The Social Workplace: Social Capital, Human Dignity, and Work in America
Findings from the June 2022 American Perspectives Survey
October 25, 2022 |
Work, more often than not, is the center of life for Americans in a way that sometimes mystifies workers in other developed countries. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, Americans work on average hundreds of hours more than their European counterparts do. On top of that, close to one in four US workers do not take paid vacation or paid holidays. American parents also take less family leave after the birth or adoption of a child. But what do Americans expect from work, are they getting it, and how do they prioritize the economic aspects of jobs relative to other types of personal and social benefits work provides?
This is the first of three reports that will examine these questions. In this report, we explore the social dimension of work life and the role it plays in building human connections and strengthening social capital. The second report will explore the relationship between strictly economic considerations such as pay and benefits and the noneconomic needs that work helps meet. The third report will be based on in-depth interviews with survey participants examining how women and men think differently about work, what they value in their jobs, and how they approach the social aspects of work life and culture.
Work as a Social Behavior
The premise of these reports is that work’s primary function is not limited to purely economic factors. Rather, work and economic exchange are part of the broader human propensity for social exchange and healthy economies. Likewise, a healthy economy depends on healthy societies.
From kids trading baseball cards to multibillion-dollar-leveraged buyouts, economic exchange is also social exchange, a product of our tendency to work together as a matter of survival and companionship. The “invisible hand” of the market is, in reality, made up of countless actual hands acting out of our innate tendency to “truck, barter, and exchange” with one another. The social nature of economic exchange is the hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of work. Adam Smith likens work to family but in a commercial form, leading “colleagues in office, partners in trade, [to] call one another brother [or sister!]; and frequently feel towards one another as if they really were so.”
One study shows that social capital in the workplace explains almost 30 percent in variation in job satisfaction. Workplace social connections are shown to not only increase job performance but reduce mental health issues such as depression. Likewise, when the social workplace is less engaging and workers are less engaged, they also suffer in other domains of life.
Over the past two decades, American social and civic life has been on an undeniable downward trajectory. Americans are participating in social activities less often than they once did. They spend less time socializing with their neighbors, many of whom are now strangers, and devote less time to traditional institutions. Religious attendance, once a mainstay of American social and community life, has collapsed in many parts of the country.
In our June 2022 American Perspectives Survey, regular social and civic participation is rare across a range of different activities. Close to one in three (29 percent) Americans report attending religious services at least once a month. Fewer than one in five (18 percent) Americans say they participate in a prayer or religious study group at least once a month. Thirteen percent of Americans say they regularly—at least once or twice a month—participate in a sports league or workout group. An identical number (13 percent) report volunteering in their community this often; roughly half (47 percent) of Americans say they never do this. Approximately one in five (18 percent) Americans regularly attend a hobby or activity group, such as gardening or a book club.
The decline in civic and associational life has been well-documented. Robert Putnam identified the civic slide more than two decades ago, focusing on America’s social decline extending beyond bowling leagues and social clubs. American social circles are contracting rapidly. Americans—particularly men—have fewer close friends than they did a few decades earlier.
But as traditional ways of gathering have fallen out of favor, few replacements have been established to meet the need. Online social networks have been shown to be poor substitutes for regular in-person contact, and key “third places” such as coffee shops, bars, and public parks, while serving important social functions, are limited in their ability to create community and foster connection.
While social capital at work is both obvious and hidden in plain sight, it is also often taken for granted. When COVID-19 hit, six in 10 Americans lost touch with friends. When workplaces went remote, paychecks and workplace social networks were harmed. Workplaces top any other place of social capital generation including places of worship, schools, and neighborhoods, with more than half of Americans reporting that they have made a close friend through their workplace or a spouse’s or partner’s workplace.
COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated a host of other workforce trends that are stressing workers and employers. Labor shortages that had been somewhere in the distance before the pandemic are now fully present, driven by early retirements and shifts in market demand. High levels of people quitting their jobs, called the Great Resignation, have driven home the point that workers believe greener pastures await them elsewhere. Other workers may have dialed back their effort or reduced the hours they spend working, a phenomenon called “quiet quitting.” Some of workplace dissatisfaction is purely monetary, but a lot of it stems from dissatisfaction with workplace relationships or the lack of them.
Overview of Findings
To understand better the social nature of the American workplace, we surveyed 5,037 American adults in June 2022. We asked them about workplace friendships, relationships with supervisors, workplace social capital investments, and feelings of satisfaction, appreciation, and loneliness. The answers to these questions help highlight and clarify work as a social environment and activity and what that environment and activity mean for workers, employers, and managers.
Our data suggest the workplace is an important generator of social capital, with spillover effects for personal, family, and community life. More than half of Americans have met a close friend through their work or a spouse’s work, and those who have strong relationships at work tend to have strong social connections with their family and people in their community. However, not everyone contributes to or benefits from workplace social capital equally, with disparities arising along gender and educational lines. College-educated women and men with no college education represent the positive and negative poles of workplace social capital.
These findings mirror recent research that has identified a growing social disparity in the lives of Americans with and without a college degree. On nearly every metric, the college-educated are reporting more sustained engagement across a wide variety of social outlets. As a previous AEI report said, “College graduates live increasingly different lives than those without a college degree. They are more socially connected, civically engaged, and active in their communities than those without a degree.” It seems this disparity exists on the job as well.
Educational disparities are also associated with different outcomes in social capital development between workers and supervisors. College-educated workers are most able to take advantage of rich networks of relationships to access opportunities on the job, from mentoring to skill building to personal support.
Americans with close workplace friends are generally more satisfied with their job, more often feel engaged and excited about their work, and are less likely to be looking for new career opportunities. They are also more invested in and satisfied with their community outside of work. Where social capital at work is missing, which is the case especially for noncollege-educated men, loneliness and dissatisfaction prevail.
However, increasing investments at work also appear to be associated with a preoccupation with work that can become “workism.” The college-educated population, and women in particular, reap benefits from being the social capital catalysts, but they also report increased anxiety, stress, and dependence on work for personal identity. The close of this report discusses barriers to social capital development in the workplace, including imposter syndrome, crude or insensitive humor, code-switching, workplace tenure, and remote work.
Social Capital in the Workplace
Given the amount of time Americans spend on the job, it is perhaps unsurprising that the workplace occupies a central place in forming social relationships. More than half of Americans report that they have made a close friend through their workplace (42 percent) or a spouse’s or partner’s workplace (10 percent). Meanwhile, 44 percent of Americans report making a close friend at school. Three in 10 (30 percent) Americans report that they have become close friends with a neighbor. Fewer Americans report making a close friend at their place of worship (21 percent), through clubs or social organizations they belong to (17 percent), their children’s school (8 percent), or online (6 percent).
There are notable differences in the places Americans make close friends. College-educated Americans are much more likely than those without a degree to have fostered a close friendship in their workplace (45 percent vs. 35 percent, respectively).
The only places that rival work as a potential source of friendship are postsecondary education institutions. College is an important place Americans make close friends. A majority (55 percent) of college-educated Americans say they first met at least one of their close friends at school, compared to only 34 percent of Americans without a college degree. But this benefit is conferred only to the minority (40 percent) of Americans who attend a four-year college or university.
Workplace Friendships and Socializing
Social engagement is a key feature of American work. Most workers report having friends at their places of employment. One in four (26 percent) workers say they have at least one “close friend” at work, while more than half (52 percent) report having friends where they work even if none of them are close friends. Only 15 percent of workers say they are not friends with anyone they work with. Six percent of workers report having no colleagues or coworkers.
Regularly socializing with colleagues outside the workplace is less common. Just over one-quarter (27 percent) of workers report that they see coworkers outside of work at least once a month. Eighteen percent say they participate in social activities with coworkers a few times a year. More than half (54 percent) of American workers say they seldom or never socialize with the people they work with outside working hours.
People with more years of formal education are most likely to invest in, build, and benefit from socializing with colleagues outside of work. More than half of workers with a postgraduate degree (54 percent) say they socialize with their colleagues at least a few times a year. Only 38 percent of workers without a college education say the same.
