Last year, I was appointed by Theresa May to chair the independent Modern Employment Review, examining how to improve the quality of work across our economy. I believe the review will only gain traction if the country as a whole – workers, employers, consumers, citizens – thinks that good work matters. The failure rate of public policy over the years shows that if the public are not bought into social change, then even well-crafted policy initiatives are likely to fail.
That’s why I am pushing the issue up the agenda ahead of the review’s report, which will be published in June. Thousands of people have joined in the RSA’s GoodWorkIs social media campaign over recent weeks, explaining what good work means to them. And research published by Populus and the RSA this week shows three out of four people think we should do more as country to improve the quality of work. Even more telling is the contrast between the over two thirds who think we can make all work fair and decent, and the less than one in ten who think this is already the case.
I agree. It is my firm belief that all work in the British economy should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and progression. This would be a huge shift in how we think about work as a society. For decades – including when I worked for Tony Blair in Downing Street – government employment policy has been ‘work first’: prioritising the quantity of jobs over the quality. Some business interests still argue that aiming for better work somehow undermines competitiveness.
In my view there are five reasons why now is the time to push against these assumptions and commit to a good work economy. First, having a job is no guarantee of being free of poverty. There are 13.5 million people living in poverty in the UK and 55% are in working households. The living wage will make an impact on this and, despite spending cuts, our tax credit system is more comprehensive than most countries. But still it is difficult to see a route through existing policy away from high levels of in-work poverty.
Clearly, our ultimate aim should be to create higher paid, more productive jobs – which means industrial strategy needs to be about low-skilled, low-pay sectors like care, retail and hospitality, as well as top-end high tech areas. But for many people, the question is less about the job they have now and more about the job they hope to get next. We need better paths of progression; every job should be one that offers workers the realistic prospect of getting better work in the future. And, because in-work poverty is unlikely to be abolished for the foreseeable future, there is a moral responsibility to ensure that those who are poorly paid are at least able to exercise their rights at work and be treated with care and respect.
Second, while most people say they enjoy their work, some types of work can make you sick: work that is stressful, over-intense, controlling or inflexible. Stress at work is strongly linked to both physical and mental illness, and is on the rise – with the fastest growth among those doing lower skilled, lower paid work.
It is often argued that the worst work status for health is unemployment, and this is still true – but it is not an argument against better work. In fact, stressful work leads to hundreds of thousands of workers dropping out of employment every year into disability. Bad work impacts directly on workers and on the rest of us through greater pressure on welfare and health care systems.
Third, the UK has a productivity problem. This problem is complex, but there is little doubt that one facet is bad work. The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane has shown that a small improvement in the quality of management raises productivity by around 10%. It’s unsurprising therefore that the new Productivity Leadership Group led by Sir Charlie Mayfield has made improving the quality of UK management a core priority.
Levels of investment in employee training and learning are less than half of our European competitors and have fallen even further in recent years. Despite the evidence that employee engagement contributes to higher productivity, overall levels are low in the UK by international standards, and the proportion of low skilled workers in the UK who report that they have no freedom to shape the organisation of their work has increased from 42% to 57% over the last decade.
All these issues are made more urgent by a fourth factor: the pace of technological change. We don’t have to sign up to some of the wilder estimates of job losses or to the vison of a post-work future to recognise that forms of automation like robotics and machine learning will have a huge impact on many jobs. PWC estimate that up to a third of UK jobs could be susceptible to automation by the early 2030s. These are issues the RSA has started to look at in depth and hopes to explore further through a new Future of Work Centre.
As job churn increases, it makes it even more important that all work enhances people’s future job prospects. Purdah prevents me writing about specific recommendations of the Modern Employment Review, but one theme is likely to be the importance of government taking the lead in agreeing and promoting a framework for employability skills. This framework could sit across apprenticeships and university employability, and provide a basis to assess the degree to which jobs enhance not just skills specific to that job, but broader, more generic work capabilities.
The way we innovate also needs to be informed by our commitment to decent work. There is a danger that in our focus on technological possibility we forget that innovation and productivity are secured by the way human beings and machines interact. As the RSA pointed out in a recent report, gig work facilitated by on-line platforms may be an opportunity to exploit and atomise workers, but it also provides scope for new forms of worker empowerment. A world in which workers are slaves to systems and machines would not only be chilling, it would also be a world of greater risks, more discontent and, ultimately, lower economic utility.
Finally, there is the relationship between work and society. Without delving too deeply into the murky waters of the Brexit debate or the rise of political populism, we need to foster an attitude of citizen engagement in place of what appears to be a widespread feeling of passive resentment. Taking back control may be about voting in a referendum but it is also about people feeling it is worth making a contribution to civic life, trying to make our communities stronger and more vibrant.
But how can we encourage active and engaged citizenship in society when we accept the denial of recognition, respect and engagement at work? As we encourage people to vote in the election, to inform themselves of issues, to volunteer in their community, is it defensible to say that for eight or more hours a day they should accept being ignored, denied information, treated a mere cogs in a machine? Why is it that the commercial offer to consumers – the offer of personalisation and empowerment – seems so much more ambitious than our offer to many people in their jobs? I have nothing against shopping. But can a healthy society be one in which the status of consumer seems more developed and ambitious than that of producer?
Work needs to live up to our changing aspirations. The World Values Survey finds that more people put emphasis on greater self-expression as their key aim in life. If we continue to deny those hopes at work we will frustrate people and contribute dangerously to social pessimism and disenchantment.
Central to our day to day existence and to the long narrative of our lives, work defines our identity. The general election campaign has so far focussed on Brexit, tax and public services. But might a debate about good work open up a broader reflection on our aspirations for ourselves and our fellow citizens? A more creative way of thinking about inequality and exclusion, a wider conversation about our responsibilities to each other; employer to worker, employee to organisation, consumer to producer.
Most people enjoy their work. But too many don’t get what they want and need. For some people the issue is basic rights and a decent salary, but the thousands of people who have got involved in our social media campaign GoodWorkIs have returned again and again to key themes: genuine flexibility, being valued and respected, learning and growing, having voice and autonomy, feeling work had a meaning and purpose.
If this is what we want for ourselves, isn’t it what we should want for everyone?
Matthew Taylor is a former Labour strategist and current chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts.