Loose, suggestive survey evidence for ZMP workers

Nearly one in five hates work so much they sabotage their employers.

If you thought that Americans who kept their jobs during the Great Recession were glad to be working, you would be dead wrong. According to a Gallup.com report, 70 percent of American workers are “emotionally disconnected” at work, with nearly one in five employees “actively disengaged.”

Not surprisingly, young men are the single biggest problem, and another interesting result is that Red state workers appear to be more positively engaged with their jobs.  Of course here we are surveying those who have jobs, not those who have lost their jobs, perhaps a more problematic pool.

The article is here, hat tip goes to @EliDourado.


Has any country tried locking up all males aged 15-24 to keep them out of trouble?

Seems the US has gotten close to this during a few big wars. Locked them up, put them in uniform and gave them some spectacular tools for venting their aggression on others.


That and the higher education system. One of the effects of establishing a norm of near-universal participation in higher education (magnified by the fact that the median student takes just under 6 years to graduate) is to take young men out of the workforce. If you add up "higher" "education," incarceration and the military (as well as other forms of voluntary or involuntary withdrawal from the workforce), only a tiny minority of males under 25 are economically active. As post-graduate education starts to become the norm, that age may rise higher. For better or worse, that is a huge change from basically all of human history.

I would really love to see the numbers on this, actually.

The Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics is a place to start. According to this:

As of 2010, male labor force participation was 74.5% for 20-24 and 34.5% for 16-19. That sounds high, but it is a lot lower than 20 years earlier (in 1990 it was 55.7% and 84.4% respectively); also, since the BLS numbers include only "civilian, non-institutionalized" people, it does not count the c. 200,000 people under 25 who are in prisons on sentences (plus a number of people in jails, remand etc.), and hundreds of thousands more in the military. Also, of the "labor force participants", over 16% are unemployed. Put that all together, and although I don't have a total number, it's clear that a substantial majority of American males under 25 don't work (although calling the workers a "tiny minority" is probably an overstatement) -- which is a major departure from all of human history.

another 18 percent are actively disengaged in their work.

Does that represent 18% that are always disengaged or that all workers are on average disengaged 18% of the time?

Generally, we assume that some percentage of workers are actively changing jobs, hence it's pretty difficult to get below 2% unemployment. It seems likely that a certain amount of workers are "ready to quit" at any given time, but in the current high unemployment market, they are less likely to take the risk of actually quitting. So I would assume the amount of disgruntled workers to be high, since the normal safety valve of quitting and going somewhere else to work is not functioning normally.

On that last point, definitely true in my anecdotal experience. I had a job that the junior staff and lowest tier of middle management basically all hated, most hated vehemently, and yet in my 4 years there, which started a couple months before the crash, only one person ever quit without already having another job or additional school lined up.

In the absence of providing empirics, would you at least give a theory to explain why firms keep paying ZMP workers? It seems like a cash-on-the-table kind of opportunity, Amy Jellicoe notwithstanding. Is it that ZMPers are hard to identify? Or that its an aggregate thing, with everyone being a ZMPer some of the time? In the classical view wages = marginal product of labour. Obviously that's not close to being literally true, but it does suggest a lot of pressure to hunt out terminate ZMPers, especially when labour costs are such a big part of any businesses budget.

If ZMP were only an aggregate issue with everyone having ZMP part of the time, then it would no longer be an interesting definition. The issue is that ZMP workers are difficult to identify. Cowen has proposed that as an explanation for the difficulty the long-term unemployed have when seeking jobs; those with a positive marginal product have trouble distinguishing themselves from ZMP unemployed workers.

Stagger your employees vacations. Carefully keep track of the companies productivity and output while each one is away. If you pay someone 2000 biweekly, and they leave and your company makes what it does with full staff, tell him to prolong his vaca even longer.

The reality is that whatever the firm's incentives are, they are more or less irrelevant compared to the whims of the people who actually make the decision. Firing a genuine ZMPer person just isn't worth the headache, especially since in the era of heavy regulation of employment decisions, if you make any kind of subjective judgment call you're putting your ass on the line. Modern firms any significant size are indistinguishable from government in this regard.