College-educated women are the most invested in socializing with coworkers. A majority (55 percent) of college-educated women say they socialize with coworkers at least a few times a year or more. By contrast, less than half (47 percent) of college-educated men and only 36 percent of women with a high school degree or less say the same.
When it comes to making close friends at work, college-educated women are also significantly more likely than men to report developing these relationships on the job. One in five college-educated men have at least one close friend at work, while nearly three in 10 (29 percent) college-educated women are close friends with their coworkers.
Sharing Personal Issues with Colleagues
Discussing personal issues with coworkers indicates the depth of workplace relationships. Sixty-nine percent of Americans discuss personal issues with coworkers at some point in their careers. Nearly half (48 percent) of current workers report having done so in the past month.
Women are far more likely than men to confide in their coworkers, perhaps due to their greater comfort with discussing personal matters with people they know in general. More than half (55 percent) of women in the workforce said they talked about a personal issue with one of their colleagues in the past month. In contrast, only 41 percent of male workers said they did this.
College-educated workers are also more likely to confide in their coworkers than are those with fewer years of formal education. A majority (54 percent) of workers with a college degree say they have shared a personal issue with a coworker in the past month, compared to 41 percent of workers with a high school education or less. There is a gender gap among college-educated workers when it comes to discussing personal issues with coworkers. More than six in 10 (62 percent) college-educated women and less than half (47 percent) of college-educated men say they have discussed a personal issue with someone at work in the past month.
Women as Social Capital “Catalysts”
The higher number of social connections women have in the workplace and the depth of these relationships may be due to women investing more of their time and energy into developing connections at work.
Women dedicate significantly more time and effort to organizing and participating in social activities in the workplace. Overall, about one in three (34 percent) workers say they have helped organize a social activity, such as a birthday, happy hour, or holiday celebration, at work within the past 12 months. But women are more often involved than men are. More than four in 10 (42 percent) female workers say they have helped in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, only one-quarter (25 percent) of men report having helped organize these types of activities in the past 12 months. Fifty-eight percent of men report having never participated in planning or organizing a social activity at their place of work.
College-educated women in particular stand out for their commitment to planning and organizing social activities at work. Nearly half (49 percent) of college-educated women have planned a workplace social event in the past 12 months, compared to 32 percent of college-educated men, 29 percent of noncollege-educated women, and 21 percent of noncollege-educated men.
Trade-Offs in Workplace Sociability
Social planning has obvious costs in terms of time, but what about the rewards? Do workers benefit from their social efforts?
American workers who have helped organize a workplace social event in the past month are much more likely to feel regularly supported by their coworkers than are those who have never done so. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of workers who recently helped organize a social event at work say they feel supported by their coworkers every day or almost every day. In contrast, less than half (45 percent) of workers who say they have never contributed to planning a social activity at work feel supported by their colleagues as often.
At the same time, workers who planned workplace social engagements report higher levels of stress than those who did not. Nearly half (47 percent) of workers who have recently helped organize a social event for their colleagues say they have felt stressed out or overwhelmed at work at least a few times in the past week. Among workers who never participate in planning social activities at work, fewer than four in 10 (38 percent) report feeling stressed at work this often.
Even if workers do not spend a substantial amount of time socializing with their colleagues outside of normal working hours, most American workers feel like they are part of a team. Eight in 10 American workers say that being part of a team characterizes their work “very well” (38 percent) or “somewhat well” (42 percent).
Most workers also report feeling supported by their coworkers. Roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of workers report that in the past week they have felt supported by their colleagues at least a few times. About half (51 percent) of workers report having this feeling every day or almost every day.
College-educated women are significantly more likely than men to report feeling supported by their colleagues. Fifty-seven percent of college-educated women say they feel their colleagues support them every day or nearly every day. Fewer than half (48 percent) of college-educated men say the same.
Notably, fully remote workers are almost as likely as those working full-time in person to say they feel like they are part of a team (75 percent vs. 81 percent). However, remote workers are somewhat less likely to say they feel supported by their colleagues nearly every day or every day (43 percent vs. 54 percent).
