For this report, Cambridge Reports/Research International teamed
with Stephen A. Zimney Associates, a New York‑based consultancy
specializing in human resources and communications research.

Executive summary 

The ability of today's economy to provide Americans with rising incomes and expanding job opportunities is in greater doubt than at any other time in recent memory. Even during the record-length economic expansion that began in 1983, growth in productivity was sluggish and the average American worker's wages failed to keep pace with inflation. The 1990-91 recession may have been mild in aggregate, but it has affected companies and social groups once thought to be immune from ordinary business downturns.

As a result, the public's perceptions of America as the "land of opportunity" are being shaken: In contrast to what we saw 3 years ago, a sizable minority -- more than two-fifths of the population -- now say that no matter how hard people work, many will find it impossible to become financially independent in today's economy.

This doesn't mean that Americans hold no hope for economic recovery. To the contrary, the public is more upbeat than last year about the economy's short-term prospects, and people seem to recognize that the country will emerge from the current recession. Nonetheless, we see evidence that many people now view the economy's short-term ups and downs occurring within a long-term pattern of decline.

Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental shift taking place in the outlook of Americans, a shift from a "psychology of growth" to a "psychology of decline." Since 1987, the minority who are skeptical about America's ability to maintain an overall course of economic progress has doubled. Worse yet, a growing number of consumers feel that working hard and sacrificing is no longer sufficient to ensure a brighter future for themselves and their children. There may not be any shrill alarm, but most Americans now believe their children's standard of living will be no higher than their own. And as this central tenet of the American Dream is called into question, there are increasing fears that economic failure will ultimately threaten the general character of American society and circumscribe the role the country has traditionally played in world affairs.

The shift to a "psychology of decline" has broad implications, particularly in the workplace, where employees are reevaluating the importance of their jobs, their commitment to those jobs, and their expectations of their employers. After diminishing through the mid-1980s, employees' sense of commitment to their jobs may be starting to rebound, but the elements of commitment seem to have been reordered. Commitment--which drives the effort expended on the job--is beginning to reflect a greater recognition among individual workers that their success is tied to their organization's success and to their personal job performance.

As a result, employees have new priorities they want addressed in the workplace. In the early 1980s, employees thought the economic pie would continue to grow and that "getting one's fair share," while difficult, was within reach. In such a context, earning a fair wage was the most important unmet need that could erode commitment. Today, equitable application of policies, fair access to advancement opportunities, and having a supervisor with good people management skills also rank high as unmet needs. Only in small organizations is pay the top priority.

These new priorities, which erode commitment when unaddressed, are important beyond their implications for managing people at work. With increasing frequency, it seems, American workers who call into question issues of fairness and equity in the workplace are also extending these attitudes to their assessments of what happens to them in other spheres of their lives. Employees' experiences of their employers doing, or not doing, "right by them" tend to color their judgments regarding the handling of broader issues that go beyond the private sector, deeply involving the private sector as well.

For example, Americans' shifting workplace attitudes are reflected in their broader views on the nation's health care system. Employees with low job commitment are particularly supportive of measures that would improve access to health care, voicing strong support for requiring businesses to provide health insurance for part-time and recently laid-off workers. By contrast, workers with high commitment are less supportive of business mandates aimed at improving access to health care. Notably, however, those with low job commitment are also particularly likely to favor instituting a national health insurance system.

Thus, views on control of and financial responsibility for a national health care system correspond closely with employee commitment. In part, this correspondence can be attributed to the fact that employees with low commitment have lower incomes, lower job status, and a greater sense of job insecurity. As a result, it is likely that they are more interested than other employees in guaranteeing their own access to health care.

While socioeconomic status may be important, the fact remains that these low commitment employees do not trust their employers to look out for their health care needs, nor do they trust the current health care system. In a period of national economic decline when "getting one's fair share" no longer appears within reach, employee perceptions of whether or not they are being treated equitably have become an important factor in the development of employee commitment. Workers with low commitment--who perceive they are not being treated equitably--are more inclined to feel they need government intervention to ensure equitable treatment from the nation's health care system. By contrast, high commitment workers trust their employers to treat them fairly and are not as inclined to demand government intervention and oversight of the nation's health care system.

Clearly, employee demands for fair treatment in the workplace have numerous implications for both business managers and politicians. And as the health care example illustrates, there are both internal business costs and external political costs involved when there are significant gaps between what employees expect from their employers and what they perceive they are receiving.

 New Workplace Priorities and Views on Major Issues Facing the Nation

Copyright 1992 Stephen A. Zimney. All rights reserved.