Most Americans believe employers “do their best” to pay employees well

Working for the kindly man.
Working for the kindly man.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Though they’d generally like to be paid more, most Americans give their employers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to compensation, believing companies do what they can to pay employees well.

The finding comes from a recent survey conducted by Quartz at Work and SurveyMonkey Audience. In an online poll, we asked a nationally representative group of people how they’re feeling about their pay. Men were slightly happier with their income (56%), compared to women (46%), but about half of all Americans (49%) said they were not satisfied with their earnings.

Nevertheless, a large majority (72%), regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and education, agreed with the statement that “employers do their best to pay employees well.”

It’s a surprising response, considering what the data show about wages. Even though seasonally adjusted wages jumped nearly 3% in 2018, they “haven’t made a big dent in corporate profits,” MarketWatch noted last month. Indeed, corporate profits have grown at an annualized rate of 6.5% over the past decade, with some sectors raking in double-digit gains.

As the New York Times pointed out last year, “Corporate profits have rarely swept up a bigger share of the nation’s wealth, and workers have rarely shared a smaller one.”

Why the consensus?

Typically, the topic of corporate profits is politically divisive, with the predictable parties defending or decrying soaring returns. So what would explain the broad consensus in our survey results, which traveled across political and demographic lines?

One possibility is that progressives who would normally side with critics of outsized pay for CEOs, and stock buybacks, aren’t reading the economics pages closely enough. Perhaps they’re unaware of the gap between how much their paychecks have increased and how much profits have risen.

Another possibility: In the same way voters, at least in the US, tend to give higher approval ratings to their own representatives than to Congress itself, American workers of all stripes may have more trust in their own employers than in the business world in general, and very well may have been thinking of their own employers in answering our questions about pay.

Another potential factor is a phenomenon identified by writers like Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (Knopf, 2018). That is, the majority of Americans may believe their bosses are doing the right thing because the rich and powerful titans of business have convinced us that they are.

“At the very moment when young people could have been expected to gravitate to real revolt…the plutocratic class put forward this radical new theory of how you change the world, which is that you do it through business,” Giridharadas says in this video for Now This media.

The effect of what Giridharadas calls a “brilliant” ploy—aided by compromised thought leaders, and what some call self-serving CEO philanthropy —is that an entire generation of young people have been “defanged.”

If he’s right about the mass hoodwinking, our survey results suggest it’s not only the young who have been taken in.