Why Are So Many People Worried About Work?

New research on people's experiences at work reveals anxiety and worry.

Posted Jan 09, 2019

 Chevanon Photography/Pexels
Source: Chevanon Photography/Pexels

Yes, the unemployment rate is very low these days in the U.S. And that is a reason for many to rejoice. However, the American people seem very worried about their work lives, both currently and for the future. So, what gives? Why are we not just enjoying this period of relatively low unemployment?

In this post, I will review some of the real concerns that people have, which are reflected in both statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor and a recent research study that my students and I conducted known as the Boston College Working Project.

The actual rate of employment is best understood via the labor market participation rate. As reflected in this graph from the U.S. Department of Labor, our actual labor market participation rate has declined in the past 20 years. The labor market participation rate represents people who are working as well as people who are not working but seeking to enter the labor force. The unemployment rate is based on an assessment of the number of people in the labor force. So, what does this mean? There are many people who have given up looking for work, retired early, or been marginalized from the workforce due to ageism and lack of opportunities.

The labor market participation rate reflects a reality that is affecting people psychologically in discernible and disconcerting ways. This observation has been confirmed in the Boston College Working Project, which entailed 58 interviews with people from across the U.S. (The results of this project will be summarized in a forthcoming book, The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty: The Eroding Work Experience in America , which will be published in June.) In this post and subsequent postings, I will highlight some of the most important findings from this project.

The main takeaway from this study is that people are very worried about work. They are feeling untethered and anxious. Naturally, not everyone was concerned, but a surprising number were worried about themselves, their families, and our nation, even those with seemingly stable jobs. The palpable sense that I discerned from spending five years on this project is one of an eroding workplace with psychological and economic consequences. As many scholars are noting, we are entering a period of precarious work, which is defined by unstable and short-term work contracts. This precariousness is affecting people in many complex ways, resulting in growing anxiety and apprehension about the future. The economic erosion is captured by the growing awareness that inequality is increasingly becoming a reality in our workforce.  

As a counseling psychologist who has studied work and career for over three decades, I am humbled and moved by these observations. I will be devoting much of my time and energy in the coming months and years to alerting our society to the growing erosion of work and providing some ideas for solutions. I look forward to your input and collaboration.