Having friends at work increases the likelihood of feeling part of a team at work. Workers who are close friends with their coworkers are much more likely to report that feeling like part of a team describes their workplace experience “very well” (49 percent), compared to 18 percent of those who are not friends with their coworkers.
Bosses, Supervisors, and Mentors
Despite pervasive caricatures of micromanaging, credit-claiming supervisors, workers report feeling reasonably satisfied with their current boss, manager, or supervisor. Six in 10 (60 percent) Americans currently employed in a full-time or part-time position report that they are very or completely satisfied with their relationship with their boss. Thirty percent say they are somewhat satisfied, and fewer than one in 10 (9 percent) are not satisfied with their supervisory relationship.
Most American workers report feeling respected and trusted by their workplace higher-ups as well. Roughly eight in 10 (79 percent) Americans say they often feel trusted by their supervisor or boss, and about six in 10 (61 percent) say that they often feel treated fairly by their boss.
Still, many workers say they do not feel their boss appreciates them, and this feeling is even more common among younger workers. Close to half (48 percent) of workers overall report that they often feel appreciated by their supervisor or boss. Among younger workers (age 18–29), only about four in 10 (41 percent) say they often feel appreciated.
College-educated women are among the most likely workers to regularly feel appreciated by their boss or supervisor. A majority (55 percent) of college-educated women say they often feel appreciated by their boss, compared to 38 percent of men without a college degree, 50 percent of college-educated men, and 48 percent of high school–educated women.
Having a healthy supervisor relationship is important to workplace satisfaction. Seventy percent of workers who report they often feel appreciated by their boss say they are very or completely satisfied with their employment situation. Less than half (48 percent) of those who sometimes feel appreciated say they are satisfied, and only 27 percent of workers who say their boss never expresses appreciation for their work are satisfied.
Mentoring and Career Guidance
Even though Americans are generally satisfied with their immediate supervisor, many workers report they do not receive regular career guidance from them. Roughly half the workers who have an immediate supervisor or boss (53 percent) say they talk with their boss about career goals and opportunities often (19 percent) or occasionally (34 percent). However, close to half (46 percent) of workers say they seldom or never discuss these topics.
When it comes to career guidance and mentoring, there is a massive educational divide. More than six in 10 (62 percent) college graduates report that they check in with their boss or supervisor about their career trajectory at least occasionally. In contrast, less than half (44 percent) of American workers without any college education say they discuss these topics with their boss or supervisor at least occasionally.
College-educated workers are also far more likely to have a mentor at work. A majority (57 percent) of college-educated workers report ever having a mentor defined as “someone in your field of work or industry who gave you advice and helped guide you in your job or career.” Only 43 percent of workers overall and less than one-third (31 percent) of American workers with a high school education report they have had a mentor at some point in their career or working years.
Men and women with a college degree are about equally likely to report having a mentor (56 percent vs. 57 percent, respectively). However, there is a significant gender divide among workers without a four-year degree. Working men without a college education are 10 percentage points more likely to have a mentor than are women with similar levels of education (36 percent vs. 26 percent).
The Supervisory Gender Divide
Most Americans work for men. American workers are much more likely to report to a man than a woman, which reflects the existing gender divide in managerial positions across most industries and sectors of the economy. More than half (52 percent) of working Americans report that their boss is a man, 38 percent say they report to a woman, and roughly one in 10 (9 percent) report that they do not have a boss or supervisor.
However, most American workers have a boss who is the same gender as they are. Women are more likely to have a female boss, and men similarly are more likely to have a male boss or supervisor. Two-thirds (66 percent) of men report that they have a male boss, compared to only 36 percent of women. Most women (55 percent) say they have a female boss or supervisor.
Notably, the gender of American bosses and supervisors does not vary much by age, and only modest differences are evident in education. Young women are about as likely as older women to have a female boss, and there are few differences among men reporting to female bosses. College-educated men are more likely than men without any college education to have a female boss (28 percent vs. 18 percent), but education does not appear to make any difference for women.
Does the Boss’s Gender Matter?
The gender of a boss or immediate supervisor does not appear to have much bearing on the relationship between workers and supervisors. Men who have female supervisors are as likely to report being very or completely satisfied with the relationship as those who have a male boss (60 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively). The same is true for women.
