Are flexible jobs really less attractive?

Must jobs without the security of a permanent salary necessarily be viewed as less desirable? Colin Green, researcher and economics lecturer at Lancaster University Management School, argues that flexible workers may be happier than one might think.

Flexible employment has become an increasingly important factor in the job markets of developed economies. However, the assumption persists that this kind of work – temporary agency posts and fixed-term contracts characterised by a lack of job security – is less desirable than that offered by the traditional permanent position.

At the same time, there is a growing acceptance that flexible working will only grow in the future, particularly during an economic downturn. And it is with this economic reality that an increasing number of employees must come to terms, as employers become ever less willing to offer permanent contracts.

Colin Green is a lecturer in the economics department at Lancaster University Management School, where he researches performance-related pay, worker wellbeing/wages, worker absenteeism and flexible employment contracts.

Now this can be seen as just more bad news, with “inferior” jobs becoming another feature of the age of austerity, but it is worth looking again at the nature of these roles and what they really mean for those filling them.

Although previous studies have suggested that flexible forms of working have a negative impact on employee satisfaction, my study of the actual experiences of 11,000 employees in the UK provides a different picture of these workers’ job satisfaction.

There has been a general tendency to lump all flexible-working contracts together. In actual fact, they cover a range of job types which can confer a variety of advantages to employees.

For example, workers may be trading reduced job security for greater pay or flexibility. If employees’ work fits in better with the rest of their lives, then the increased time available to take part in other activities can bring about greater overall wellbeing and happiness.

Once differences in the workers’ “unobserved characteristics” (such as levels of motivation and preferences for types of work) are taken into account, there is generally no negative impact on job satisfaction from flexible working. This is especially true of fixed-term contracts.

There is some evidence that male workers dislike temporary agency work, and the lack of job security must be recognised as a negative factor in job satisfaction. Workers do prefer to have security if possible, especially in the current climate of labour market turbulence where there is a higher chance of contracts being terminated.

However, these kinds of roles should not be considered “inferior” overall. There is good evidence from my research that these alternatives to the traditional permanent contract can lead to other opportunities for satisfaction, variety and choice, and the limited time frame of the job can give workers a renewed sense of purpose.

Economies will change, and employers’ needs along with them, but it would be a mistake to not to change one’s assumptions that less secure forms of working are necessarily the poor option or the last resort.

The need for people to find some level of satisfaction in their working life will always be a constant, and the evidence shows that positive and rewarding experiences need not be defined by salary or long-term security, but can also come from increased flexibility.

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