Making bad jobs better

At the very time when people are thankful to have any job, it seems a bit perverse to be talking about ‘good jobs’. But in a remarkably interesting one-day conference yesterday, I was convinced that this is exactly the time that we should be talking about it – a time of economic fluctuations, impending job intensification, and (at least the potential of) radical change in the way that we think about our economies. The question is, though, just what can we do to make bad jobs better?

Before the answers, the questions

The one-day conference in question was the last in the ‘making bad jobs better’ series, including a special guest slot from Paul Osterman at MIT (more of which later).

While the session was focused on practical policy steps to improve the quality of work, the first question to be asked is, what is a bad job anyway? From earlier seminars we’d recognised the complexity of this, but in practice we bounced between talking about low-wage work – work that’s so badly paid that it’s difficult to avoid poverty (particularly if you’ve got a family) – and jobs that are bad in a wider sense (that make you sick, miserable, and don’t lead anywhere). From a UK perspective, it’s particularly worrying that median wages flatlined 2003-2008 before the recession, as shown in the Resolution Foundation’s work – disposable income fell in every UK region outside London in this period.

Tess Lanning & Kayte Lawton from ippr – the Institute of Public Policy Research, one of the most important left-wing think-tanks in the UK – added a further dimension to this though: whether we get paid what we deserve.  Based on some original research, they argued that people feel there’s an imbalance between how hard people work and the rewards they get from it; high earners often work hard for their money, but so do people on low wages. Moreover, many of us don’t really know exactly what our senior managers do to get all their money (I certainly don’t). So a good job isn’t one that just pays well, but that pays fairly.

Concrete actions to get better jobs

So is there anything we can do to get better jobs, or is this just a reflection of the ‘global auction’ for good work that I’ve talked about on the blog before (based on Brown et al’s work)? Well, Paul Osterman has just launched his new book Good Jobs America (a Russell Sage Foundation book), and described a set of things that could make a difference – if there was the will to implement them.

  • Firstly, we need to have a base of full employment and great education policies – but despite the hopes for both of these, they’re just not enough on their own.
  • Secondly, we need pressure on firms to make jobs good.  This pressure comes about partly through labour market standards – not just a high minimum wage but other pressures like living wage campaigns, Community Benefit Agreements that give planning permission in return for retail centres providing living wages, and tax incentives conditional on living wages. (James Plunkett from the Resolution Foundation talked about the ‘transformative potential’ of wage standards in changing how firms organise work). It also happens through ‘voice’, for which read ‘worker power’, whether through unions, community groups, or the ‘workers centres’ that sprouted up to help stop migrant workers being exploited. As Osterman said, unions are incredibly powerful here – it’s the main reason why unionised Las Vegas hotel cleaners earn $14-15/hr while non-unionised Orlando cleaners earn $9-10 – but given the widespread decline of unions, we should recognise the other forms of worker voice.
  • Third, we need help for firms to create better jobs, and routes from bad jobs to good jobs. By ‘help’, Osterman was talking about intermediaries and sectoral programmes that work with both clients and employers, almost providing a ‘surrogate HR’ function. Through training, support and contacts, these organisations can build internal labour markets for people to climb up, or even change industry structures by collecting subcontractors into employers. While these have been shown to work, the major challenges are doing this on a big enough scale to dent the American labour market, getting sustainable funding for these intermediaries (particularly from the state), and getting employers on-board when they have a myriad of other daily pressures to deal with.

(See also his interview the other week in the NYTimes).

What’s striking about this – and indeed, about the contributions from everyone present, whether from the OECD, academia, or the UK Commission for Employment and Skills – is that there’s a recognition that it’s no longer enough to rely on education, to rely on supplying ever-greater numbers of higher-skilled workers, to create better jobs. Alongside this, we need to think about the demand for skills – the way that employers use the skills of their workers. This is at the centre of Osterman’s proposals, while Francesca Froy from the OECD gave extensive examples of how local areas across the high-income world have tried to balance skills supply and demand, based around the involvement of multiple stakeholders and a long-term approach.

