Many factors determine how satisfied someone feels at their job. How often the boss back-pats workers for a job well done plays a part, as does the office's desk arrangement and whether or not the job in question is with Homeland Security.
But new research from Emory University's Goizueta Business School suggests that another, less malleable factor plays a role in how people feel at work: The macroeconomic environment into which they graduated.
Even though graduates who enter the workforce during recession years typically take lower quality jobs, advance more slowly, and make less money years into their career, they also tend to have higher levels of job satisfaction, says Emily Bianchi, an assistant professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. In her paper The Bright Side of Bad Times, published in the latest issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, Bianchi shows that those who enter the job market when the unemployment rate is up have greater job satisfaction. This is true not just with their first jobs, but years into their careers, and remains true even if their objective success is lower than their boom-graduate counterparts.
This is bright news for those "unlucky" youngsters who graduated in 2009, at the height of the current recession. Despite numerous scare stories about their record debt and inability to find work — and other reports saying they're uniquely lazy and entitled — it may be that recent graduates are actually more satisfied and less entitled than former generations.
Bianchi looked at existing surveys of U.S. grads who got their degrees between 1974 and 2011, and conducted her own survey of 247 working adults with graduate degrees. She found that those who graduated during recessions are more likely to be grateful for their jobs, and more satisfied at work, not only in their first job, but in future jobs as well. "This experience seems to leave an imprint on how they assess later work environments," she says.
Why? "[S]atisfaction depends largely on how people make sense of their results and the environment in which these events unfold," she writes.
Part of what makes recession-grads more likely to feel good about their work-life is that they're less likely to fixate on what could have been if they'd made a different career choice. Bianchi compares boom-grads to Olympic silver medalists, pointing to research that those who come in second at the Games are often less satisfied than those with bronze medals. Silver medalists, it seems, often obsess over what they could have done differently to win the gold.
Bianchi explains how that tracks for recent grads:
For those who enter the workforce when the economy is booming, there are presumably more actual or imagined paths to consider ("Should I have taken that teaching job in San Francisco?" "Should I have started my own company?") and consequently more opportunities for second-guessing and rumination. Much like the negotiator who can more easily imagine different ways events might have progressed, these graduates are more likely to wonder whether unchosen paths might have yielded greater outcomes. Conversely, recession graduates typically entertain fewer real or imagined job opportunities. Even those who secure jobs rather easily often recognize their good fortune (e.g., Gerdes, 2009) and are less likely to believe that numerous worlds remain unexplored. Consequently, these graduates are less likely to dwell on better possible outcomes and more apt to attend to the positive features of the jobs they hold. [Administrative Science Quarterly]
Maybe millennials are more reasonable, realistic, and grateful than many seem to think.