Similarly, for American workers, their boss’s gender does not seem to greatly affect the degree to which they feel trusted, treated fairly, and appreciated.
However, when it comes to talking about career opportunities, early career women (age 18 to 34) who report to men have these conversations more often than do those with female bosses. Two-thirds (67 percent) of early career female workers with a male boss and 53 percent of those with a female boss say they discuss career opportunities or goals at least once in a while. Early career men with a female boss (59 percent) are not significantly more likely to discuss career opportunities than are those with a male boss (54 percent).
Women with male bosses also stand out when it comes to having the flexibility to attend to personal matters during the workday. Female workers with male bosses are the most likely to say that they often feel that they can take care of personal matters during the workday (53 percent). All other groups are roughly 10 points lower: male workers with male bosses (43 percent), male workers with female bosses (41 percent), and female workers with female bosses (40 percent).
The Benefits of Workplace Social Capital
Past research has shown that having an office friend is important in making work more enjoyable and rewarding, and even more so during the pandemic. Most workers do not have a close friend at work, but many would count at least some of their colleagues as friends, and few workers report having no friends in the office. Overall, American workers who have colleagues are satisfied with their coworker relationships, with 61 percent reporting being completely or very satisfied with their relationships with their coworkers. However, this isn’t true of everyone. There are benefits to social capital at work, and there are consequences when it is lacking.
American workers who have a close friend at work are generally more satisfied with their workplace relationships. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of workers who have a close work friend report being very or completely satisfied with their coworker relationships generally. Among those without a close friend at work, only 39 percent of workers say they are very or completely satisfied with their workplace relationships.
Good relationships at work may also contribute to greater overall job satisfaction. More than six in 10 (62 percent) workers with close office friends say they feel completely or very satisfied with their current job. Fifty-eight percent of workers who have friends at work but no close friends there say the same. But only 37 percent of workers who do not have friends at work say they are satisfied with their work situation.
Americans with close workplace friends also report feeling more connected to their work and valued by their colleagues. Close to half (45 percent) of workers with a close friend say they feel excited or engaged with their work every day or nearly every day. In contrast, only 19 percent of workers who have no office friends say they feel energized by work most every day.
Workers with close friends in the office also find more meaning in their work than do those who do not have friends in the office. Close to half (47 percent) of workers who have a close friend in their workplace say their current job provides a great deal of fulfillment and meaning. Thirty-five percent of workers with some friends in the office say they find a great deal of meaning in what they do, while only 21 percent of those with no close workplace relationships say the same.
Workers who have a close office friend are more likely to have discussed personal issues with a colleague or coworker. Nearly half (49 percent) of workers who have a close connection with a colleague say they have talked about a personal matter with someone at work in the past week. Far fewer workers who have friends at the office but no close friends there (32 percent) and workers without any friends at work (16 percent) have shared personal matters with a coworker or colleague in the past week.
Feelings of appreciation at work also are related to workplace friendships. A majority (56 percent) of workers with a close friend in their workplace say they feel appreciated and valued by the people around them every day or almost every day. Of workers without any friends in the office, only 27 percent report feeling appreciated and valued at work this often.
Not only are Americans with close friends more satisfied with their current employment situation, but they are also less likely to be looking for different opportunities. Having close friendships at work appears to significantly reduce workforce churn. Americans who have close friends at their place of work are significantly less likely than those without close relationships to be looking for a new position (16 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively).
A lack of social connection at work tends to track closely with greater feelings of loneliness and isolation among American workers. More than one in three (36 percent) workers who do not have any friends at work report feeling lonely at least a few times in the past week. In contrast, workers with at least one close friend feel lonely less often; only 20 percent say they feel lonely at least a few times a week.
Spillover Effects: Benefits of Workplace Relationships Outside Work
Are positive relationships with colleagues and coworkers associated with strong relationships elsewhere? Or does investing at work tend to mean people are less likely to invest in other social areas? Workers who have close relationships with their colleagues tend to have more friends overall, perhaps suggesting a greater propensity for social connections generally.
