Finding a New Boom Amid the Bust

When it comes to what makes us happy at work, job-satisfaction surveys have been showing for years that the size of our paycheck is losing ground to intangibles like autonomy, mobility, low stress, flexible hours, job security, health coverage, paid time off and other benefits. Does pay matter? Of course it does. But as China and other emerging markets have gained ground on the U.S. economically, American workers have begun to come to grips with what that means: in many cases, finding a standard of living that is slipping relative to other nations, and saying zai jian (bye-bye, for those not yet into basic Mandarin) to generous and automatic pay raises across industries. The recession has only deepened this trend. Workers who are elated to simply have a job aren’t squawking about money, and according to a Randstad survey, they now name job security and benefits among the top factors in their happiness. Competitive pay is moving down the scale. Another expediter is demographics. The massive boomer generation is entering its retirement years undersaved and in need of continued employment. Yet boomers are determined to scale back hours and stress, and some at least are happy to trade a big salary for work with meaning and which allows for a better work/life balance, so long as the bills still get paid.

America remains a land of opportunity and will continue to reward go-getters chasing dreams of wealth. But increasingly, our job market will also reward those who place a higher value on intangibles, and it will do so without relegating those people to a life of need. Certainly, jobs are scarce. Our economy has been shedding more than half a million positions a month. Yet even now there are pockets of employment, both for new grads and midlifers reinventing themselves, that offer decent pay with great benefits and security.

Where are these jobs? Think green technologies, which may be at the root of the next economic boom. Think government, which under President Obama is getting bigger. Think education, which is in more demand than ever thanks to the arrival of boomer grandchildren and millions of workers in need of retraining. Think infrastructure, where much of the President’s nearly $800 billion stimulus effort will be focused. Think about risk assessment and controls in a chastened financial system. Think health care, which is booming as boomers grow fitfully into old age. Many such fields present opportunity now, and because they pay well above the median annual U.S. salary of $32,390, they are good to be a part of, even in a recovery.