What the Hell is “Good Work” Anyways?

Matthew Taylor, one of the panelists.

I make sacrifices for this site and I just want to be up front about that. For instance, sometimes I watch a bunch of boring British people talk about the state of work in the most droll sense for over an hour. But really, my attention span only lasted the first 45 minutes and that was just with some breaks here and there.

In any case, the RSA think tank had a speech and talk on what makes work good to predictably dismal results. Very little discussion of anything particularly interesting or meaningful to change in the system. They started off in at least a somewhat interesting way by asking folks what they thought good work constituted. Across the board most people cited that for work to be good it needed to be enjoyable and offer some form of fulfillment, usually involving autonomy as well.

These are pretty obvious parts of what would make a good workplace worth engaging with but it’s notable that almost none of these things are being offered or likely will be from capitalism. Autonomy will be denied to workers so long as they have bosses above them. This isn’t even some sort of socialist/dirty leftist talking point here, just how hierarchy works; it’s a sacrifice of autonomy for some measure of financial security (geez, why does that sound so familiar?).

But as we know, this trade-off is a dangerous one because it makes it easy for the relationship to become one-sided with regards to the person who is in control. If you want self-direction and a real chance at fulfillment, giving another person the ability to dictate what that all looks like to begin with is counter-productive, to say the least.

More fundamentally I’m just not sure what “work” or “good” mean here. And I know, I’ve been on this philosophical train for a while about questioning root premises and definitions, but dammit, this stuff is important. And we hardly get any idea from the panelists what they think about good work or what specifically makes work good or not. We get some vague ideas here and there and the people they go out of their way to highlight could be telling in a way.

I guess my quasi-obsession for definitions and clarity come from my own personal needs. I really want people to be as exact and specific as possible when they’re talking about broad social phenomena. And I know that’s not easy and I’m guilty of it as well, I’m not claiming otherwise. But saying words like “good” and “fairness” a bunch of times don’t make those terms any clearer, necessarily. Using a word in a sentence gives us some context and idea of its meaning, but last I checked Merriam and other dictionaries considered that secondary to an actual definition.

On the other hand, “good work” (whatever that means) sounds like it really would be a substantive shift in the culture (the UK in this particular case) if it reaffirmed the importance of autonomy, fulfillment and fun. If politicians spent less times worrying about job create and job value then maybe that would be some sort of improvement. Then, at least, we wouldn’t have money in the economy being wasted on people digging holes with tiny spoons.

The other big topic mentioned on this panel was the ability for workers to progress and I feel many things about that.

Because on one hand, I think workers being empowered and able to affect their workplace as much as possible is an important thing. But on the other hand, I don’t think we should strive to simply change the best workers into managers since managers are part of the problem to begin with.

I think the interest in authority and power is one of the root problems to begin with in the economy. So telling us, as the audience, that the issue is that workers just don’t have the option to climb the corporate hierarchy is less than a satisfying diagnostic for me. The corporate hierarchy is part of the problem to begin with and merely giving one or two workers a place on the board (for example) may lead to minor change but ultimately they can always be outvoted.

All of this being said, there were some decent points being made.

In general the panel does highlight some incremental changes that I can appreciate to a degree and they also celebrate some basic things like protecting against discrimination, holiday pay as well as paternity and maternity leave. They highlighted the issues of income inequality, the fact that many folks in poverty (at least in the UK) are working but still poor, increasing the access to knowledge about folks rights in the workplace, which are all laudable things to talk about.

But they also said confusing things like most people enjoy their job, yet also cite studies that say stress is at high levels for many workers and that many have productivity and engagement issues as well as problems with the lack of control they have. These studies all conflict in some obvious ways but I didn’t see discussion of that from the panelists.

One of the funny moments, at least for me, in the panel was that they mentioned the universal basic income and one of the panelists said it was “radical”. But then the idea of a “post-work utopia” was brought up via a related discussion of automation and technology and quickly discarded without much thought. If anything, the post-work “utopia” is a much more radical proposition than giving the government so much control over the economy, but I digress.

The concern with robots mostly involved lower economic utility and production and this theme was carried on about throughout the talk. The panelists kept talking about Britain’s low level of productivity but never questioning whether productivity itself as a norm that western societies have cultivated is a particularly good one. It also mystifies me how a government (in this case a conservative one backed by Theresa May) is going to help those low-income and disempowered workers who don’t have good access (presumably) to policy crafting, in order for it to benefit them.

Some of the panelists do admit that work has gotten worse in certain respects but the answer to this isn’t to model the corporation after democracy, as it relates to majoritarianism and how the government operates anyways. There is so much passive resentment in these sorts of systems precisely because how the government operates with regards to the people’s wishes is (at best) hugely divisive and (at worst) hugely unpopular.

It’s also mentioned, via the World Values Survey, that self-expression has become much more important in recent years. If this is the case, might I recommend we make work less about uniforms, dress codes and the policing of how people interact with others so long as it harms no one? That might help self-expression just a tad.

Most of the preceding comments were just about the stand alone portion of this talk but I’ll also briefly discuss the section that focused almost entirely on the other panelists. My first remark is that while improvements in both the UK and US have been decent (and perhaps mediocre in some cases), as one of the panelists says later in the discussion, “you can’t change behavior by just writing more rules”.

This sentiment was easily the best in the whole discussion and definitely undermined some of the discussion of having government write some “clear” or “explicit” rules and boundaries around this or that. That sounds lovely, but in practice it’s very difficult to get even a small group of people, let alone many people with power to agree on clear and explicit boundaries and especially if it’s for other people and those people are numerous.

And not to mention the improvements I’ve mentioned are all basic stuff. While advances should be celebrated, it shouldn’t be to the detriment of the central issues and especially if these “improvements” don’t challenge that core at all.

I found it telling that one of the panelists who apparently represented many of the business interests said that she was on board with much of what “good work” is suppose to look like. In other words, you know you’ve got issues when the capitalist class is basically like, “yeah, that sounds about right, maybe a few tweaks but other than that, sure!”

On the other hand, it was a bit weird that she kept talking about how some jobs shouldn’t be demonized because “things are complicated” or some such nonsense. There is a real problem with people having one-sided flexibility in favor of the managers and jobs like that suck and should be demonized at will. Jobs that treat people like machines and don’t give them enough time to rest or work them far too hard deserve to be called out.

There was also a story about a train driver who felt like he had “good work” because he was in control of the train and the people couldn’t get anywhere without him. And while this is partially true, there are other train conductors. This individual is still very much replaceable and while it may not be as easy to replace a train conductor as, say, a retail work, it’s still possible to do.

Another story involved a manager (gasp!) asking what workers wanted and discovering that the workers wanted better literacy before they wanted to eat better food. So he put in some effort to give them access to those things so that they might eat better and eventually they formed their own football team? Weird ending, but alright.

Lastly, it was discussed whether being in a psychologically damaging workplace was worse than being unemployed and the answer was (unsurprisingly) yes. It was nice to see a panel of experts reaffirm something I said a while ago and already believe so go me and confirmation bias!

The panel was mostly a boring one and I know many of my comments here aren’t terribly original or new in terms of the site. But most of the arguments/claims they made were old (liberal) hat and easy enough to discuss. Still, I think next time I just might stick to the 6 minute summary of the talk, rather than use almost two hours of my time.

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