POSTED: August 4, 2017 |
Blog | Economy | News | System Dynamics

Chasing good work – reflections on the Taylor Review

One of the achievements of the recent Taylor Review has been to breathe new life into the UK debate on good work. Its publication sparked a flurry of discussion on what good work is, and how we should deliver it. Going forward, this debate has to consider work in its wider social context, Simon Mair and Agni Dikaiou find; we have to think about Good Work not just as end in itself, but as a part of other systemic challenges.

CC.0 :: Peter Heeling / Skitterphoto.com

In the summer of 2011 one of us spent several months working in a call centre for a water company. The work was underpaid, temporary, and occasionally involved anti-social hours. In short, it scored quite badly against the Taylor Review’s measures of Good Work.

But, the output of the work was good. The people in that call centre arrange for burst pipes to be fixed. They make sure that people have access to clean drinking water. Compared to other jobs, the work involves little learning or variety, and is underpaid. But, if that call centre disappeared tomorrow society would be worse off. As a manager put it: the work they do is vital, without water people die.

On the other hand, there are many useless jobs that look like good jobs under the Taylor review’s classification. The anthropologist David Graeber identifies a class of “bullshit jobs” which are well paid, secure and enjoyable, but which have no social purpose. These jobs, as William Morris put it, take work and “waste it wholesale in the production of rubbish.”

We can also imagine work that is personally very satisfying but actively damaging to wider society. Robert Oppenheimer, for example, described the process of making the atomic bomb as “technically sweet” (PDF). But, as Hesmondhalgh and Baker note, the output was at best ethically dubious. So should we call it Good Work?

This is not to say that the things the Taylor Review discusses are not important for Good Work. Good Work does require good pay, safe working conditions, and autonomy. And Taylor’s report is a useful review that places these issues in the context of the UKs rapidly evolving labour market. Moreover, we agree with many of its recommendations – in particular its call to measure the quality as well as the quantity of work.

One of the achievements of the Taylor review has been to breathe new life into the UK debate on good work. Its publication sparked a flurry of responses and discussion on what good work is, and how we should deliver it. Going forward, this debate has to consider work in its wider social context. We have to think about Good Work not just as end in itself, but as a part of other systemic challenges.

For example, the issue of good work is closely linked to that of inequality. How much we are paid relative to our peers effects how we feel about our work. But, more than this, if our aim is a more equal society, then work and working conditions that recreate inequalities cannot be considered good.

Likewise, we are living through multiple ecological crises, so work that pushes us beyond the ‘safe operating space for humanity’ cannot be considered Good Work. Work that takes us closer to catastrophic climate change is not Good Work – no matter how good its conditions. It doesn’t matter how personally rewarding the experience of work is if it undermines the biophysical conditions that support the existence of work in the first place.

This means that we need to look for potential ‘sweet spots’ of good work. Work that is plentiful, enjoyable, socially useful and environmentally sound. There are examples of this kind of work in education, healthcare, arts and culture. Perhaps an economy built primarily around these sectors could deliver Good Work for all.

This might sound like we are downplaying the need for decent working conditions. We are not. Until it is well paid, secure, and without unsocial hours, working in the water company call centre will not be Good. But in pushing for better working conditions we mustn’t forget that a part of the point of working is to produce the things we need. And, this – a genuinely useful product – is something that work in the water company call centre already provides.

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2 Replies

  • comment-avatar
    Steve August 5, 2017 (10:49 pm)

    Thanks Simon and Agni for a thought-provoking piece. Two comments: firstly, regarding your statement that society aims for equality, there was an interesting paper you may also have read in Nature Human Behaviour (Starmans, Sheskin and Bloom, 2017) arguing that people actually care not about inequality per se but about unfairness, and I wondered how you felt about this in relation to what good work might mean. Secondly, since every breath we take puts the CO2 concentrations further into the unsafe operating space for humanity, is it even possible for any individual to achieve “environmentally sound” good work?

    • comment-avatar
      Simon August 8, 2017 (2:44 pm)

      Hi Steve, thanks for your comments. As always, they’re insightful so I hope I do them justice!

      On your first point, I’ve just quickly read the Starmans paper, and I’m not entirely convinced by their argument. It looks to me to be something of a distinction without a difference – fairness an inequality are not easily seperable concepts. But regardless, I don’t think it really matters for our argument here. Our point is not about inequality per se but about the idea that *if* we regard inequality as a bad thing, then work that enables or creates inequality is not good. The point being that we have to make a judgement about the society we want to live in and then consider how work moves us toward (in the case of good work) or away from (bad work) that vision.

      On your second point: no. It isn’t possible for any individual to achieve good work. In an unsustainable system, all work is bad, because all work pushes us closer to catastrophic climate change. In the terms that we set out above, ‘good work’ can only be a macro-scale phenomenon. Of course some work can still be ‘better’ than other work, but ultimately, Good Work will require a complete rethink!

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