So will we see better jobs?

The challenges in all of this are clear to see. For companies that think the best way of making a profit is to pay poorly-qualified workers badly, it’s difficult to change their entire way of organising work – and it’s difficult to persuade governments to put the efforts and resources into incentivising real change.

But perhaps surprisingly, there was a real sense that we could change bad jobs if we wanted to. And if some of the more dramatic steps are not politically pragmatic in the short-term, there was a feeling that what is needed is action – organising, persuasion, energy, and optimism. The question is not, ‘are there levers that we can pull to make bad jobs better?’  – for this is a question that we know the answer to. Instead, the question is ‘how do we engage actively in the world in order to make these things happen?’ – and this meeting felt like a step in that direction.

[Presentations + short video interviews from the session will be going up at the making bad jobs better website in the next few days].

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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5 Responses to Making bad jobs better

  1. Dal Warburton says:

    Hi Ben, thanks for the blog post. A key concern with current plans for welfare reform in the UK is that increased conditionality and ‘assessment’ (see a current example at may indeed move more people off benefits and – perhaps – back to work, but that this work will keep them in poverty – and make little positive difference to the well-being of individuals or communities. Creating more of the right kind of jobs (and people with the right kind of skills to do those jobs) is obviously a far better solution. is a good idea for pay, and of course, I like this – if you want people to do a good job, design a good job for them to do…

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for the comment Dal – I couldn’t agree more that the interaction of bad jobs and ill-thought out welfare reform is a huge problem. (As one of the presenters at the meeting said, the amount the government would save in tax credits if Tesco’s increased its wages by £1/hour is large – I wonder if anyone has estimated it?).

      I like the John Seddon article you link to as well – except this raises a question for me. How much are bad jobs a feature of bad management, which we can improve through win-win steps for getting better satisfaction and profitability? And how much is there a tension between profitability and good work, which can only be resolved by changing the incentives for firms to behave in particular ways?

  2. Phil Whittington says:

    I’m genuinely undecided on the minimum wage, but highly sceptical for the reasons Friedman gives here: – the state should be guarantor of some basic working conditions, but those who advocate wage laws are invariably unwilling to countenance that there will even be any unintended consequences. I am open to the argument they may be a price worth paying, however.

    The most striking current example of wage law consequences, for me, is the new automatic checkouts at supermarkets. Working in the private sector, I can vouch that a job is only sustainable if your activity is pulling in enough money to cover your salary and then some. If we keep increasing the number of customers a shop worker must serve each hour (which is what hiking her salary MUST mean) then there comes a point when supermarkets switch to one-off capital expenditure in place of salaried staff. This will probably happen anyway over time, but the distortion of the low wage market has hastened it. Naturally, I feel great when I sometimes spend more and shop in Waitrose, who can afford to employ more low-paid workers; it’s important to do what one can. As I say, I’m undecided on whether a suitably low minimum wage may be worthwhile, but I’d love to hear the blog’s view on where the balance lies.

    Connected with this is your comment above, Ben, about the amount Tesco would save the government were it to increase wages by £1. But why would they when the government is willing to help pay staff for them?! Their workers have no incentive to switch to a higher paying job elsewhere. The job would be (presumably) more difficult but their take home pay would be the same (because of the loss of credits). So Tax Credits suit the big corporates just fine!

    One other point – I wonder if the disparity between hotel workers in Las Vegas and Orlando isn’t a very well chosen example. Maybe those in Vegas, like derivatives traders, simply get wet because they’re near the fountain of the casino. Sure, the union may have lobbied for it, but that rate may just not be possible in Orlando (or anywhere else), given leisure activities there don’t involve throwing money at croupiers (the sheer concentration of cash leading to a bidding war between employers). Or it may be that Las Vegas being a somewhat artificial city, where workers are more likely to have migrated there for the express purpose of their work, may disguise the impact on unemployment that lifting wages has had there.

  3. Pingback: Beyond ‘Child Poverty’ | Inequalities

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