And even in the confused and contentious context of the new US President-elect as well as the EU’s post-Brexit deliberations, it is hard to argue otherwise.
But, while having a job in the first place is clearly of paramount importance to people – and society at large –, there is also a more sophisticated issue at play with wider ramifications for the world of work and life today: the quality of the jobs themselves.
Research shows consistently that job quality plays a critical role in shaping the society we live in – it contributes directly to the health and well-being of workers, improves the work-life balance, facilitates longer working lives, boosts engagement in work, improves performance and creativity and provides an important contribution to wider objectives such as gender equality.
In short, better job quality translates into better living and working conditions and must be to the fore as we move into a new era – and if we are to learn anything from the events of the last few months at least. We need to know what jobs we have and we need to understand how good these jobs are. The new results from Eurofound’s sixth European Working Conditions Survey help us do just that. Drawing on responses from 43,850 workers across the EU and beyond, Eurofound aggregates (at the level of the job) the characteristics of work and employment that have proven positive or negative causal effects on health and well-being.
The result is not a single job quality index, as clearly there are trade-offs between these different dimensions: they do not necessarily move together in the same direction; they include different combinations of positive and negative features and are not always related one to the other. But taken together the seven agreed job quality indices show one clear result: there is no such thing as the perfect job. Mapping jobs by sector and occupation highlights the persistent challenges and confirms that every type of job can be improved in one or more dimension. . .
The physical environment index for example shows uneven progress, with noise risks and carrying heavy load demands declining but with exposure to chemical products as well as infectious materials increasing. The work intensity index exposes huge occupational differences, with plant and machine operators and craft workers reporting having to work at high speed and to tight deadlines, service workers reporting the highest level of emotional demands and managers experiencing all features of work intensity. A general decline in long working hours is apparent in the working time index, albeit also showing a significant number (22%) of workers having to work in their free time and 12% being called into work at short notice. Turning to social environment, workers in health and public administration report the highest exposure to adverse social behaviour while the quality of management is rated positively by 70% of employees. And again the gender occupation dimension occupies a key role in the skills and discretion index which shows women closing the skill gender gap while the earnings index confirms the persistent presence of pay inequality between women and men across EU jobs. Unsurprisingly, part-time workers also score less well than full-time workers in the careers prospect index.
Nevertheless, barring a few exceptions, each job quality index is associated with a positive experience of working life – with benefits not just for the individual but also for companies.
The report defines five groups of jobs across the EU which share similar job quality characteristics – and finds that two thirds of all EU jobs are generally positive across most job quality indices. ‘High flying’ jobs (22%) for example, are favourable in all indices except work intensity and working time quality. These jobs tend to have high levels of workload, fast speed of work, multiple demands, long hours and/or work outside normal working hours. People in these jobs report a higher subjective well-being, higher levels of satisfaction with working conditions, a greater ability to ‘make ends meet’ and even a positive work-life balance.
Likewise, smooth running jobs (25%) are positive in all dimensions except skills and discretion and earnings. Workers in these jobs report a high level of well-being, good work-life balance, satisfaction and engagement but have somewhat more trouble making ends meet.
The third group of ‘active manual’ jobs (22%) are shown to be positive in social environment, prospects and earnings but less favourable with regard to the physical environment (being largely physical jobs), work intensity in some cases and working time quality. They report an overall satisfactory experience of working life in terms of subjective well-being, satisfaction with working conditions and engagement but are more negative in their perspective of work-life balance and longer working prospects.
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In general, therefore, job quality in the EU may appear to be in relatively good shape.
But is it really?
The approach also reveals that nearly 20% of all jobs across the EU are defined as ‘poor quality’: these show up poorly on all dimensions, particularly skills and discretion and prospects and earnings. They are also directly associated with a negative assessment of working life. Another 13% are defined as ‘under pressure’ – positive in skills use and earnings and prospects but less so in social environment.
So, while it is not all bad news, workers in at least a third of all EU jobs do face health and other risks, now and in the future, with all the accompanying implications this entails for productivity, engagement, sustainable work and, more generally, the achievement of an inclusive and productive labour market within a cohesive society. Clearly, the way we work matters.
The survey’s results show us that our traditional policy efforts generally address the core concerns of poor quality jobs – and even seek to tackle the issues emerging in better quality jobs. But some escape the net and progress is slow and unequal.
Individual workplaces – alongside policy efforts at EU and national level and from social partners – can, however, make a difference. How they manage these changes, how they nurture people’s development and facilitate progress – enabling the worker, wherever possible, to move to better jobs throughout their working lives – will be the defining factor in securing the kind of jobs Europe wants for the future. The kind of jobs that contribute to better work but, more importantly perhaps, in today’s context, jobs that can help shape a better, fairer, more inclusive society.
Agnès Parent-Thirion is Senior Programme Manager in the Working Conditions and Industrial Relations unit with responsibility for research projects on working conditions, in particular the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) – currently in its sixth wave – and the European Company Survey (ECS). Her research interests include working conditions, quality of work and employment, work organisation, gender and time. A graduate in economics and management of Paris IX Dauphine and Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, Ms Parent-Thirion worked for a number of years at the European Commission before joining Eurofound.