Download Free Electronic Document

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 1.5 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Brief

A group of workers of different professions

Photo by Rawpixel

For many Americans, the workplace is hectic, hazardous, and physically demanding — yet many retirees would still consider rejoining the workforce if the right opportunity came along.

Those are just a few of the results from the American Working Conditions Survey — one of the most in-depth surveys ever undertaken about the American workplace. This brief presents highlights from the survey, conducted by investigators from Harvard University, the RAND Corporation, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Workplace Can Be Hazardous

Six in ten Americans ages 25–71 perform some sort of physically demanding work — moving heavy loads, standing frequently, or maintaining tiring or painful positions. Many are exposed to hazards, such as handling hazardous materials or breathing unhealthy air.

61% on average perform demanding physical work

24% on average breathe in smoke, fumes, powder, dust, or vapors

26% on average handle chemical products or infectious materials

Workers Are Rushed but Have Some Autonomy

The workplace can be a hectic environment: One in four workers say that they do not have enough time to do their job, and two in three work at high speed or on tight deadlines. However, most workers — three in four — have a degree of autonomy on the job that allows them to prioritize some tasks over others. That autonomy does not extend to telecommuting; about four in five workers must be present to do their work.

27% do not have enough time to do their job

75% can choose the order of their tasks

78% must be present at work

Americans Often Work in Their Personal Time

Half of American workers say that they work in their personal time to meet workplace demands, and one in ten do so nearly every day. Does the workplace return the favor? It appears not, since roughly one in three workers say that it is somewhat or very difficult to adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal matters and that their work hours are inflexible and set by their employer.

50% work in their personal time to meet workplace demands

31% have difficulty adjusting their work schedule to accommodate personal matters

36% have work hours set by their employer with no possibility for change

The Psychology of Work

The workplace social environment can be harmful. One in five workers report having recently been subjected to verbal abuse, humiliation, unwanted sexual attention, bullying, or harassment — often from customers. While the workplace can be hostile, it is also a source of support for most workers. Nearly three in five say that their boss is supportive, while more than half have good friends at work and think conflicts are resolved fairly. Nearly 40 percent of workers say that their jobs offer good prospects for advancement.

20% report verbal abuse, harassment, or violence at work

58% on average say that they have a supportive boss

38% believe that their job offers good prospects for career advancement

Older Workers’ Jobs Are More Satisfying but Are Surprisingly Physical

When it comes to workplace satisfaction, age matters. Older workers (ages 50 and up) have more autonomy at work and flexibility in their work schedules than their mid-career peers (ages 35–49), and a larger percentage report that they are doing useful work. At the same time, many older workers have jobs that are physically demanding, which may put them at risk of injury if their hearing, vision, or balance is compromised.

63% of older workers can take breaks when they want to, compared with 54% of those in mid-career

71% of older workers report that they are doing useful work, compared with 60% of mid-career workers

58% of older workers report that they have physically demanding jobs, compared with 62% of those in mid-career

Retirement Is a Fluid Concept

Many retirees would consider returning to the workforce if conditions were right — and others already have. Forty percent of currently employed workers who are ages 65 and older have retired at some point. Of those ages 50 and older who are not working and not searching for work, 41 percent of non–college graduates and 57 percent of college graduates would work in the future if the right opportunity came along. And by "right opportunity," they mean less-physical jobs that give them some control over how they do the work and at what pace; they care less about employee benefits.

40% of employed workers ages 65–71 have previously retired

46% of retirees ages 50 and older say that they would return to work if conditions were right

42% of older workers value autonomy, as compared with 35% of workers ages 25–49

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.