Author Archives: Chris Warhurst


In September last year the G20, including the US and UK, signed the Ankara Declaration that explicitly and formally recognised the importance of job quality. The Declaration committed the governments of the advanced economies to strengthening job quality as a route to achieving strong, sustainable and balanced economic growth that might also deliver inclusiveness and improved standards of living.

This declaration forms part of a trend in which supranational and inter-governmental organisations such as the OECD and European Union have introduced a number of initiatives to promote job quality and its economic and social benefits. The background is often concerned about the effects of the global economic crisis but in the context of recognising that there is no necessary clash of policy outcomes in wanting both more jobs and better jobs.

These international initiatives are welcome but need to translate into national government actions. However at national government level the explicit championing of job quality is less obvious.

The Scottish Parliament is bucking this trend.In 2015 it established an Inquiry into Work, Wages and Wellbeing that explicitly sought to understand the social, economic and health impacts of precarious employment, and which, at its heart, had an overt concern with the quality of Scottish jobs.

The Inquiry has just published its report: Taking the High Road. Borrowing directly from the arguments outlined in the introduction to Are bad Jobs Inevitable? by Françoise Carré and her colleagues, it recommends that the Scottish Government paves the high road and blocks the low road.

The Scottish Government wants to improve job quality by raising and setting employment standards, with a key role to be played by public agencies. It also wants better research on job quality, the monitoring of job quality and the development of a fair work index for Scotland.  The full report can be found here.

Image: Joe Diaz via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Life of BrianAs an out-and-proud MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) I have a beautiful road bike. It’s black, red and sleek. It’s only fault is that it exposes my physical deficiencies: I can no longer blame the bike as I huff and puff up steep country hills. The other problem is that friends and family now buy me cycling books as gifts. The latest, So you think you’re a cyclist?, is a comedic take on the different types of cyclists.

One such type is the Hipster. The Hipster rides a fixie – a bike with no gears and no brakes to speak of. They rebel not just against restrictive bike parts but also corporate branding, so their bikes are striped bear of logos and details. They call it pure riding. These city-dwelling twentysomethings sport beards, tattoos and skinny jeans. They like to eat artisanal bread and hang out in cafés. The Hipsters’ drink of choice defines our current era – the ‘flat white economy’ – according to Douglas McWilliams. They work in creative jobs powered by the internet – in online retailing and marketing. When they’re not downloading apps, they’re developing them. Read More

all i want is a jobJobs policy in the US has evolved over the years as its focus has changed from job creation to job training to job placement. Placement however only works if there are jobs for the unemployed to be placed in.

With few jobs available in recent years due to the economic crisis, the weakness of the current focus has been exposed. What America needs, Mary Gatta argues in her new book, is a new jobs policy. ‘All I want is a Job!‘ should be ‘required reading for anyone interested in low wage work, labor markets, social welfare policy and economic development’ says Stephanie Luce reviewing the book for Gender & Society.

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I recently found myself sat in a stately home in the UK. A small group of politicians, academics and practitioners were there to explore what the UK could learn from Germany and what Germany could learn from the UK about skills. In short, (for now) the UK has better higher education and Germany (for now) has better vocational education and training.

I sat staring out of the large drawing room windows onto the sun-lit, rolling and very green southern English countryside. It was Downton Abbey on steroids; the past but now vanished glories of the British Empire pervaded the atmosphere. It was the kind of place where the Great Powers once carved up the Middle East – and created some of the problems that now exist there.

Shaken out of my historical reverie, I started to think about today’s employment problems. In the US and Europe unemployment is high, particularly for young workers; the employment participation rates of women and migrants also need to be raised; too many low skilled, low wage workers are stuck in a bad jobs trap; and, as the population ages, ways need to be found to enable older workers to work longer.

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On both sides of the Atlantic the economic recovery is seems to be gaining pace. Quantitative easing is being eased in the US. In austerity Britain, ‘the plan is working’ according to Prime Minister David Cameron. He seems to have some evidence for this claim. According to the latest labour market data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, a record number of people are now in work –  that’s more people now in jobs than ever before in the UK.

The headline figures show that unemployment is down (0.3%) and employment up (0.4%) in the UK.  However digging below the headlines reveals a more mixed picture, with differences by region. Unemployment is highest in the North East and lowest in the East of England. Scotland though has lower unemployment than the UK overall and Northern Ireland a higher rate. The employment rate is highest for the South East of England, which includes the economic hothouse of London, and lowest in the North East. Economic inactivity is highest amongst people in the North West of England.

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anchormanGlasgow in Scotland is a wonderful city. If it’s puffed neighbour Edinburgh is a city to visit, Glasgow is a city to live in. Before he died in tragic circumstances Scotland’s first First Minister in its new Parliament, Donald Dewar, described it as a handsome city. Indeed in recent years Glasgow has been named UK City of Architecture and Design, and a few years earlier European Capital of Culture. In 2014 it hosts the Commonwealth Games (think summer Olympics for the countries of the old British Empire). It’s all part of the repositioning of a city that was once an industrial heartland for Scotland and that empire.

In recent years that repositioning Read More

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.

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young good looking retail workers

It has become something of an orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic that job quality is polarising into good and bad jobs. A lot of attention in the US and UK is focused on making these bad jobs better. It is less well appreciated that good jobs can go bad and that bad jobs can get even worse. It might be that aesthetic labour contributes to the latter.

Much of the initial research into aesthetic labour has analysed retail jobs. Employment in retail constitutes what might be termed a ‘bad job’. Most jobs in retail are low skill and retail is one of the main low wage industries in the US and UK.

It seems that this bad job is getting worse however as retail companies seek to aestheticise their workforce, hiring employees who look good or sound right. Two developments have emerged as a consequence of this aestheticisation strategy by employers.

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If it’s springtime in Paris, it has to be if not sex then at least summer in the city – New York City. Luckily the American Sociological Association held its annual conference in Manhattan this August. The theme was ‘Interrogating Inquality’. Playing to this theme Ashley Mears of Boston University had organised a panel session on the sociology of appearance.

Along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’d been asked to present on the ‘dark side’ of aesthetic labour – ‘lookism’. Lookism is discrimination on the grounds of appearance. Or as Ayto bluntly states, ‘uglies are done down and beautiful people get all the breaks’. According to Tietje and Cresap, the term was first used in print by the Washington Post in the late 1970s. For us the issue is inequalities in access to employment based on prescribed and proscribed looks. I finished reading through my presentation notes as my plane touched down in Newark. As it taxied to the apron, I found myself wondering, Carry Bradshaw style, if the uglies are being put down, who or what decides who is good looking or at least has the right look?

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