These days, work feels harder than ever. This isn’t just a case of the Mondays or a figment of our collective imaginations – there are data showing that jobs in America are, in fact, tougher than they used to be.
Over the past 40 years, the relationship between employees and employers has changed. In a nutshell, we are working harder and longer than ever before for our employers, and they, in turn, are doing less for us. The result is a relationship restructuring where each side has dramatically reduced its loyalty to the other.
Let’s take a look at the comprehensive data behind this seismic shift in the way employment works in America, courtesy of The Conference Board, an economic research group.
America’s Workday Then:
- In 1973, only 6% of Americans said they worked excessive hours.
- Just 7% reported having difficulty completing their work assignments on time.
America’s Workday Now:
- In 2016, 26% of workers reported that they typically work more than 48 hours a week.
- Despite the long hours, 50% of US workers stated they also occasionally worked in their free time. In line with this point was that 67% of American workers said they had to spend at least half of their time working at high speeds to complete their duties.
Pension Evaporation, The Rise of 401(k)s, and Health Care
Remember the good old days of pensions, employer-paid health insurance and loyal, lifetime employees? No more. Employers aren’t paying for our retirement, they aren’t paying for our healthcare, and they aren’t keeping workers on the payroll for decades.
Instead, companies have instituted an a-la-carte system from which employees pick and pay for their “benefits.” This is one that everyone knows, but here are the cold hard numbers:
up to the 1980s:
- Pensions were the most common form of employer-sponsored retirement plan.
- Looking at data from 1979, 38% of all private-sector workers participated in a pension plan, with their employers guaranteeing a preset monthly payout to retirees.
- A mere 13% of private-sector workers had pension plans.
These days, 401(k)s are the favored method of employer-sponsored retirement saving. With 401(k)s, employers have shifted the retirement planning responsibility to employees.
1979: 17% of workers had 401(k) accounts.
2014: 45% of employees had 401(k) plans.
2017: Today, however, more private-sector workers have access to an employer-sponsored plan (401(k)s, 403(b)s, etc.) of some kind. Specifically, 66% of workers in 2017 had a retirement plan, as compared with 57% in 2003.
Turning our attention to health insurance, the skyrocketing cost of healthcare has not been lost on employers. Here’s how health insurance coverage has changed over the past few decades: almost all – 97% to be precise – of full-time workers at large and medium-size companies received health insurance through their employers. Most of them didn’t pay a dime. During this time, 72% of workers with single coverage paid no premium, while 51% of workers with family coverage paid no premium.
In 1980, almost all – 97% to be precise – of full-time workers at large and medium-size companies received health insurance through their employers. Most of them didn’t pay a dime. During this time, 72% of workers with single coverage paid no premium, while 51% of workers with family coverage paid no premium. Can you imagine paying nothing for health care? Probably not.
In 2016, only 61% of all workers (full-time and part-time) at large companies had employer-sponsored health insurance. Counting small companies, which are less likely to offer insurance, that number drops to 55%. Fewer employers paid the full cost of the insurance; only 12% of those with single coverage paid no premium in 2016, and 3% of those with family coverage paid no premium.
We’ve gone from 72% all the way down to 12% in the realm of employer-paid premiums. No wonder paying zero for health insurance feels like a long-ago dream.
Unions Fall and Independent Contractors Rise
The changes in the workplace have coincided with a shifting relationship between employers and employees. The percentage of Americans represented by unions has fallen, meaning workers have less bargaining power to maintain generous benefits and job security.
1983: 16.8% of private-sector workers belonged to unions.
1995: 10% of U.S. workers were employed as temps or independent contractors.
2015: 15.8% of workers were employed as temps or independent contractors.
2016: only 6.4% of private-sector workers belonged to unions. Additionally, the proportion of Americans working as temps or independent contractors is on the rise. Remember that these roles often come without retirement or health benefits.
What is behind this trend? The continued evolution of efficiency in business, and more focus on shareholders, private equity owners and conglomerates.
Is Work-Life Balance Better?
Perhaps to compensate for the lag in true benefits, employers now offer more flexibility, more paid time off, and the allowance of less time in the office via telecommuting.
1979: 56% of full-time workers at medium and large companies received paid days off to treat an illness or injury.
1995: 2% of full-time workers at medium and large companies had access to paid parental leave.
2016: 76% of all full-time workers received paid days off to treat an illness or injury. Here, we see a slight shift in companies being more “humane” with their employees, likely due to public relations pressure. 16% of full-time workers at medium and large companies had access to paid parental leave.
Many employees today telecommute for some portion of their workweek. This may seem like a big bonus, working from home in your PJs. But the flipside is the employer’s expectation that you’ll be piped into the office around the clock, either online, on your smartphone or on Go-To-Meeting.
In 1995, 2% employees were allowed to work remotely.
According to The Conference Report, by 2016, 8% of employees could work remotely. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that number to be much higher, pegging it as having grown threefold since 1996, from 20% to 60%. A Gallup poll from 2016 puts the number of folks who can work from home at 43%.
No matter which poll you believe, the recent numbers are all a heck of a lot higher than 2%.
As with any story, there are positives and negatives here.
The positive spin is that there’s a case to be made that work-life balance is better today than it used to be. After all, workers have more say over when and where they work. But the downside to this point is that we’re expected to always be on call.
When it comes to benefits, you don’t have to read between the lines. Employer-sponsored perks like retirement and health care benefits are on the decline and nothing signals that will change. My advice – set your sights on becoming financially independent as soon as possible. From the data, it seems clear that the value of employee benefits will only continue to go down.
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