Survey: Employees Are Unhappy, But Young Workers Are Most Ready to Go

Photo by Dreamstime
Photo by Dreamstime

Add this to your list of paradoxes when it comes to trying to figure out young workers:

According to the latest What’s Working survey from Mercer, younger workers say that although they are much more satisfied with the organizations they work for than the overall workforce, they are also much more likely to be considering leaving for a new job.

Before digging deeper into that, however, take note of the the big headline on the survey, because it is about the continued (and well chronicled) downward slide in employee satisfaction and engagement worldwide — one in three U.S. workers “is seriously considering leaving his or her organization at the present time.”

“Employees less committed” than 5 years ago

Mercer’s analysis (the U.S. summary of the survey is here) is sobering and specific on this point:

New Mercer research shows that U.S. employees are less committed to their employers and less satisfied with many aspects of the work experience compared to five years ago. As a result, one in three U.S. workers is seriously considering leaving his or her organization at the present time. Of equal concern is apathy: The one-fifth of employees who didn’t commit to staying or leaving are least satisfied and engaged of all.

Two factors are behind this shift: an evolving employment deal that employees have viewed as a series of takeaways, plus further actions taken in response to the economic downturn, such as cuts in pay, benefits, training, promotions and jobs. From the employee viewpoint, not only has the deal been redefined, in many cases, the new deal is not being delivered as promised.

The business consequences of this erosion in employee sentiment are significant. As the economy improves and new job opportunities emerge, employers risk losing valued talent and also face productivity and morale issues among workers who remain. Adding to the complexity is emerging generational tension as Millennials enter the workforce in growing numbers, bringing with them wholly different expectations regarding work.”

The paradox with younger workers

But the What’s Working survey also found that in response to the question, “At the present time, I am seriously considering leaving my organization,” that the youngest workers (age 16–24) recorded scores of agreement with that statement that average 10 percentage points higher than the overall workforce worldwide, while scores for workers age 25–34 average 5 percentage points higher.

The gap when asked this “considering leaving my organization” question was even greater in the U.S., where workers age 16–24 scored 12 percentage points higher than the total U.S. market score of 32 percent, while those 25–34 years of age scored 8 percentage points higher (44 percent and 40 percent, respectively).

Yet despite this propensity to leave, when asked about overall satisfaction with their organizations, the survey found that younger workers registered satisfaction scores HIGHER than the overall workforce in most global markets.

Scores for employees age 16–24 were higher in 14 of the 17 markets worldwide by an average of 5 percentage points. Scores for employees age 25–34 were higher in 11 of the 17 markets by an average of 2 percentage points globally. In the U.S., the percentage of both age groups that were satisfied was 71 percent, or 4 percentage points above the total U.S. market score of 67 percent.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering what is going on here, you’re not alone.

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Findings present a “real dilemma for employers”

“These findings present a real dilemma for employers,” said Colleen O’Neill, North American Leader for Talent Management consulting for Mercer, in a press release accompanying the survey. ”Do they simply accept that young talent is going to leave no matter what the organization has to offer, or do they invest time and resources in an attempt to change the views and employment habits of their younger workers? Strategies, of course, will vary by organization, but it is essential to first have a clear understanding of an employer’s value proposition and then analyze what steps can or should be taken to increase the tenure of young workers.”

Mercer’s What’s Working survey, which examines employee views on work, was conducted over the past two quarters among nearly 30,000 workers in 17 countries, including 2,400 workers in the United States. The survey, last conducted in the U.S. in 2005, includes more than 100 questions on a range of work-related topics and reflects the overall demographics of the U.S. workforce in terms of age, gender and job level.

This is a broad and serious study, and it hits again on the very point that so many other surveys have hammered away at over the past year: workers aren’t happy with how their employers have treated them during the recession and beyond, and they are ready to leave “as the economy improves and new job opportunities emerge,” as Mercer puts it.

If you are a manager, executive, or HR professional, you should be reading surveys like this and figuring out just what it is you are going to do to retain your best talent, because many companies (like one I used to work for) are not particularly focused on the issue or even very worried about it. And, they will be the organizations left scrambling when the economy finally does improve and their best employees start leaving en masse.

The Mercer research makes this very, very clear:

Mercer’s What’s Working survey validates what employers have sensed or even seen in their own employee survey data: Employees are not happy. It also confirms that the employment relationship currently resides at a critical inflection point. An engaged workforce is more necessary than ever but, at the same time, more difficult to achieve, due in part to ongoing financial pressures that limit organizations’ investments in potential solutions.