Firing anybody, even someone you don't really like, is stressful. The stress comes from the initial shock to the rest of the workforce, and the subsequent adjustment process after said fired person leaves. If the person was relatively well-liked or popular, other employees will lose morale on top of being afraid for their jobs. Alot of workers feel overburdened by management squeezing every last bit of marginal value out of them.

Consider the following scenario: you fire someone whom you believe isn't pulling her/his weight at the company. Immediately afterwards business picks up, and you find yourself unable to adequately meet capacity since the individual you just fired had accumulated idiosyncratic knowledge despite their laziness/incompetence. and hiring a new employee (and bringing them up to speed) will divert time and resources.

My impression, based on my experience, is that even employees that aren't very engaged or motivated still have quite a bit on their plate that needs to be done - and nobody else wants to have to do it. That's just my impression, but I didn't like having to pick up extra work that I didn't understand when someone left, and my plate was already more than full. I'm not sure how motivated folks have to be to still get things done - many things are a forceful grind anyhow - not unlike automatons mentioned in the article.

Companies rise and fall with tight margins. I'm sure the stress of one pink slip would be relieved with $30,000 in annual savings. Offer managers a $29,000 bonus to weed them out and it's still worth it. The story I've always been told is actually that firing in a world of sticky wages is the least stressful option. As for your scenario, that employee wouldn't be ZMPer would he? He would be a 'some of the time' ZMP, like farmers in winter or an Apple store genius when the mall is dead. Obviously marginal productivity has to be averaged over a work period, like a shift or an agricultural season.

Tyler's theory reminds me of the famously hard to validate lewis-model.

Defiant youth alert. This is not a new problem, these people are just realizing that they are not special and unique snowflakes after being in school and acting out for attention the past 12 years. Maybe they resent the real world and being a subordinate for maybe the first time in their lives, or at least having to behave respectably as a subordinate for the first time. They'll fall in line when they realize their livelihood depends on it. The reason more effort isn't put into detecting these "ZMP" workers is because they aren't that valuable to begin with and monitoring costs would eat up any value to the position.

"Hey kids, feeling left out of society? Scrape up $400 for an autoloading rifle and join my $SINISTER_ORGANIZATION, where you'll learn to stick it to the $SCAPEGOATS who have been screwing you out of your rightful place in the world!"

No wonder the rulers think we need the surveillance state.

I was not a ZMP (produced quite a lot of value for my company), but I was definitely an emotionally disconnected employee at the national payroll firm where I was a corporate trainer, prior to returning to academia.

I suspect that at least some of this has to do with the (accurate) perception of many workers at big companies that the employer (the company, as opposed to an individual boss) regards them as exploitable resources and regards all other considerations as secondary to wringing the maximum possible value from them for the lowest possible cost. To put it differently, we all assumed that our company only cared about profits and would take actions that we perceived as harmful--say, by lowering our wages, extending hours, cutting holidays, or firing us--if it that action would increase profits. And, frankly, we were right; several employees won a lawsuit while I was there, alleging that the company had put persons in client training positions on salary in order to avoid paying overtime wages (we were all subsequently shifted back to hourly pay).

I don't necessarily think that it was unreasonable for my employer to maximize profits; it was a business, not a charity. But that didn't change the fact that the employer was a fundamentally untrustworthy partner. That sort of relationship tends to encourage exploitation (on both sides), rather than emotional engagement.

Misalignment of incentives.

Is it the workers, or the jobs? I'm pretty sure that at least twenty percent of the jobs that are on offer these days are mind numbingly tedious and pay almost nothing and that anyone of ordinary intelligence who had to do them day in and day out would quickly find themselves "emotionally disconnected” or “actively disengaged.” Bottom line: the robots should be doing most jobs.

I’m pretty sure that at least twenty percent of the jobs ... pay almost nothing Outside of farming almost every above board job in the US is guaranteed a minimum wage. And current minimum wage is not "almost nothing".

$7.25 X 40 X 52 = $15,080 a year.

Pretty hard to live on anywhere you have to pay rent and maintain a car for commuting.

It's not "pretty hard" in most of the country to share an apartment with a roommate and drive and maintain an older model car for $15K per year for a single person. US poverty level is less than $12K.

