As the saying goes, you can’t know where you’re going without looking at where you’ve been. Many workplace-related studies take this approach, looking at how working conditions have changed over a fixed period of time, or – more prominently of late – how much CEOs make compared with the average worker (a number that has, incidentally, increased almost 1000 percent over the last 40 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute). Today the most accurate barometer for where work and workplaces are at and where they’re headed may be the sequel to a government report that was issued over 30 years ago.

The result of a task force commissioned by President Richard Nixon’s secretary of health, education and welfare, 1973’s Work in America contained “explosive” findings at the time, a recent Fast Company magazine article explains. The book pointed to such trends as the alienation and disenchantment of blue-collar workers and all workers’ quest for a respected and useful social role. It also successfully predicted the retirement dilemma that the Baby Boomer generation and others face today (although it framed the discussion in terms of workers’ desires versus their financial readiness to retire).

Last month the follow-up to Work in AmericaThe New American Workplace, was published. Featuring new research by the original report’s authors, James O’Toole and Edward E. Lawler, III of the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations, the updated report is less academic and more urgent in tone than its predecessor. Among other conclusions, the authors argue that “America cannot look to its large, global corporations to provide enough new, good jobs.” Instead, they point to entrepreneurs and “High-Involvement” (HI) small businesses as the harbinger of the best new jobs.

What constitutes an HI organization? The authors point to North Carolina’s Nucor Corp., a minimill steelmaker, as one example. According to O’Toole and Lawler, the company, which we profiled in a recent Workplace Perspective column, has found long-term success “based on employee participation in the financial gains (and losses) that result from their efforts and ideas.” In fact, the authors go so far as to say that organizations like Nucor that heavily involve their front-line workers in decision making represent the most promising examples of change in recent years.

In turning their microscopes to look specifically at small and midsize businesses, the authors find good news from a 2005 Harris Interactive/Age Wave survey, which asked more than 7,000 American workers if they agreed with certain statements concerning their work. Forty-four percent of workers in small organizations reported that they “often feel energized” at work, versus 28 percent at large organizations. Likewise, a much higher percentage of workers said they are “willing to put forth more effort” in their work and “feel passionate” about their jobs than their counterparts at large firms. The authors conclude that workers at smaller organizations are generally more satisfied because they belong to “supportive communities in which they know their bosses and coworkers and in which they are treated as individuals.”

Unfortunately, not all the findings in The New American Workplace are promising. The book takes a detailed look at what went wrong for such former corporate superstars as Ford, General Motors and Delphi between the 1970s and today. The authors find that, “At companies like Delphi, decades of accumulated, poor strategic choices eventually make it ‘too late’ for managers to pursue positive employment practices that, if adopted earlier, might have led to better organizational performance.” The positive practices cited by the authors include those inherent to HI organizations: offering workers challenging and enriching jobs, giving them responsibility over their work and providing extensive training and development opportunities.

Interestingly, O’Toole and Lawler find that providing workers with more authority, tools, resources and education yields a reduction in dysfunctional stress. Hence, they say that the key to creating healthy work environments is to “carefully redesign work tasks to provide a supportive environment.” The authors argue that this approach positively affects productivity and retention.

Overall, the authors say that “Low-Cost operators” (including discount, fast food and mall store chains) and “Global Competitor corporations” (including telecommunications, consumer product and pharmaceutical firms) – which join HI companies as the major organizational types in America today – are trying to implement “tomorrow’s competitive strategies with yesterday’s managerial ideas.” Further, while they predict that smaller, HI organizations will be more vulnerable to international competition, they also claim that they stand a better chance of fueling innovation in the workplace and, thus, maintaining productivity and overall job satisfaction. That’s great news for today’s workers, who follow the same quest identified in Work in America in the early 1970s: to fill respected and useful social roles.

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to read our interview with Edward E. Lawler, III, co-author of The New American Workplace.