The takeaway for employers: A clear understanding of “what’s inside employees’ minds” represents an important step in developing a blueprint that skillfully combines existing approaches with innovative ideas to improve engagement, performance and productivity.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


6 Comments on “Survey: Employees Are Unhappy, But Young Workers Are Most Ready to Go

  1. It would be helpful to know what percentage of workers age 16-24 were satisfied and engaged in their jobs 5 years ago, as well as what percentage of workers 16-24 were planning to leave their jobs 5 years ago, and compare that to today’s figures. 

    I can’t help but wonder if this is in part, perfectly normal. In order to advance in your career, a lot of times people need to leave their first job: whether if it’s to develop additional competencies; gain experience for a resume; or simply because the worker is still viewed as a clueless noob 3 years in the worker’s tenure.

  2. In light of this data, what does it show? Perhaps we need to let this “satisfaction” stuff rest a bit, put the responsibility on them for happiness at work (but must perform)

  3. In my experience, dealing with younger employees, most of them have low-wage retail positions and are seeking more professional jobs with higher pay and more professionalism.  Flipping burgers or making pizza, working telemarketing, is not perceived to be a career.  If there is no individual employee development at the lowest levels, and an obvious career path, most will jump ship sooner rather than later.  It is typical and age appropriate as employees enter or finish college degrees, or mature and understand more of what they want in life.

    I have found that three factors are missing in most organizations, and these lead to talent moving on to other companies/opportunities: No clear career path, lack of or recognition for individual development, and poor manager/employee relations.  Employees do not feel supported or recognized for great performance, and they see no way to get to other positions within the company.

    Employees feel satisfied when they earn a decent wage, fair benefits, and have opportunities to learn, collaborate and change jobs over time.

  4. John, I’ve read the Mercer whitepaper as well as several others.  What’s disturbing for me isn’t the research, or the screams heard on the streets, the employees are leaving, the employees are leaving, it’s how leaders ignore data.  Dan Pink said it best,”There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”  How many times in history have we shared similar data with organizations, how many times have we articulated the cost of turnover, using tangible data to support the case for it’s reduction, yet, for most and many organizations, little changes.

    The truth is that most employers won’t believe that there is a dilemma, plenty of fish in the sea, and for the most part they are correct.  The problem that they’ll face isn’t whose leaving, it will be, whose coming and what will they bring if anything.

    There is a myth in this country that our talent pool is large, I believe that exact opposite, it’s shrinking and at an exponential rate.  If organizations were to honestly assess their employees contributions and performance, the bell curve would scare the hell out of them.  I believe that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with mediocrity and that’s what employers need to be scared about.

    Just my two cents, thanks for sharing.

    1. Great comment, John. Yes, employers ARE ignoring the data. The “plenty of fish in the sea” comment (or something similar) is one I have heard from many executives, including one I used to work for. 

      And the problem is, they are right in a very small way but wrong in a very large one. Yes, there are a lot of fish to be caught, but the really good ones won’t stay around if they aren’t treated well, or are offended (as I was) about the cavalier attitude toward their entire workforce.

      You have hit the issue square on the head. We have a large and growing problem with the workforce here in America, and the shortage of engineers and other technical/science/math competent workers is just the start. That will spread to other parts of the workforce as the Baby Boomers slowly move out and they find that the replacements for the best of them are few and far between.

      A great 2 cents. Thanks for posting!

  5. Regarding the young workforce, is it possible that…

    1. Company values and ideals are often a facade, and many successful businessmen (and women!) know that the game is won by following the unwritten rules of the office and industry. These rules take time to learn, and over years foster the real corporate culture. Younger employees do not have the experience required to understand this anomaly.

    2. As technology progressed, older generations were challenged only to grow along with it…slowly and patiently throughout the years. Email and the internet have made many industries far more profitable due to  sheer speed and accessibility to information. Many times job performance can be linked to technical competency and the ability to quickly adapt to ever-evolving processes and procedures. Younger employees can work circles around their bosses on their cell phones when it comes to utilizing technology. Since most careers do not require direct knowledge in rocket science, brain surgery or nuclear engineering, it’s really not that difficult to figure out what you need to know to do your job well. How 1 company applies industry techniques that you spent the last 4 years in college analyzing should be easy enough to a bright enough person.

    I submit that the younger workforce wants to work for honest people with genuine intentions, just like it says on the company website. When we figure out that it has taken longer for you to learn how to organize outlook folders than it has taken us to learn your job, it’s disheartening. Certainly in many circumstances unwritten rules still apply and are good for business. However, the ones that rule internally are often out of sync with the company’s self-declared values and are there to protect the ones who made them and those who follow them. It’s not the owner of the company that the younger employees are dissatisfied with. It’s not really your boss’ fault either. It’s the cards that were dealt. One day management might be generationally up-side down. Because, we the younger employees, still believe in Santa….and iPhones.

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