If you happen to be one of the 16 million self-employed Americans, the more intentionally you cultivate a feeling of being on a team with clients and vendors, the more likely you are to feel you have a good job.
Interestingly, however, being part of a team isn’t a cure-all. Those who say they are part of multiple teams are less engaged, resilient, and emotionally connected to their colleagues. The stress of having to answer to many bosses and competing priorities can add tension and anxiety to workers’ lives, making them more likely to leave a job. This should give pause to all of us building or working in highly matrixed organizations.
A good job can also be stressful, which may seem counterintuitive. In our research, however, we split stress into two buckets: eustress (a type of psychological stress that’s moderate and beneficial) and distress. To measure eustress, we ask workers questions such as “Do you have trouble stopping thinking about work?” and “Do you often lose track of time while working?” To evaluate distress, we ask, “Do you leave work feeling you have nothing else to give?” or “Do you feel your family suffers from you having no time for them after work?”
When you feel lots of eustress (you are excited about and a bit obsessed with work and can’t stop thinking about it) and are devoid of distress (you don’t feel drained by each day and disconnected from those you love due to work), you have all of the feelings listed in our definition of a good job: You are more likely to feel your strengths are seen and valued, you’re more resilient and connected to your colleagues, and you’re less likely to say you’re actively interviewing for a new job.
Even though they lead to radically different outcomes, these two forms of workplace stress seem confusingly similar. What’s the difference between them?
Passion for the Work
Think back to Chris Puffer. He was obsessed with chandeliers, blue paint, the thickness of the marble, and the location of the host stand — so obsessed that he’d created an entire theory of restaurant experience psychology. Wherever I am on my Research Road Trip and whomever I am interviewing, I hear this obsession, this passion.
It’s not merely a passion about the purpose of the work, though Chris loved taking care of guests; more accurately, it is passion for the detailed day-to-day activities of the job, such as figuring out chandelier shape, marble thickness, and the location of the host stand.
All jobs, even those that can seem repetitive and monotonous, are full of specific moments, tasks, and interactions that can provide energy. Different people who have the same job draw energy from different activities. I interviewed one great salesperson, for instance, who loved learning the technical details of a product, while I met another who got the biggest kick out of figuring out each prospect’s “closing cues.” One anesthesiologist reveled in the pressure of holding a patient hovering between life and death, while another was in her element only immediately after a procedure, when she could find just the right words to calm a patient.
A good job is not one where we love all that we do. ADPRI has no data that shows this to be the case, as people who love their jobs report loving 73% of the job — clearly not all that a job requires. Instead, a good job has at least some activities you love and pay attention to each and every day. People who have a job involving such activities are 4.4 times more likely to be engaged, 3.8 times more likely to be resilient, 1.5 times less likely to experience discrimination, and 2.3 times less likely to be interviewing for another job.
The fact that Chris gets a kick out of certain activities in his job is what makes it a good job — not for you and me, perhaps, but certainly for him.
What Does the Future Hold?
Given what we know about what makes a good job and who usually has one, what does the future hold for ensuring more people have what they consider good jobs? I am optimistic about where we’re headed, for a few reasons.
First, while the question of whether robots will take our jobs (so to speak) is complex, the best-case scenario is that this evolution will free us up to do work that’s uniquely human and to build jobs that only humans can do well — those that require us to innovate, create, build trust, empathize, calm, collaborate, joke, touch, feel, and share feelings.
Second, while we still have work to do to ensure more women and individuals from minority backgrounds feel as positively as white men about work, and to get better at creating great teams and feelings of eustress, these topics are now on the radars of leaders and managers alike — which can lead to essential and lasting changes.
Finally, there will always be companies that echo Henry Ford’s complaint and whose leaders insist on designing loveless jobs built around conformity and requiring managers to spy on employees. But I believe these companies will always lose out to organizations that reject this antihuman approach to work. Winners will rely on automation to pick up the inhuman tasks, then create jobs in which people are challenged to do their best: to pay attention to details that excite and nourish us and, with our trusting teams, use what we’ve learned to innovate, collaborate, and contribute.