Indeed, there are several European countries with a GDP (PPP) per capita in the $15K range. And $15K is higher than most of South America.

I'll stand by the assertion that current minimum wage is not “almost nothing”.


$15,080 puts you in the 97th percentile of world income (http://www.globalrichlist.com/wealth). Of course, cost of living is higher in the US, but even adjusting for purchasing power parity, it puts you ahead of average income in a number of countries defined as "Upper Middle Income" (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Uruguay). Even after adjusting for purchasing power, it's close to the official threshold for "middle class" status in China.

Not that I'd like to live on minimum wage in America, but to put it mildly, there are a few billion people who'd love to make USD 15k, and calling it "next to nothing" is a little myopic.

It really, really depends where you live. As a graduate student, my annual income is in roughly the same territory as the number you are talking about. And living in the rural area where I live now, by sharing a house and driving a used car, I can stay afloat without much fear and even save a small proportion of my income. However, in the part of the world I lived in for several years before coming here, it would have been nearly impossible to maintain a car or to live in an even somewhat safe area on that salary, much less both at the same time, and difficult to do both even making double that amount.

College educated are less engaged than those with less education. Could it be that jobs for the college educated are less intellectually stimulating than they used to be? A lot of smart people identify with the movie Office Space. Hard work and discipline are one thing. Tolerating boredom and a windowless room for hours on end another.

Even occassional workplace sabotage, as long as it is only occassional and not in core functions, is not enough to create a ZMP worker. Having experience with low end retail and the restaurant management I would point out that sometimes you are just paying for a pulse and the ability to work under direct supervision. Granted these are basically minimum wage jobs, but believe me they are not ZMP.

I think this is entirely unsurprising. When there are no job openings, you stay at your job whether you like it or not. That would cause an increase of people who are unhappy at work.

I saw something similar to this in an earlier Silicon Valley tech slowdown. My workplace was not a good environment. A lot of people wanted to leave, but there were not any jobs to go to. So, they stayed and were unhappy.

When the economy picked up, a lot of people left.

Interesting. So maybe high unemployment creates ZMP workers? Your move, Tyler. Maybe we are in a ZMP trap?

Don't see the problem.
See, it's basically like high school or college, except now they pay me money!

The red state comment needs to have a whole lot of salt dropped on it. "Louisiana leads the country with the highest percentage of engaged workers, at 37% ..." Quite an astounding statement to anyone who has ever spent any time with the Louisiana workforce.

Actually the whole paper needs to have a couple tons of salt dumped on it. You need to understand that this is a sales piece for the Gallup organization, which claims to be able to sell organizations solutions to the problem. In the foreword, the Gallup CEO claims that the entire disengagement problem is due to "managers from hell" and is therefore readily fixable. Just hire Gallup as your consultant.


It's called "work" because it's often not done because people enjoy it, but because they need money.

I am not impressed by the survey as noted here: https://twitter.com/elidourado/status/348225976485965824 and I have to admit that the ZMP label has not grown on me (maybe revealing my own status). I thought this was the most informative 'theory' post on the ZMPers: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/04/zmp-workers-and-morale-externalities.html These are the 'bad apples' it seems that can ruin the whole bunch. But to me ZMP has to be much more conditional than the name suggests. It does make sense (as mentioned above) with less voluntary changes at the employee level and more cost cutting from the employer level that workers feel stressed and overworked. Why not tell this in terms of productivity or mismatch than self-assessed affect...or is that too boring for this blog?

This. The definition of what ZMP is, is getting looser and looser. Are we talking product or not?

Within 6 months of being hired in my current position, I saw an 80,000 person stupidly cut itself in half for the sake of the the quarterly report (not hyperbole, this literally is what happened). The management started with the highest salary people and worked their way down until financial reporting was good enough. This means that I saw people months from retirement fired after decades with the company, as well as people who had not been there as long.

If you think your job is anything but a relationship wherein you each benefit by making money, you are wrong. It is not a family, it is not a career, it is payment for services rendered, with those services allowing the company to make more money than you cost them.

Saying "young men are the single biggest problem" in this environment means you think they are too stupid to shut up and do what their betters tell them. This is not a persuasive argument.

