Skip to main content
Research Briefs | October 29, 2020

Good Jobs

Joshua Cohen


Download Research Brief

“Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.”
— Nora Watson, in conversation with Studs Terkel

Over the past decade, public concern has re-emerged about the prospects of a large-scale displacement of human labor—a world without work. Like earlier projections about the uncertain future of human work, the analyses fueling current concerns have grown from speculations about the economic implications of new technologies. The fear—or hope, depending on the telling—is of a future in which machines would substitute for the vast majority of human labor. Aware that comparable past projections were overturned by events—that previous rounds of technological change did not just destroy old jobs but created new ones—analysts argued that this time would be different because the technologies are so different. Based in artificial intelligence and data-adaptive machine learning, the new technologies—according to the speculations—have the potential to replicate more or less all complex forms of human intelligence and human motion, not simply to substitute for specific cognitive powers, actions, and routines in particular domains.

Some of these projections have been optimistically married to public policies that would provide income independent of employment—a universal basic income sufficiently generous to free people to pursue their communal, craft, artistic, scientific, creative, and scholarly passions without needing income from paid employment. At the very high level of productivity resulting from digitally enabled technologies, a shrinking “realm of necessity”—as Karl Marx described the sphere of production—would be associated with an expanding “true realm of freedom,” as he characterized the devotion of time and energy to “that development of human energy which is an end in itself.” On a less optimistic rendering, the replacement of human labor—disconnecting people from the social world of work—would result in massive economic insecurity and catastrophic inequality, with destructive impacts on democracy and civic life. Whether optimistic or pessimistic, the projections of a “jobless future” shared a common, arguably technological determinist assumption: that the path of technology and its implications for human work are more or less fixed, and that the only genuinely open question is the public policy response.

These speculations about the end of work are neither analytically compelling nor ethically attractive. They are not analytically compelling because the future course of technology and work is the result of our choices, of the decisions we make (or fail to make), including—but hardly confined to—decisions about the development and use of artificial intelligence. That development and use is not fixed by an autonomous course of technology, but by a vast range of organizational and political decisions, by researchers, firms, regulators, legislators, and non-governmental organizations. It can be developed and deployed in directions that amplify human capacity rather than exclusively substituting for it.

They are not ethically attractive because work is an important form of human good. Not simply a source of income, work is a way that we can learn; exercise our powers of perception, imagination, and judgment; collaborate socially; and make constructive social contributions. To be sure, for some it is simply a means to getting income, and for some the cost of getting that income is submission to humiliating abuses of arbitrary authority, performance under unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and a repetition of simple routines that economist Adam Smith condemned: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.”

I observed the force of Smith’s concerns close up in research I did on the high rates of worker exit in low-wage jobs at some final assembly factories in the consumer electronics industry. I closely studied one facility where workers stay, on average, about 70 days (6%–7% turnover per week), another where the median stay is roughly 180 days, and others in between. What I found most striking in the factories is what people spend their time doing. One memorable conversation was with a group of workers who, unlike most at the factory, had remained for more than a year. We were trying to understand what was distinctive about these “long-stayers.” We asked whether they had a sense of pride in their “grittiness” (toughness): that unlike others, they had stayed for a long time despite the demands of the work. One operator said: “Why would I have a sense of pride? It took me 15 minutes to learn my job.”

His work, like much of the work of the factory operators, is traditional assembly line work, designed by industrial engineers for an environment of very high-volume, high-quality production. The design goal is to make the tasks mistake-proof. So, you design jobs—say, putting in a screw, or a battery—with standard operating procedures that take 25–30 seconds; with simple, routine steps; with the device held in place by a fixture; and with the speed of your activity controlled by the conveyor belt. And, while people change stations every month or two, there is no regular job rotation. Moreover, people on the line do not talk with one another: There is no need for it in doing their work. For an industrial engineer in this setting, these features—no need for judgment, unusual dexterity, reflection, imagination, and collaboration—count as success. These jobs, in Nora Watson’s words, “are not big enough for people.”

Design could have a different aim, however, and considering the central role of work in our lives—in the United States, an average of 34 hours a week, just above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average—it should. But making it different will require a very deliberate, public-private focus on creating good jobs, in part by focusing on how to shape technologies as human amplifiers, in part by thinking about how good jobs fit into a larger world of education, training, consumption, finance, firm organization, and worker representation.

I say “strategies,” and I will suggest some directions for thinking about ways that public-private policies can foster the creation of good jobs. However, my principal aim is not strategic, but philosophical. I want to sketch four aspects of good jobs. I will begin with some features—I will call them the standard goods—that make jobs good because they enhance the contribution of a job to life outside of work. I will then discuss some ways that protecting worker voice contributes both instrumentally and intrinsically to making jobs good. Then, third, I will introduce the notion of purpose both as contributing to the goodness of a job and as motivating attentive performance. Finally, I will explore how we can understand the British designer and socialist William Morris’s idea that there should be “pleasure in the work itself.” While much discussion about the creation of good jobs focuses on the first aspect, or perhaps the second, the most ambitious good jobs strategy would give attention to the third and fourth aspects as well.

To be sure, faced with wage stagnation and large numbers of low-wage jobs, there is a powerful temptation to focus on the first dimension of good jobs, and to treat the other three—especially the last—as luxury goods. I will conclude with the thought that pursuing a world in which good jobs, in the most ambitious understanding—with a secure voice, a strong sense of purpose, and pleasure in the work itself—are broadly available may be the best way to achieve the innovation and productivity gains required to sustain the less ambitious conception of good jobs.

Discussing a future of good jobs is especially difficult right now, with many people working from home (or at a distance), most everyone working differently, and an uncertain future of physical colocation. Because of the disruptions in the routines and expectations surrounding how (and where) we do our jobs, we do not have a very concrete picture of what work will look like. Though this certainly adds additional challenges, it does not—for reasons that will become clear in the course of the discussion—fundamentally change the features of jobs that make them good.