Disillusioned Americans are losing faith in almost every profession

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To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, much like a man, a good job is hard to find. And selling your soul (or at least a year and change of your life) to the man is no simple feat either, especially in the 21st century, where most jobs feel like swimming through muck as Americans navigate the polluted waters of late-stage capitalism. But don’t take our word for it.

People across the nation are looking at most professions with narrowed eyes and a level of skepticism once reserved for a dog with chocolate on its beard. The widespread malaise dates back at least to that modern classic of sociology, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 2000, which employed the metaphor of the decline of the suburban bowling league for Americans’ disenchantment and isolation. Two decades later, we are emerging from the convulsions of the pandemic to a “loneliness epidemic” that the surgeon general compared last year to smoking a dozen cigarettes daily. Now another nail in the coffin is none other than Gallup and its most recent 2023 Honesty and Ethics poll, revealing America’s slipping trust in its workforce. 

Surveying about 800 U.S. adults on 23 jobs, Gallup found that almost all professions have declined in terms of how most people view the moral standards of workers in them. In other words, more and more of us think most jobs are pretty shady these days.

The survey, which dates back to 1976, finds that almost all (12 out of 13) jobs have declined in ethical ratings in just one year. In a sweepstakes of mistrust of sorts, the only profession that escaped the slump was labor union leader. Trust has been chipped away over the years, to the tune of an average of six points since 2019.

It’s no shock that Americans’ belief in the system is dwindling. In a time of increased polarization, especially on the right, many Americans have found that candidates on both sides of the aisle fail to deliver on their lofty promises. As trust in our federal institutions crumbles to almost record lows, Americans are forced to deal with an economy that can only be described as feeling “bad.” 

Even if economists insist that the situation is less gloomy, many adults feel especially fatigued as they graduate from a crumbling education system and enter the pressure cooker of applying to college in order to somehow access an elusive dream job. Many young adults leave higher-ed with oversize student loans and navigate an economy marked by high inflation that stretches all the way into a $1 million price tag on a comfortable retirement. Americans are also living in an age with higher access to information, keenly aware of the problems of today, from pervasive climate change to constant news about socioeconomic turmoil and war. It’s all enough to make even optimists a little cynical, as the dissolution of a dream is blamed on professionals across the board. 

The most and least trustworthy of the lot

The good, bad, and ugly find a new name in politics, the media, and pharmacists. Senators, clergy, and congresspeople, as well as journalists and pharmacists, had an especially difficult year as their ethics ratings “hit new lows,” per Gallup. Most of the least trusted jobs are held by those in government as well as people in sales, including car salespeople and advertising practitioners.   

On the other side of the spectrum are jobs including dentists, engineers, and veterinarians. Nurses have held the title of the profession with the highest regarded ethics for 22 years now. When the pandemic was raging, nurses were held in even higher regard but have since dropped in ethics ratings. Even if we trust our nurses, we don’t pay or treat them all too well. As the banging of pots receded in the wake of the first waves of COVID-19, real respect wasn’t reflected all that much in the sector as about 100,000 nurses quit owing to burnout.  

Wrinkles develop in our trust of professions depending on a respondent’s college education and political leaning. On the whole and across years of conducting the survey, college graduates tend to rate professions higher on the ethical scale than non–college graduates. And depending on what political party one identifies with, some jobs are more likely to be trusted as Republican-leaning respondents trust cops more than Democrats and vice versa when it comes to college educators. Gallup attributes some of the disparity to election cycles and the party that is currently in office. So, while across the board we feel our jobs are less ethical, which jobs seem the most corrupt might depend on how you identify. 

And as Gen Z enters the workforce, they’ve made a name for themselves as they look to accept jobs that align more with their ideals and morals. It’s a tricky dance, as some financially strapped adults are often put in a bind while looking for good pay as well and find themselves forced to compromise one or the other desire. It seems as if, across the board, people are realizing the term “dream job” is too often an oxymoron.

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