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Disengaged Chinese Workers Don’t Look So Scary After All

Workers at a steel processing plant in Ganyu county, China's Jiangsu province

Photograph by Imaginechina/Corbis

Workers at a steel processing plant in Ganyu county, China's Jiangsu province

During the Cold War, Americans thought Soviet soldiers were 10 feet tall. Likewise, today Americans view Chinese workers as scarily hardworking. But a Gallup World Poll finds that Chinese employees are far less engaged in their work than Americans.

The poll was released earlier this month and went overlooked, at least by me, amid the hubbub over the federal government shutdown and debt-ceiling talks. The results, collected over the course of 2011 and 2012, are surprising:

• In China only 6 percent of respondents were “engaged,” 68 percent were “not engaged,” and 26 percent were “actively disengaged.”

• The U.S. had a far happier workforce: Thirty percent of respondents were “engaged,” 52 percent were “not engaged,” and 18 percent were “actively disengaged.”

• China was among the lowest countries in the share of workers saying they were engaged, while the U.S. was among the highest. Worldwide, 13 percent of workers are engaged, according to Gallup.

As Gallup defines it, engaged workers are “psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.” Those who are not engaged “lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.” And the actively disengaged “are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to co-workers.”

Projecting from the sample, Gallup says about 180 million people in the 142 countries studied are engaged, about 900 million are not engaged, and about 340 million are actively disengaged.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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