Our grandparents wanted security and stability at work. 50 years later, we’ve given up on that to search for something else.

Some aspects of the American workplace have stayed the same; others have disappeared entirely. Shutterstock
  • For our grandparents, good jobs meant employers that would take care of them.
  • Today’s workers don’t expect security or stability. Instead they want a job that contributes to a fulfilling life and allows them some flexibility.
  • The gig economy is also a relatively new development, though most workers who are holding down multiple part-time jobs are doing so out of economic necessity.

There’s no one, universal definition of a “good job” today. But the picture I pieced together from interviewing and surveying people at various stages of their lives and careers looks a lot different than it would have a few decades earlier.

For one thing, expectations around job security have changed drastically. I spoke with Rebecca Fraser-Thill, the director of faculty engagement in the Bates Center for Purposeful Work at Bates College and a career coach with the Pivot program (I was one of her coaching clients in 2017), and she said previous generations of workers wanted security and stability from their employers. Today’s workers don’t necessarily expect that – instead, they want a sense of personal fulfillment, whether that comes from one job, two jobs, or a job and a side hustle.

That is to say, today’s employees don’t anticipate that their employers will want to keep them on payroll forever. (See: LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman’s writings on “tours of duty,” or limited stints with a particular organisation.)

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It’s also to say that today’s workers don’t see a pot of money glistening at the end of their career paths. According to a 2014 report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the number of American workers with a defined benefit plan (i.e. a pension, which provides a specific amount of money in retirement) decreased from 62% in 1983 to 17% in 2013.

In an INSIDER survey through SurveyMonkey Audience, of about 1,000 people in early December, respondents ages 18 to 29 were 19 percentage points less likely than the average respondent to say a pension is essential to a good job. Respondents over 60, on the other hand, were 13 percentage points more likely.

Even within the last decade, the concept of job security has changed. Brie Reynolds, a career coach and the career specialist at FlexJobs, told me that after the 2008 economic downturn, people realised their jobs might not last forever. As a result, Reynolds said, they started to think about how they wanted work to fit into their overall life. That is to say, work was no longer the biggest focus. Indeed, in the Business Insider survey, the third most popular choice for essential aspects of a a good job was work/life balance (74%).

Job tenure has decreased markedly for one age group in particular

Interestingly, quashed hopes around job security haven’t necessarily translated to decreasing job tenure. In fact, the average US worker today stays at a job slightly longer than the average worker in 2000.

As Mark Gimein wrote in The New Yorker in 2015, the group for which job tenure has decreased most markedly is middle-aged workers. According to data compiled by Julie Hotchkiss, research economist and senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, when Americans born in 1933 were in their 50s, they stayed at a job for 13 years on average; when Americans born in 1963 were in their 50s, they stayed at a job for 8.5 years on average.

Read more: I asked more than a dozen people what a ‘good’ job looks like, and noticed a curious pattern among the worst jobs they have had

“The real problem of job stability is conspicuously a problem of later age,” Gimein wrote in The New Yorker, “and its image is not really the younger worker looking for a good start but the older worker trying to re-start a failing career or hopping though Amazon warehouses.”

Flexibility and the gig economy are new developments

One of the more obvious changes in the American workplace is the evolution of flexible work, thanks largely to technological advances that make it possible to work almost wherever and whenever.

In the Business Insider survey, 53% of respondents said flexibility is essential to a good job. And on LinkedIn’s list of top companies, most offer flexible working arrangements; 34% of respondents in a LinkedIn survey said they would take a 10% pay cut to design their own schedule.

This type of flexibility makes it possible to hold down multiple jobs at once, or at least a job and a side hustle. Fred Goff, the CEO of Jobcase, or “LinkedIn for blue-collar workers,” told me that Jobcase members often have multiple jobs “stitched together” at once, like working at an Amazon warehouse and driving for Uber or Lyft.

Yet this participation in the so-called gig economy is more often a function of economic necessity than a search for personal fulfillment. Most people don’t prefer doing 1099 work to having a single, stable career, Goff said (referring to the tax forms independent contractors complete). “They’re doing it to supplement their income. That’s the reality of who we’re serving.”

SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weight its sample based on race or income. Total 1,037 respondents, margin of error plus or minus 3.11 percentage points with 95% confidence level.