Research Library Article


HR: The Most Important Job on Earth

David Earle

Two landmark social science studies that place HR departments squarely in the middle of the most important social issue of our time: putting people to work.

The Gallup Organization and the University of Chicago have conducted two of the most important, multi-year studies of what people want and what makes them happy. The U. of Chicago study is unique because of its depth—more than 50 years of data. The Gallup project is unique in its breadth—data from more than 100 countries. Together they explain why effective HR, whose fundamental charter is to effectively and efficiently match workers with work, has such a critical role to play in today’s world.

Gallup’s enormous, annual research study, The World Poll, was developed to measure what people universally cared most about. When first proposed, data scientists expected a muddle of conflicting data pointing to disparate cultural mixtures of religion, food, shelter, safety, peace, love, culture, politics, money or fame. But they were astonished to discover a single, universal number one priority: a good job. As CEO and Chairman, Jim Clifton has said, “That is one of the single biggest discoveries Gallup has ever made. It is as simple and straightforward an explanation of the data as we can give.”

The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey is no less a revelation. Their data says 88% of what makes people happy or unhappy is either genetic, meaning hardwired into their personality, or circumstantial, meaning triggered by events over which they may have little control. In short, if we want to purposefully make people happy over the long term, we only have about 12% of their lives available to work with. As it turns out, a useful, fulfilling job is an important component of that number.

Managing human capital well is a far larger issue than a single HR department staffing up a single organization so that it can perform at its peak. Writ large, it’s about about making whole cities, states and countries into high performers. In this election year everyone and their brother will grandly pronounce how this should be done, but it’s solid, in-the-trenches HR work, in literally millions of locations, that will actually get it done.

As the companion piece in this Research Update makes clear, the HR profession is experiencing dramatic and fundamental changes to all its activities and processes, as well as its overall mandate. Depending on who you talk to, these changes are exhilarating, worrying, or an unsettling mixture of both.

It’s useful during times of stress, challenge and change to be reminded how important good human capital management is and how significant it’s impact can be. It’s also important to appreciate HR’s great good fortune in being recognized as a key player in the discussion of what can make human lives happier and, by extension, the world a better place.

Research Referenced


The World Poll, General Social Survey


Gallup, University of Chicago

Date Annual

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URL Link (Univ of Chicago)
URL Link (Jim Clifton’s article)
URL Link  (The World Poll)