Experts have been puzzling over a seeming disconnect in America: By most measures the economy is doing well, but it's not giving people much satisfaction or confidence. Could it, they wonder, have something to do with social media, or the human propensity to share bad news first?

Actually there's no mystery—if one thinks of people as workers instead of consumers. Even as unemployment remains extremely low, they have ample reason for discontent.

In 2023 alone, about half a million workers went on strike, an eight-fold increase from just two years prior. Many more threatened to do so. And while all sought higher pay, their grievances went far beyond wages. Job quality and job security featured in both the articulated demands of strikers and the discontent of workers lacking organized representation.

Hotel workers in Las Vegas wanted extended recall rights in the case of layoffs. Rail workers wanted sick days. UPS drivers wanted to put air conditioning in trucks and take cameras out of them. Auto workers wanted to end the use of lower-paid, temporary staff. Academics and grad students wanted child care help and paid leaveActors and writers wanted to protect their jobs from AI encroachment. Nurses wanted more control over shift assignments and staffing levels, which they said put patients at risk.

As of last year, approval of labor unions stood at 71%, the highest level since 1965. Most Americans say they want unions to have more influence in the economy. Researchers at Cornell have attributed this growing support to the “voice gap,” the difference between the amount of say workers want over different aspects of their job and the amount of say they actually have. They found the biggest gaps in areas such as benefits, compensation, opportunities for promotion, job security and how new technology impacts the job.

Whenever researchers pose questions to workers, they get an earful. In dozens of Federal Reserve focus groups, grievances included burnout, unsustainable workloads, job applications that seemed to evaporate into thin air, poor job security, lack of agency and inadequate room for growth. Pew surveys found that while Americans care about their jobs and their colleagues, they’re unhappy with pay, promotion, communication, opportunities to gain new skills and paid time off. In the global UKG survey, 38% of participants agreed that “I wouldn’t wish my job on my worst enemy.”

For employers, the deep and widespread discontent should be a call to action. Yet the government isn’t making it easy.

Federal standards can help employers solve collective action problems: If, for example, all employers had to provide paid family leave, those who voluntarily did so would not be at a cost disadvantage to their competitors. But the US stands out among industrialized nations for its utter lack of such standards. When researchers at Oxfam created an index to compare labor practices among the 38 countries In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US scored the lowest at 25, a full 20 points beneath the next lowest, Estonia. Germany and the Nordic countries scored around 70.

The remedies are glaringly obvious. Providing for paid sick days, paid leave, predictable schedules, child care, labor protections for gig workers, livable incomes and a well-designed unemployment insurance system would make workers happier and benefit the broader economy. Yet, amazingly, there seems to be no political will.

It's no surprise that so many Americans are unsatisfied. The real mystery is how a country that purportedly values work can have such little regard for workers.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant.

This column was provided by Bloomberg News.