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American Working Conditions Survey

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How do Americans perceive their workplace? According to RAND's American Working Conditions Survey, workers report that their jobs can be physically demanding, hazardous, and hectic—but also social and supportive. Despite the reported downside, many retirees would return to work if the right opportunity came along.

The findings stem from research conducted by investigators at RAND Corporation, Harvard Medical School and UCLA. The American Working Conditions Survey is one of the most in-depth surveys ever to examine conditions in the American workplace. Based on the responses of workers ages 25–71, the study shows how people see their jobs and breaks down most results by age group, gender, and education. The survey was conducted in 2015 through RAND's well-established American Life Panel, and follow-up surveys were fielded six months and one year later.

Highlights of the Survey

Working conditions in the United States can be harsh.

61% of American workers perform repetitive or intense physical work.

This work can include moving heavy loads or maintaining painful positions. More than half are exposed to hazards such as loud environments, extreme temperatures, hazardous materials, or unhealthy air.

The environment can be hostile.

20% report recent abuse or harassment at work.

These workers can be subject to verbal abuse, humiliation, unwanted sexual attention, or bullying or harassment — often from their customers.

Americans' jobs are hectic.

50% work in their free time to meet workplace demands.

Ten percent do so nearly every day. Twenty seven percent of workers say they don’t have enough time to do their job, and 66% work at high speed or on tight deadlines.

Workers have some autonomy on the job, but little control over their schedules.

36% have work hours set by their employers with no possibility for changes.

Although work is hectic, 75% of workers say they have enough autonomy that they can prioritize some tasks over others. This autonomy does not apply to their work calendars.

Still, work can be a source of support and satisfaction.

63% feel they are doing useful work.

Nearly 60% of workers say they have a supportive boss, and more than half have good friends at work. However, just 38% of workers say their jobs offer good prospects for advancement.

In fact, many retirees would consider going back to work.

56% of retirees 50 and older say they would consider returning to work.

Of these retirees, 40% of non-college graduates and nearly 60% of college graduates would work in the future if the right opportunity came along. Many retirees have returned to the workforce. Nearly 40% of currently employed workers who are 65 and older have retired at some point.

Research Briefs

  • American Workplaces Are Hectic, Hazardous and Physically Demanding

    Aug 14, 2017

    Half of American workers say that they work in their free time to meet workplace demands, 63 percent feel that they are doing useful work, and 46 percent of retirees age 50 and older say that they would return to work if conditions were right.

  • More Than Half of Retirees Would Return to Work

    Aug 14, 2017

    Results from the American Working Conditions Survey show that, overall, older workers report having more meaningful work and more workplace flexibility than their younger peers; and more than half of retirees would return to work under the right conditions.

Full Report

  • U.S. Workplace Is Physically and Emotionally Taxing

    Aug 14, 2017

    Americans face unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions, physical exertion, unstable schedules, and have to work during their free time. Despite these challenges, they have some autonomy, most feel confident about their skill set, and many receive social support on the job.

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Next Steps

For policymakers, employers, and employee professional groups, the findings provide contemporary insight into the working lives of Americans; how working conditions vary by age, gender, and education; and how working conditions might explain or influence employment patterns, especially among older Americans.

For researchers, the survey offers a wealth of data that can be used to learn more about many salient aspects of American working conditions, how they may be affected by public policy, and how they compare across developed countries.