What about the quality?

In the alleged new era of high employment, perhaps it’s time to think about the quality rather than the quantity of jobs

The belief that we are lucky to have a job is so deeply ingrained that we tend to think the only rational thing to do with jobs is to count them. So count the precious things we do: unemployment is at its lowest level since September 1975. But might there come a point when mass unemployment becomes so faint a memory that quantity no longer seems a priority? Is it possible that in an alleged ‘new’ era of work, the notion of job quality might also find a niche in public consciousness?

As soon as the question of what ‘good work’ might be like is raised, economics stands exposed in all its true hollowness: it can tot up hours and pay, but it is devoid of insight as to whether jobs are individually meaningful or socially beneficial. Instead, it is other disciplines less beloved by governments – psychology, philosophy, theology – that are beginning to suggest new ways of interrogating the value of a job.

Thinking about the nature of good work means doing away with our Bob Cratchit-like love of measurement. The idea of ‘quality’ in employment can be approached either by agreeing on the minimum standards necessary for good work to be done; or you can ask what outcomes good work produces and move back towards identifying the conditions in which it is likely to flourish.

According to Good Work,1 by three US-based psychologists, good work thrives when the demands of a person for invigorating work are in harmony with the expectations of a society from a given occupation. Fundamental to good work is ‘alignment’. Alignment comes about when most of the stakeholders concerned with a profession agree on what they would like from it. ‘Misalignment’ occurs when they disagree.

The authors examined two professions: genetics – dealing with the information of our bodies (very well aligned); and journalism – dealing with the information of our minds (wretchedly, destructively misaligned).

Geneticists believe they are living through a golden age – liberally funded to follow their curiosity, excited by the thought that they are just a few pipettes away from cracking the world’s most ghastly diseases, but keenly aware of social anxieties, and the obligation to act responsibly.

By contrast, journalists are a despairing and a despised bunch. Those who entered the craft to investigate significant stories and to furnish people with life-enhancing information are thwarted at every turn by meek corporations worried about the advertising, editors obsessed with diverting trivia, and mounting pressures to cheapen, oversimplify, and sensationalise. The authors found a sense of pointlessness and cynicism to be rife. “Whenever alignment fragments, both society and the profession are likely to suffer,” they warn.

One difficulty with this approach to good work is that by concentrating on ‘the professions’, it risks excluding the vast majority – from poets to piece-rate workers – whose work is either ethically neutral or too humble to be aligned. ‘Good work’ can sound faintly elitist as a result. The other path to good work – the minimum standards method – avoids this trap by offering a universal lens to examine all jobs.

In 2000, for instance, the Lutheran Church of Finland brought together a group of scholars to draw up the ‘criteria of good work’, the ethical basis of fair employment (fitting enough, as Luther was mad keen on work – “he who shall not work, shall not eat”, and all that).

The theologians produced a 10-point list.

Good work:

  • produces things of real value

  • respects the dignity of every human being as the image of old

  • is service to your neighbour

  • gives you the opportunity to fulfil your vocation

  • doesn’t make too many demands on creation

  • gives adequate income and good working conditions

  • gives the possibility to influence working practices and the rhythm of work

  • enables adequate rest and relaxation

  • affirms each member of the working community

  • enables a good balance between work and family life.

A problem all such lists encounter is that of subjectivity. Peppering a prescription with terms like ‘adequate’, ‘good’ and ‘things of real value’ raises interminable caveats – of value to whom, adequate for whom, and so on.

Secular lists run into exactly the same trouble. Norman Bowie, professor of business ethics at the University of Minnesota in the US, applies the golden rule of the philosopher Immanuel Kant to the workplace – that human beings should never be treated as the means to an end, only as ends in themselves.

He writes: “Meaningful work is work that is freely entered into, that allows the worker to exercise their autonomy and independence; that enables the worker to develop their rational capacities; that provides a wage sufficient for physical welfare; that supports the moral development of employees and that is not paternalistic in the sense of interfering with the worker’s conception of how they wish to obtain happiness.”2

On this reading, offering good work does not sound too taxing – but again, how much autonomy is necessary, and whose sufficiency sets the standard?

Clearly, thinking about the ancient notion of good work is still really in its infancy. Quantity was always destined to be easier than quality – just as counting is easier than evaluating. But it seems a shame to achieve full employment only to doubt if all those new jobs are any good. Now we have so many jobs, the next bit of progress is to try to make them better.


  • Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, Basic Books, 2001 
  • A Kantian Theory of Meaningful Work, by Norman Bowie, Journal of Business Ethics, 1998

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