Bob Dylan vs The Beatles: Take a bad job and make it better

Low wage, bad job

Low wage, bad job

It might not have been springtime, but Paris in late autumn is still beautiful. I was invited there to participate in an international conference on the quality of work. Unbeknown to me, my session had been informally labeled by one of our hosts as ‘Bob Dylan vs The Beatles’. The focus was interventions to improve job quality. Bob Dylan was Paul Osterman from MIT. If they were drawing on a Beatle analogy, I was hoping our hosts thought of me as John Lennon and not Paul McCartney: more working class hero than singing frog. The billing though reflects more than our differing US and UK origins; Paul Osterman and I have competing opinions about how to fix job quality and make it better.

There are currently two key reasons for intervening in job quality. First, bad jobs stretch and shred the social fabric. The global economic crisis has worsened social inequality in the US and UK. The gap between the have nots and have yachts, to pinch UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s nifty phrasing, is getting wider. Second, countries with more good jobs, such as Germany, have fared better during the crisis with shorter and shallower recessions, if at all. These countries’ firms are also more innovative and their national employment rates are higher and their unemployment rates lower.

Along with his former colleague Beth Shulman, Paul published an important book in 2011 on job quality – Good Jobs America. It’s one of a raft of recent books charting the decline of job quality in the US. In the battle if ideas, Paul and Beth’s book has the power to change minds about the importance of job quality and the benefits of improving it. In fact, it should be required reading for every business school student along with the simple instruction: ‘Discuss’.

Despite being critical of economists, Paul and Beth adopt an economistic perspective on job quality – that it’s all about pay. As a consequence, they then argue that what’s needed to improve job quality is a pay hike. This hike can take different forms: localised living wages or national minimum wages for example.

With over a fifth of US (and UK) workers now in low wage work, raising pay is an obvious way to improve jobs. It’s also an easy target and a quick fix – clear to all and its impact can be immediate. Making work pay is important and there are examples of successful living wage campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic.

The problem is that intervention to improve job quality is reduced to a pay policy – or income policy if government decides not to force employers to pay more but instead offers tax credits to the working poor. Although important, pay is only one aspect of work, and one not necessarily rated highly by workers. Job quality, and what makes a good job, is more complex. Higher pay might help improve bad jobs but higher pay doesn’t necessarily make a job good.

A study by John Sutherland exploring what makes a good job shows that workers rank high pay only seventh. More important to workers are jobs that allow them to use their initiative, that they like doing, in which they have friendly work colleagues and good relations with the boss. Sutherland’s findings reflect research on UK hotel room cleaners that I undertook with colleagues for the Russell Sage Foundation. In this research we asked these cleaners what a makes a good job. They said that being directly and permanently employed by a hotel rather than a temporary agency was ideal. The reason is that such jobs offered fixed working days and hours with regularised and predictable income, even if the pay rate remained low.

It’s in everyone’s interest that job quality is improved. Job quality correlates with individual well-being, firm productivity and innovation, and national and regional competitiveness. Without intervention to make that improvement, Bob Dylan might be right: A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. However we first need to agree a definition of job quality and from that definition identify what makes a good job. Only then can we then decide who should intervene – government or community groups for example – and how they should intervene – though legislation or community boycotts for example. And despite differences in approach between Paul/Bob and myself, there is common ground about the task. As The Beatles might have sang: ‘Hey Jude, take a bad job and make it better.

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