To understand better the social nature of the American workplace, we surveyed 5,037 American adults in June 2022. We asked them about workplace friendships, relationships with supervisors, workplace social capital investments, and feelings of satisfaction, appreciation, and loneliness. The answers to these questions help highlight and clarify work as a social environment and activity and what that environment and activity mean for workers, employers, and managers.
Our data suggest the workplace is an important generator of social capital, with spillover effects for personal, family, and community life. More than half of Americans have met a close friend through their work or a spouse’s work, and those who have strong relationships at work tend to have strong social connections with their family and people in their community. However, not everyone contributes to or benefits from workplace social capital equally, with disparities arising along gender and educational lines. College-educated women and men with no college education represent the positive and negative poles of workplace social capital.
These findings mirror recent research that has identified a growing social disparity in the lives of Americans with and without a college degree. On nearly every metric, the college-educated are reporting more sustained engagement across a wide variety of social outlets. As a previous AEI report said, “College graduates live increasingly different lives than those without a college degree. They are more socially connected, civically engaged, and active in their communities than those without a degree.” It seems this disparity exists on the job as well.
Educational disparities are also associated with different outcomes in social capital development between workers and supervisors. College-educated workers are most able to take advantage of rich networks of relationships to access opportunities on the job, from mentoring to skill building to personal support.
Americans with close workplace friends are generally more satisfied with their job, more often feel engaged and excited about their work, and are less likely to be looking for new career opportunities. They are also more invested in and satisfied with their community outside of work. Where social capital at work is missing, which is the case especially for noncollege-educated men, loneliness and dissatisfaction prevail.
However, increasing investments at work also appear to be associated with a preoccupation with work that can become “workism.” The college-educated population, and women in particular, reap benefits from being the social capital catalysts, but they also report increased anxiety, stress, and dependence on work for personal identity. The close of this report discusses barriers to social capital development in the workplace, including imposter syndrome, crude or insensitive humor, code-switching, workplace tenure, and remote work.