More than two-thirds (68 percent) of workers with close friends where they work have at least four or more close friends in their lives. In contrast, only 38 percent of those with no friends at all in their workplace have four or more close friendships in general. What’s more, workers who report having at least one close friend at the office are more satisfied with their social situation generally. Of those who report that they are close friends with their coworkers, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) are completely or very satisfied with the overall number of friends they have. That number drops to 43 percent for those who are not friends with their coworkers at all.
In short, people who benefit from social capital at work also tend to be benefiting from social capital more broadly, and people who are socially connected professionally also tend to be socially connected outside of work.
The Downside of Investing in Workplace Social Capital
Although workplace social capital offers significant benefits, there’s a potential downside to the workplace becoming the center of American social life and socialization including “workism” and workplace identity overshadowing other aspects of life.
Americans work a lot compared to workers in other developed economies. They also think about work even when they aren’t working. Sixty percent of Americans say that the phrase “Even when I’m not working I often think about work” describes them either “very well” or “somewhat well.”
Americans with higher educational levels tend to think more about work outside the workplace. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of workers with postgraduate education report that thinking about work outside the workplace describes them at least somewhat well, compared to 60 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees, 57 percent of respondents with some college, and 56 percent of respondents with a high school education or less.
Hybrid workers who split their time between remote and in-person work tend to think about work more often. Workers on hybrid schedules disproportionately report that thinking about work outside business hours describes them at least “somewhat well” (72 percent), compared to fully in-person workers (57 percent) and fully remote workers (59 percent).
A preoccupation with work tends to correlate with increased feelings of anxiety. Workers who spend more time thinking about work outside normal business hours report higher levels of anxiety generally. Among workers who say that thinking about their job outside of work describes them very well, 23 percent report being anxious every day or nearly every day. That drops to 9 percent for respondents who report that the statement does not describe them well at all.
Do Our Jobs Define Us?
Most workers say their work is an important part of their identity. A strong majority of workers (71 percent) say that what they do for a living is an important part of who they are.
Respondents with postgraduate degrees are most likely to say that their work is important to who they are (80 percent), compared to 68 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders, 69 percent of respondents with some college education, and 70 percent of respondents with high school education or less.
Full-time working women are slightly more likely than full-time working men to derive identity from their work (35 percent vs. 29 percent). For men, work becomes a more important aspect of identity as they age. Forty-five percent of working men over age 65 say their work is an important part of who they are, compared to 26 percent of men age 18–29. Women’s perspective on work as part of their identity does not vary as much with age.
Other Barriers to Workplace Social Capital
Americans face various barriers to building social capital in the workplace including code-switching, frequent job turnover, and imposter syndrome (i.e., strong, unwarranted feelings of inadequacy on the job).
The perception that workers need to alter some aspect of their appearance or personality at work is common. More than four in 10 (43 percent) workers say they feel the “need to change certain aspects of who you are in terms of how you look, speak or act” in minor or major ways.
Americans with higher levels of education are substantially more likely to report feeling like they need to alter their self-presentation at work. Nearly half (49 percent) of workers with a college degree say they need to make major or minor changes in how they act, talk, or look when they come to work. In contrast, 37 percent of workers with no college education say the same. College-educated women are most likely to feel the need to attend to their self-presentation in the workplace. More than half (52 percent) of college-educated women report feeling the need to make minor or major changes to aspects of who they are in their workplaces.
Younger workers (age 18 to 29) are far more likely than older workers to feel the need to make changes to their appearance or presentation. Nearly half of young men (49 percent) and a majority of young women (54 percent) say they have to make major or minor changes. In contrast, older workers are far less likely to feel this way. Among workers age 50–64, fewer than four in 10 women (39 percent) and men (32 percent) say they need to alter aspects of who they are.
While differences between white and black workers who feel the need to make major or minor changes are minimal (44 and 40 percent, respectively), Hispanic workers are the least likely to code-switch at some point (39 percent), and Asian workers are the most likely (54 percent).
