Good job, bad job

Oct 10 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

A new report from The Work Foundation (formerly The Industrial Society) says that creating good work is essential to the UK’s economy. But warns that first we need to reconsider what makes work good because current definitions are dated, historically inaccurate and gendered.

The report, "Is New Work Good Work?" by The Work Foundation’s head of policy research - Andy Westwood, says that ‘good work’ is frequently seen as ‘old work’ - in particular among the more traditional industries in the more industrialised parts of the UK. The massive expansion of jobs in the retail sector – seen as ‘new work’ – is generally seen as bad.

And although Asda was this year voted as the best place to work in Britain and has also been at the forefront of business in restoring job opportunities to the parts of Britain that need them the most, supermarket jobs in particular are seen as low-prestige, low-dignity and low-benefit. Popular culture appears to dictate, that along with the McJob, supermarkets are a career destination at the very end of the food chain. We will shop in them in droves, but most of us wouldn’t want to work in them.

Andy Westwood argues that an honest, informed debate about the quality of jobs is long overdue: “Good work matters, not just to those people who might be fortunate to do these kinds of jobs. We need more good jobs in Britain because we perform better as an entire labour market, as organisations and as individuals. It isn’t just an issue of social justice – as former US President Clinton so memorably said: 'it’s the economy, stupid!’ “

But despite government aspirations for improving overall productivity, current policies relay a contradictory message – for example the government’s commitment to keeping the UK’s levels of labour market regulation the lowest of any major industrialised country, and its refusal to distinguish between good and bad jobs in the pursuit of full employment.

Westwood says: “The government’s ‘work first’ approach fails to distinguish between good and bad jobs, and could be thwarting attempts to improve UK productivity.”

The report details the consequences. Labour has a good record on workplace reforms, but has failed to tackle the so-called ‘low skills equilibrium’ – a vicious cycle of low skill labour and low skill jobs that contributes to a low skill economy. The workforce is more critical - more workers are dissatisfied and levels of contentment with prospects, pay levels, working hours have all roughly halved in less than ten years. Nor has the government closed the productivity gap - the UK consistently under performs against its major industrialised counterparts in Europe, North America and the Far East.

Andy Westwood says: “Retail has been one of the most maligned types of work in modern Britain – and we should acknowledge that our popular perceptions have been misplaced. Much new work should be reconsidered as decent and productive work, but the real lesson for government is that more good work means better productivity and prosperity for the whole country.”

The Work Foundation, formerly The Industrial Society, is a registered charity and holds Royal Charter status. It campaigns to improve the quality and productivity of UK working life, offering clients innovative solutions through our distinctive brand of research and consultancy, and leadership and coaching programmes.

The full report is available as a PDF here