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The Last Word Worker 'Deal' Is Off

April 9, 2010

I’ve been traveling a bit recently, so I’m a little late in getting to this survey from the good people over at Towers Watson, the global HR consultancy.

Late or not, this survey—depending on how you look at it—is either eye-opening news or simply a reconfirmation of what we have all known to be true about employer-employee relations for a long time.

Here’s how the firm’s press release puts it:

“The ‘Great Recession’ may have ended, but its impact on the U.S. workforce and employment itself looks to be deep and long lasting, according to the results of new research from global professional services company Towers Watson. The Global Workforce Study (GWS)—a biennial survey of employee attitudes and workplace trends—confirms that the recession has fundamentally altered the way U.S. employees view their work and leaders today, while dramatically accelerating changes to the basic social contract that underpins employment here. In stark contrast to earlier Global Workforce Studies, the 2010 results indicate that U.S. employees have dramatically lowered their career and retirement expectations for the foreseeable future. On-the-job advancement now takes a back seat to a growing desire for workplace security and stability—at the very point in time when traditional employment safety nets are eroding.”

Here are some of the findings:

• The long recession and jobless recovery have soured workers on the concept of the “free-agent nation.” Some eight out of 10 respondents say they want to settle into a job. Roughly half say they want to work for a single company their entire career, while the rest say they want to work for no more than two or three companies.

• Some 56 percent of the U.S. workers expect little change in the job market over the next year. Twenty-eight percent anticipate a continued deterioration in the employment picture.

• More than half (51 percent) of those surveyed said there are no career advancement opportunities in their current roles. An additional 43 percent believe they would need to leave their current organization in order to advance to a higher-level job.

• Despite these obstacles to career advancement, 81 percent of respondents said they are not actively looking for another job.

• When asked about the most important factors in a job, more workers chose a “secure and stable position” (86 percent) than “substantially higher levels of compensation” (74 percent).

“For many employers, the recession has put the final nail in the coffin of the traditional ‘deal’ that once existed between employees and employers,” says Max Caldwell, a leader of Towers Watson’s talent and rewards business.

“Not only have people seen many co-workers, friends and family members laid off, but they know they are increasingly on their own for everything from health care, to managing their career, to planning for a secure retirement. This represents a profound shift for employees and employers alike.”

I think Caldwell is 100 percent correct, and if anything, is understating this a little. Workers have been beaten, battered and bloodied in this big, bad recession. Not only are many of them terribly angry and unhappy, but their job satisfaction is gradually eroding as well.

This survey is worth looking at because some of the other findings—that workers are planning to hang around on the job until their late 60s and that they desperately want leaders they can connect with on an emotional level—are equally telling. They paint a picture of an American workforce that is hunkered down, risk-averse and hanging on as long as they can—until, they hope, they can afford to retire.

“The recession has clearly prompted many employees to rethink their priorities and focus on a longer-term commitment to their employer in return for some semblance of job security—despite the cuts or elimination of many programs, from bonuses to training, traditionally used as retention tools,” says Laura Sejen, who also works in Towers Watson’s talent and rewards practice. “Where once employers fretted over a ‘war for talent,’ they must now plan for a workforce that appears ready to settle in for years—perhaps even decades.”

This doesn’t sound like a recipe for cooking up greater global competitiveness for the U.S. workforce. Only time, and more inroads by the thriving economies in China, India and elsewhere, will tell. Wake me up when American business leadership figures this out.

Workforce Management, April 2010, p. 42 -- Subscribe Now!