Is job security really the top concern?

According to the New York Times, a report by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University finds that college students and recent graduates rank job security above other major life goals.

Well, yes. But when asked about the job attributes that were most important to them, working adults ranked the following above or alongside job security: work/life balance, positive work environment/culture, good compensation, and having interesting work to do. Undergraduate and graduate students gave similar rankings, except that they ranked compensation just below job security. (The exact rankings vary according to your reading of the data; if you look at “essential” job attributes,  the ranking comes out one way; if you  look at “essential or very important” attributes, it rearranges a little, but not much.)

Now, as for life goals, it doesn’t appear that work/life balance, positive work environment, or intesting work were even offered as options. One could argue that the first two aren’t life goals.But the third could be. Given that both students and adults ranked it so high among job attributes, it’s likely they would have ranked it high among life goals as well. Having a job “with impact on causes important to me” was listed among the life goal options, but that’s not the same as having an interesting job.

So, while the New York Times doesn’t exactly misstate what’s in the report, it draws skewed conclusions from it. Yes, when given a limited set of options for life goals, college students and adults ranked job security highest. Yet when it came to job attributes, the quality and substance of the job mattered at least as much to them as job security. Also, what can one draw from the fact that of all the job attributes listed, work/life balance ranks highest?

Of course this report isn’t the final word on what people want  from jobs. Polls have limitations to begin with, and this one may have caveats that I haven’t noticed. But what it says is intriguing.


  1. Ponderosa says:

    They want job security? How contemptible! How French! Only losers and the lazy even think about such base concerns. Right there is proof that they don’t deserve any job.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      I don’t consider it base or petty to value job security. I just found it interesting that the participants ranked having an interesting job about as high, and work/life balance even higher.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    My sarcasm wasn’t directed toward you, Diana –more toward a pervasive American view of the ideal worker –“passionate” (read: willing to be exploited); armed to the teeth with skill-sets; infinitely adaptable; eager to uncritically embrace the latest act of “creative destruction”; scornful of quaint concepts like 40 hour weeks, pensions, worker solidarity and job security.

    • Sean Mays says:

      Ponderosa – I don’t know that the view is uniquely American so much as we have drunk more deeply of the Kool-Aid.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      That’s what I thought, Ponderosa. I just wanted to clarify that point. I had intended to bring it up in the post, but it was slow going with the ipad, getting the links and italics in and fixing typos.

  3. I am an ‘at will’ employee (as is everyone) at the small company where I work. Any job security I have comes from my broad and varied skill set, my ability and desire to learn new skills and undertake new tasks, and my work ethic. Without these, what good am I to my employer??

    I don’t see modern education doing anything to encourage any of these necessary things, rather, reward has been de-coupled from effort. A sense of entitlement rules!

    The differences between my current, private-sector, job and my former employment in secondary education are astounding (the private sector wins, hands down). I much prefer my current situation to the virtual sinecure of education; the former encourages constant improvement and innovation, while the latter eventually produces personal and professional stagnation (though it may be years before the rot sets in).

  4. The money is better, too…

  5. The thing is, if these college students and grads were sentenced to working 40 years at their first real job site, I think they’d change their minds pretty quick. I’m sure they want security, but they also want to be able to leave when they want and get a different job when they want. Very few people hit the right job right out of college.

  6. Maybe the kids in the poll have come to the conclusion that work/life balance, positive work environment/culture, good compensation and having interesting work to do are all predicated on having a job. Perhaps the last four or five years have disabused them of the notion that one can simply assume gainful employment and spend the bulk of your time worrying about a proper work/life balance, etc.

    That would certainly put them at odds with the previous generation since it implies that the self-centric universe isn’t really how reality’s built.

    Whoa! Bummer!

  7. Supersub says:

    On the topic of Diana’s mentioning of “job attributes” like work/life balance…

    It seems to me that the adults polled don’t want to work outside scheduled hours, want to be pat on the back all the time, have fun work to do, and be paid more than what the work is worth… it sounds a lot like my high schoolers. They won’t do homework, can’t take criticism, complain about classwork being boring, and are shocked when they don’t get A’s just for showing up.

    I’m reminded of all the laid-off middle managers that scoffed at the idea of working retail when the economy was crashing after 2001.

    Somewhere the idea of working hard to earn money to support oneself got lost in the narcissistic pursuit of trying to find a job that’s worthy of one’s efforts.

    • Let’s see…do I want to work outside scheduled hours? Nope, but I do. Do I want praise and encouragement? Yep – who doesn’t? Do I want fun work to do? Maybe not fun like a roller coaster, but definitely meaningful. Doesn’t mean I won’t do data-entry or sell shirts to pay the bills, but that’s not my goal. Do I want to be paid more than the work is worth? No…but I suppose that depends on who determines what my work is worth. I’m happy with my pay right now. If someone were to suddenly decide my job was only worth minimum wage, then I’m not going to keep doing it.

      Setting aside the fact that I really don’t think it’s unreasonable to *desire* work/life balance, or interesting work, or job security, good pay, a manageable commute, or whatever else, I also think the comments scoffing at these things miss a point that may be important to many managers and bosses out there, which is that although the economy may still suck, and many people may still be looking for work, it is also true that jobs still exist. Someone gets hired – and there are still many people who quit jobs to go to better ones. Bosses may legitimately be curious about what factors are more likely to retain their best people, so they don’t have to go to the trouble and cost of dealing with constant turnover as their low pay or negative environment loses them the very people they might want to keep. Hence, surveys like this one.

      I have worked since I was 14 and have certainly worked at less than pleasant or lower paying jobs over the years — but if you are asking me a survey question about what I *want*, it is not realistic, or even desirable, to expect me to answer “You know, what I want is to work really hard at exceedingly boring tasks, for really long hours, for not much pay and no job security – and while you’re at it, could you please refrain from praising me at any time.” We may all have to put up with those things at times, but those are rarely people’s desires or aspirations.