Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Quality of Work

In my previous blog I mentioned that the quality of work is an important element of people’s job or career package. It is therefore of distributive interest and I suggested that an economic system which would provide more high-quality work would be preferable, even if this came at the cost of some economic growth.

I used the term “quality of work” in that post but I should say more about it. Some of those who are interested in this issue of the quality of work are interested in a specific objective notion of the quality of work which differs markedly from the subjective approach implied by my blog.

The subjective approach to judging the quality of work is simply to rely on people’s own ideas and preferences about the quality of the work that they do. Some people you talk to might say that they would not leave their job or career even if they could earn a lot more money--it expresses something about them as a person. Indeed, economists measure job satisfaction using Job Satisfaction Surveys. For example, in 2014 year the Office of National Statistics data indicated that Vicars had the highest overall job satisfaction, despite their low hourly pay. 

This complicates my categorisation of jobs by quality as it is very likely that people will differ wildly in their preferences over the features of jobs. Some people will desire jobs that I have referred to as lower quality over those I have branded as higher quality.

For example, some people might not want the attention or responsibility that comes with the high quality roles and would prefer a low-key role in which they are unlikely to make any mistakes and draw attention to themselves. Indeed, some people might see a particular job as their calling, such as being a nurse, paramedic or a teacher, and this makes this job quality.

I should therefore emphasise that my categorisation of quality was based on the average perception of job quality (which makes no reference to remuneration and other factors). Most people would prefer the jobs I labelled as higher quality all else being equal, but some people will not agree with others. Furthermore, some people will accept money over other qualities of a job much more readily than others.

My categorisation may fit with a quite different approach to categorising work. I will refer this to as the objective approach as it does not make reference to what people actually prefer. The idea here is that some activities are more valuable than others as they relate more to our expression of human values and virtues. Basically, some types of work will make it difficult or impossible to reach full flourishing or self-realisation as an individual, while other kinds of work will lead people towards these.

This is an Aristotelian idea, which greatly influenced a lot of left-wing thinkers, and can be found in Marx’s Economic & Philosophic 1844 manuscripts, and continues to influence philosophical work on the subject. Aristotelian ideas also influenced Catholic thinking via Thomas Aquinas.

Marxist thinkers have emphasised that workers can suffer from False Consciousness and this might lead them to prefer things that are not truly in their interests. They would therefore question the usefulness of the subjective approach, since people may not properly value the work that is good for them in this Aristotelian sense.

Objectivist approaches will therefore emphasise a) a notion of human good (usually relating to flourishing or the expression of virtues), and b) a theory about which types of work or jobs lead to this human good and which do not.

I think what I said in my previous blog is compatible with both approaches to answering questions about the quality of work. This is because people’s judgments about quality will often track those picked out by Aristotle. However, people may place a much greater emphasis on other issues than the quality of the work when making their job and career choices. Pay is an obvious one, but also job security will no doubt be a major factor particularly for those who have or hope to have children.

The purpose of this blog has been to show what lies behind the notion of ‘quality’ that I used in my previous blog. If anyone wants to suggest any objective judgments about work that I have missed out then by all means do so.

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