Let's have a look at the questions they use to measure "employee engagement" (p. 19 of the report):

I know what is expected of me at work.
At work, my opinions seem to count.
I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
I have a best friend at work.
My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
There is someone at work who encourages my development.
This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

This seems to be largely a measure of "how crap is your job?", with, I am guessing, a strong "crap management" factor. It seems to measure nothing about the employee except for a tendency to give negative answers. It does not look like a measure of productivity at all.

Also, you can declare any percentage of workers "disengaged", depending on where you put the cutoff.

@LemmusLemmus - it's worse than that - there are jobs where, by definition:

a. You DON'T have all the relevent materials and have to make do - many a small firm, firm under pressure, old firm, startup.

b. Your opinon doesn't actually matter very much or at all. Because, say, your job is to haul away trash. Very important. Actually pretty stable work. But either all the trash on the route is collected without incident of any kind (in which case you are a success) or some of it isn't or there's an incident (in which case you may be fired.) Did you do this or not? As assigned? If yes, you are positive marginal product (whether you hate the job or not), if no, you are negative marginal product, regardless of your work ethic, etc.

One suspects that a great deal of 'disaffection' will be associated with dead end jobs where one is at the whim of outside parties such that one's results don't really relate to one's effort. Only job in town is at an eatery very few people frequent, and where they are bad tippers? Live will be tough no matter how hard you work.

Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward,” Gallup said. “Not Engaged employees are essentially ‘checked out.’ They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work. Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish."

Give me a break. The only choices are either A) passion and 'a profound connection to their company', or B) 'Sleepwalking through the workday' and 'undermining what coworkers accomplish'? So you're either starry-eyed, head-over-heels in love with your job and employer or you're a ZMP worker or worse? What nonsense.

"Gallup’s annual workplace survey is conducted as part of its effort to market its services to firms that are seeking to boost employee morale."

Beware of consultants bearing survey results.

Engaged employees are suckers. Unless you work for yourself your aim should be to do as little as possible to obtain as much as possible. Your employer could not care less about you, why should you care about them?

Caring is actually easier than slogging through it while not caring. Step aside periodically to assess your situation strategically and think "Could I be doing better elsewhere?" And move if you could. But day-to-day, work, and try your best to actually feel, like you are engaged and you care. It's a better life.

Mike Rowe used to say "Don't follow your passion. Bring your passion with you."

Agree 100%. Work can be easy if you convince yourself to engage. The hardest work is not the most challenging (for me anyway), but it's the work I don't want to do. Engaging almost always makes work better. Seeking out new projects was always a positive for me. If I was able to fill my plate with interesting work then I was simultaneously able to avoid the "boring" stuff that didn't catch my interest.

But to the point - there's a lot to slog through in the workplace and everyone can't avoid it all even by taking on only interesting projects. Somebody's gotta do the boring stuff.

You are both wrong because you are intelligent people trying to do something of interest to you. 90% of people do nothing but meaningless repetitive tasks where discussing a tv show or sports with a coworker is the only escape from tedium. Before starting my own business I worked for years in factories and offices and 95% of engaged workers are lickspittle brown-nosers. Bosses love them, they can't seem to grasp that they are working so hard to make somebody else money.

Mike Rowe made his statement in the context of people doing (awful) manual labor. Your offered percentages seem more projecting than fact.

Just buy in. It's easier. And don't hate on people who do - it reflects poorly on you and it isn't helpful.

> years in factories and offices and 95% of engaged workers are lickspittle brown-nosers.

This just isn't my experience.

This contradicts ZMP more than supports it because if they were ZMP they should be unemployed. If anything the likelihood is the unemployed are even more productive than workers.

ah, economists...always willing to engage in the fantasy that we are rational, utility maximizing creatures, no matter how much empirical evidence there is to the contrary.

Ah, non-economists.... always willing to engage in the fantasy that economists engage in the fantasy that we are rational, utility-maximizing creatures, no matter how many published economics papers assume we are idiots.

All those equations they spent so much time learning would not work if you are correct.

Isn't this a textbook case for an alternative hypothesis, sticky wages? Instead of lowering wages and putting up with this shit, employers fire the suckers and complain about spoiled lower class, thanks Obama.

Comments for this post are closed