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Why the American Worker Is Miserable

So why don't they just quit in grand fashion and do something a bit more rewarding? Because the housing bubble's burst and the recession made them afraid to do so, and their employers know it. Yet another survey by Gallup finds that since the economic crisis peaked in 2009, there's been no better time to exploit the U.S. workforce for longer hours and less pay.

A full 43% of U.S. workers are afraid they're going to have their benefits cut, down just slightly from 46% in 2009. Another 31% see a pay cut in their future, which is nearly the same as the 32% from four years earlier. Meanwhile, 29% are worried that they'll be laid off, which is a smaller percentage than the 32% in 2009, but still greater than the 26% who feared getting the fired in 2010.

Frankly, workers' finances haven't recovered well enough for them to leap from their current drudgery without taking a long look ahead. As MainStreet's Ellen Chang discovered, 29% of U.S. workers surveyed by Cigna said they would exhaust their resources in a month or less if they left their job for any reason.

Besides, have you seen the job market lately? It's not exactly a dream factory, or any factory for that matter. The nation added 208,000 jobs in October, according to the Labor Department, but nearly a quarter of those jobs came in the leisure and hospitality sector. There are three unemployed U.S. workers for every job opening, compared to 1.5 in 2007, and 45% of the nation's unemployed are between age 18 and 34. The U.S. economy would have to add another 4.1 million jobs before young adults get back to prerecession employment levels.

The No. 1 job in the country belongs to the retail salespeople wearing the colorful smocks of Wal-Mart (WMT - Get Report), Target (TGT - Get Report), Home Depot (HD - Get Report), Lowe's (LOW - Get Report) and other big-box stores. Nationwide, 4.3 million retail salespeople are making an average of $25,000, or well below the annual mean wage of $45,790. America has more retail workers than Kentucky has citizens and a larger big-box work force than the populations of Wyoming, Vermont, Washington, D.C., North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota combined.

The result is a workforce that's been laid off and downsized multiple times, is overeducated or underpaid for the jobs it found afterward and is only in its current position because the bosses keep signing the paychecks. Meanwhile, companies are left with either a transient workforce with no allusions of loyalty to its employer or, on the other end of the spectrum, a growing number of groveling serfs that the folks at headquarters can bend to their will.

So what's the answer? Well, employees could hope that their company starts handing out Google-type benefits or takes Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewing Company's lead and converts to an employee ownership model, but those kind of pipe dreams died out a long time ago. Instead, maybe they should look to their millennial coworkers for some guidance. A Harris survey for the University of Phoenix found that 80% of workers in their 20s say they want to change careers, compared to 64% of 30-somethings and 54% in their 40s.

Granted, it's a lot easier to say something like that with no family or mortgage tying you down, but the Labor Department found that the average 25-year-old has already worked 6.3 jobs since he or she turned 18. Jumping around to different companies isn't exactly new, and the Harris survey indicates that the jobs millennials are working now are seen as launching points for jobs in the arts and sciences, business management, technology and health care. A survey of Harvard graduates earlier this year found them not only shunning Wall Street, but gunning for jobs at Google (GOOG) and St. Jude's Children's Hospital with equal fervor.

Again, that's a tough leap to make when you're already facing either family responsibilities, financial burdens or some mix of both. However, is taking a stab at the unknown really worse than taking a lackluster paycheck from an employer that only makes you miserable and resentful? It's not an easy decision, but the easy route of giving yourself an ulcer and spewing vitriol at folks like Musk and Apple CEO Tim Cook under a comments-field pseudonym isn't doing the world any favors, either.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.
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