Establishing strong ties with coworkers may encourage workers to remain at the same company or employer longer. However, it’s equally plausible that workplace relationships take time to develop. Workers who remain at the same employer have more opportunities to build meaningful relationships with their colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, newer workers have fewer close relationships with their colleagues. Only 15 percent of workers who have been with their current employer less than one year say they have close friends where they work. Workers who have been with the same company for at least 20 years are nearly three times more likely to report having close relationships with their colleagues. Thirty-seven percent of workers who have been with their employer for at least 20 years say they have close friends at work.
Another hindrance to workplace social capital development is professional doubt, commonly known as imposter syndrome. One in three (33 percent) workers agreed with the statement “I often doubt my professional abilities or achievements.” An even higher number of Americans report feeling they are not good at their job at least from time to time. Four in 10 (40 percent) workers say they have felt this way at some point in the past week. Overall, young women are most likely to experience imposter syndrome. A majority (55 percent) of female workers under age 30 say they feel like they are not good at their jobs at least sometimes. Less than half (46 percent) of young male workers feel this way. Older workers, particularly men, are least likely to feel this way, although some still do. Among workers age 50–64, roughly one-quarter of men (26 percent) and over one-third of women (34 percent) say they felt they are not good at their job at least once or twice in the past seven days
Interestingly, the gender gap in feelings of professional self-doubt is almost entirely among white workers. Close to half (46 percent) of white female workers say that at least once or twice in the past week they have felt like they are not good at their job, compared to 37 percent of working white men. The gender gap is modest among black workers and not significant among Hispanic workers.
Sexist and Racist Comments and Jokes in the Workplace
Workplace social atmospheres can also have negative characteristics and features. Ten percent of Americans have heard a coworker make a sexist joke in the past week, and 8 percent have heard a racist joke or comment in the past week.
Hearing offensive jokes or comments tends to correlate with gender. Men are about twice as likely as women to have heard a racially insensitive comment in the past month (18 percent vs. 11 percent) or a sexist comment in the past month (21 percent vs. 13 percent).
For female workers, hearing sexist comments is associated with lower levels of satisfaction with coworker relationships. Just under half of women (49 percent) who report having heard a sexist joke or comment in the past month say they are completely or very satisfied with the relationship they have with their colleagues. In contrast, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of women who report never having heard a sexist comment at work report feeling completely or very satisfied. Women who report having heard sexist comments recently also report lower overall levels of employment satisfaction than those who never do (45 percent vs. 57 percent).
A similar pattern is evident in the experiences of workers of color. Workers of color—a group that includes respondents who identify as black, Asian, Hispanic, or multi-race—express lower levels of workplace satisfaction when they have heard a racist joke or comment being made in the workplace. Less than half (47 percent) of workers of color who have heard a racist comment say they feel very or completely satisfied with their employment situation, compared to 60 percent of those who never have.
Workplace relationships may be even more affected. Only 45 percent of workers of color who have recently heard a racist comment or joke in the office report being very or completely satisfied with their relationships with their colleagues. In contrast, 63 percent of those who have never heard such comments report feeling satisfied.
Remote Work and Social Capital Development
After workers spent significant time working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns have arisen about the impact of remote-work social interaction. Over half (52 percent) of remote workers do not work closely with anyone, and 6 percent say this is because they do not have coworkers at all. Hybrid (21 percent) and in-person (11 percent) workers are much less likely to report not working closely with anyone or having no coworkers.
Remote workers are significantly less likely than hybrid and in-person workers to maintain close relationships with coworkers (16 percent compared to 24 percent and 30 percent, respectively) and to have discussed personal issues with colleagues in the past week (22 percent vs. 33 percent and 34 percent, respectively).
At the same time, remote workers seem satisfied with their level of work-related social engagement. There is little difference among in-person (60 percent), hybrid (62 percent), and remote workers (61 percent) in reporting that they are completely or very satisfied in their relationships with their coworkers. Similarly, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of remote workers, the same amount of hybrid workers, and 67 percent of in-person workers feel content enough in their jobs to not be searching for new work now or considering a job search in the next six months, which is comparable to levels of contentment for hybrid and in-person workers.
Meanwhile, hybrid work appears conducive to developing work-related friendships. At work, hybrid workers are the most likely to spend time with coworkers outside of work (81 percent), compared to remote workers (67 percent) and in-person workers (72 percent).
