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The Future of Work: Exploring the Quality of Work

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
New York City transit strike. (Photo: Liftarn/Wikimedia Commons)

New York City transit strike. (Photo: Liftarn/Wikimedia Commons)

We are all aware of what is happening to the majority of our workers: falling wages and real income, fewer full-time jobs, diminishing job security, heightened ageism, and the failure of our K-12 schools to expose students to occupational paths and how to prepare for them. As economists, we document these alarming shifts.

Ann Markusen is the director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and principal of Markusen Economic Research.


But this frame seems too narrow. We have lost track of the whole job, the meaning and experience of work in people’s lives, and how policy and employer practices have demeaned them. And we fail to probe deeply enough into why this is happening, especially shifts in societal norms and the behavior of employers. We should broaden the conversation about work beyond important metrics like labor force participation, unemployment rates, weekly wages, hours worked, and median income to investigate more deeply the quality of work life and its significance for us collectively.

As workers, we hope that a job will be pleasurable, that we are doing something meaningful, are helping others. We hope for growing expertise and greater accomplishments over time, perhaps more responsibility. Most of us wish for agreeable human contact at work. For competence, training, and respect from superiors, and opportunities to cooperate with and learn from others. We search for work that plays to our strengths and what we love to do. And for work environments where we feel safe, including from sexual harassment.

As workers, we care about the relationship of work to the rest of our lives. We hope for reasonable and reliable work hours, flexible if possible with paid family and sick leave. Ample vacation time. Work should not leave us exhausted or debilitated, or worse, sick with an occupational disease or serious injury.

Working conditions improved in the United States from the late 19th century into the 1960s. Excessive work-weeks were reined in by the long successful campaign for the eight-hour day. The minimum wage was adopted in the height of the Great Depression. Unions like the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and Mine Workers won better health and safety conditions, including the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Unfortunately, these working conditions are eroding for most workers. Part-time jobs are proliferating, because low-wage employers can thus avoid paying benefits and are subsidized by the Earned Income Tax Credit and similar state tax breaks. In contrast, in law firms, finance, medicine, and elsewhere, professional workers, especially young ones, are expected to put in punishing routines of 80 hours a week. Construction workers are required to leave their communities and work in distant fracking fields where the quality of life is abysmal.

The experience of work is also deteriorating for many. More of us work behind computer terminals where our time and output is monitored and our contact with clients, customers, users, and readers attenuated. Doctors are advised to drop annual check-ups, one of the few opportunities to listen to and counsel patients in depth. Professorial and K-12 teacher workloads are rising, and tenured professors replaced by adjuncts who teach many more class hours and have less time to prepare well or counsel students. Many people hate their jobs, and many more believe that their employers would be more profitable and/or better servants of the public if working conditions and relationships improved.

What is causing this erosion? Since NAFTA, international trade agreements that fail to build in minimum wages; the right to union representation; and health, safety, and environmental protections are intensifying competition for workers in advanced industrial countries. The rhetoric of competitiveness displaces full employment and good jobs as goals of economic policy.

But these changes aren’t simply the product of geopolitics and ideologies. The rising power of finance capital and its capture of corporate management suites is a major contributor. Management schools train finance and efficiency experts starting at high salaries to figure out new ways of cutting labor costs and speeding up work. (Yes, Taylorism is still with us.) The sustained and organized attack on unions by the American Chamber of Commerce and its political allies undermines efforts to monitor and correct poor health and safety conditions, inadequate pay, and the norms about work-weeks and vacation pay that emerged from the Great Depression.

Deteriorating compensation, pay, and working conditions for most workers can only be combated by organized efforts to defend norms and extend them for new styles of work. Despite generally discouraging trends, some such efforts are improving working conditions. Two-parent households are benefiting from the efforts of women-friendly organizations like the Women’s Economic Policy Institute and the Partnership for Working Families to win federal and state improvement in pay equity, protections from sexual harassment, paid sick and family leave, and more flexible working arrangements. Campaigns to raise the minimum wage statewide have succeeded in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Illinois, and New Jersey. Rights to organize unions in growing sectors such as home care and child care have been won in California, Minnesota, and Connecticut.

Economists and policy advocates could go farther. We could broaden recurrent Bureau of Labor Statistics and state/local employment surveys to cover workplace comfort, safety, flexible leave, quality of manager/peer/customer interactions, pride in one’s work. We could then track changes over time in the quality of work, and by industry, occupation, age, race, and location. We could explore interactions between work quality and labor force attachment, pay, hours worked, turnover. Sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists produce excellent one-off studies, but we need more systematic scrutiny of work quality. As an example, the BLS now collects data on involuntary part-time work as a form of disguised unemployment, a very useful window into whether people just want to work part-time or cannot find a full-time job. More attention to work quality, from researchers, schools, the press, and politicians, will contribute significantly to the future of work in this country.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.