What’s More Important To You At Work? Stability or Creativity?

Remember the hype about "free agent nation" that started more than a decade ago? It’s a whole lot less attractive to recession-weary U.S. workers, who now rate job security and stability higher than career advancement, according to a survey released last week by Towers Watson, the employee benefits firm.

Call it "workplace nesting." Eight out of 10 survey respondents want to settle into a job, and roughly half say they want to work for a single company their entire career. The rest want to work for no more than two to three companies.

It’s not surprising that people are craving stability; unfortunately, it’s increasingly scarce. In 2007, there were 21.7 million "non-employer businesses," up 16 percent from 2003, according to a recent Census report. Those are mainly self-employed folks operating very small businesses.

I joined this group in 2001 when I was laid off from a job after a merger. I make more money than I did working for a large company, and feel more secure having multiple clients than I did relying on a single employer. The autonomy is wonderful. I work mainly from a home office and enjoy enormous freedom in my schedule, which is easier on my kids. The downside: If I use that freedom to go to a school event, I have to work overnights or weekends to make it up. Vacations that last longer than four days result in killer workweeks upon return. Administrative headaches are rife, and I had to conquer the hurdle of health insurance. (I haven’t figured out if the new health plan will boost or cut my costs.) I miss the creative hum and buzz of a newsroom. But so far, the pros outweigh the cons.

When asked about the factors most important in a preferred work situation, the top choice was a "secure and stable position" at 86 percent; follow by "substantially higher levels of compensation" (74 percent); "opportunity to develop rapidly" (62 percent); "wide range of positions and work experience" (55 percent); and opportunity to develop innovative products and services (39 percent).

Ironically, the workers who are focused on the latter two choices are the ones who will most likely achieve job security, because their experience and enthusiasm to innovate make them more desirable as they grow in their careers.

Although security is nice, don’t cling to a job you hate. Exploit it for every possible learning opportunity, focus on what works, and keep your radar up for a better gig. Meanwhile, check out these ideas on how to make your current job more engaging.

Which of the five factors above is most important to you in a work situation and why? Has that changed over the course of your career?