Remote work also seems to benefit nonwork relationships. Remote workers report feeling very or completely satisfied with the amount of time spent with their family (62 percent), compared to 54 percent of hybrid workers and 48 percent of in-person workers. They are also somewhat more likely to have made a close friend in their neighborhood than are fully in-person workers (28 percent vs. 22 percent).
Perhaps one of the most obvious benefits of remote and hybrid workplace arrangements is that they provide flexibility to take care of personal matters during normal work hours. More than six in 10 (62 percent) remote workers and slightly fewer hybrid workers (57 percent) say they often feel free to take care of a personal matter during the workday. Only 35 percent of full-time in-person workers say they often feel free to address a personal issue during normal work hours.
While it may come as no surprise that Americans develop social capital at work, this perspective on the role of work is often underappreciated when designing workplace environments. With workers and employers preoccupied with questions about salaries, wages, and benefits, many often miss the benefits of healthy workplace social capital and experience the drawbacks associated with its absence, including feelings of alienation and rapid turnover.
These data also suggest that social capital imbalances at work (e.g., variances associated with education and gender) present certain risks to social and economic opportunity and equity. Strong social capital may compound other social and economic advantages for the more advantaged and likewise add to other preexisting disadvantages among those with less social capital.
In our next report in this series, we will explore how workers think about the social nature of their jobs, the importance they place on social engagement on the job, and what role a healthy workplace plays in employment decisions and business productivity.
The authors would like to thank AEI’s excellent staff and research teams. Research staff Kelsey Eyre, Kyle Gray, Hunter Dixon, and Jake Easter each provided invaluable research assistance, design support, and analytical contributions. Shamma Pepper Fox, Matthew Veach, and Aarya Agarwal are acknowledged for their outstanding contributions to background research and insights. The authors also thank James Desio for communications support, Rachel Hershberger for careful and efficient editing, and Danielle Curran for design expertise.
About the Authors
Daniel A. Cox is a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Survey Center on American Life.
Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on job training, workforce development, and criminal justice reform.
Jessie Wall is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.
This survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 5,037 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviews were conducted between June 10 and June 17, 2022, in Spanish and English.
The survey was conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have internet access, Ipsos provides at no cost a laptop or netbook and ISP connection. People who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.
The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, and household income. Sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables. The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population.
The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 1.5 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. The design effect for the survey is 1.19.
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4. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018).
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8. Putnam, Bowling Alone.
9. Daniel A. Cox et al., Public Places and Commercial Spaces: How Neighborhood Amenities Foster Trust and Connection in American Communities, AEI Survey Center on American Life, October 20, 2021, https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/public-places-and-commercial-spaces-how-neighborhood-amenities-foster-trust-and-connection-in-american-communities.
10. Daniel A. Cox, “The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss,” AEI Survey Center on American Life, June 8, 2021, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/the-state-of-american-friendship-change-challenges-and-loss.
11. Brent Orrell and Daniel A. Cox, “The Great American Jobs Reshuffle,” AEI Survey Center on American Life, July 15, 2021, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/the-great-american-jobs-reshuffle.
12. Beatrice Nolan, “Half of US Workers Have ‘Quiet Quit’—and Managers Are to Blame, According to a New Survey,” Insider, September 11, 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/quiet-quitting-nothing-new-bad-managers-blame-study-disengaged-workers-2022-9.
13. Daniel A. Cox, The College Connection: The Education Divide in American Social and Community Life, AEI Survey Center on American Life, December 13, 2021, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/the-college-connection-the-education-divide-in-american-social-and-community-life.
14. National Center for Education Statistics, “College Enrollment Rates,” May 2022, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cpb; and Alok Patel and Stephanie Plowman, “The Increasing Importance of a Best Friend at Work,” Gallup, August 17, 2022, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/397058/increasing-importance-best-friend-work.aspx.
15. Patel and Plowman, “The Increasing Importance of a Best Friend at Work.”
16. This analysis is among a subsection of workers who report having a boss or supervisor.
17. Cox, “The State of American Friendship.”