What is good work? Thoughts from the Citizens' Economic Council - RSA

What is good work? Thoughts from the Citizens' Economic Council

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  • Picture of Reema Patel
    Research Director and Head of Deliberative Engagement, Ipsos
  • Economic democracy
  • Employment

Following RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor’s annual lecture on the value of good work, Reema Patel introduces some thoughts and reflections on the importance and the value of work from the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council, the RSA’s citizens’ panel of 50 citizens deliberating about the future of the economy.

"We should have an idea that work is good." - Participant, Citizens’ Economic Council



1) Good work is secure

‘I am one paycheck away from destitution. If my job finished tomorrow, I would not be able to pay my rent.’ (Participant, Manchester)
Citizens deliberating throughout the Citizens' Economic Council have described their personal circumstances, and have expressed the ways in which they felt that security was essential to the quality of work.
‘I work in a very cyclical industry – construction. There was no work during the credit crunch. This shapes my decisions about the rest of my life.’ (Participant, Manchester)
They spoke about some of the work they did that was seasonal, temporary, reliant on zero-hours contract and demand - and about how that made them feel. Some were self-employed - illustrating both benefits and challenges associated with that. 
‘I don’t have one workplace but the funding of different workplaces informs whether they can afford to employ me. Budgets affect whether I can earn a living. (Self-employed Participant, Manchester)

2) Good work is flexible – both ways

We could look into more flexi-working and home working. Flexitime cuts my journey by half an hour and makes it much easier – we can get more leeway in the morning.’  (Participant, London)
As discussed during Matthew Taylor's Chief Executive Annual Lecture yesterday, good work is flexible - when it works both ways. Our citizens told us that they valued greater flexibility, and opportunities to work from home enabled by technology when it supported a balanced life for themselves.

3) Good work is purposeful and productive

‘We have a low wage, high hours economy that does not really serve our interests. We have low productivity.’

Emerging from our citizens was the idea that good work serves a purpose - and contributes to productivity. The sense that good work should serve a mission, and that the mission is something that serves everybody's interests including those of workers came up as a consistent theme in citizen dialogue and deliberation. 
‘We’re getting bogged down in bureaucracy and paperwork. So tech can be used to free up people’s time, allowing it to play a positive role so we can be more creative. Health and safety, doctors and police – they are saying they can’t do their jobs because they have to do so much admin.’
Many citizens expressed the sense that technology presented opportunities for the future - and had positive potential to enable people to focus on creativity and innovation.

4) Good work is fairly paid

‘Fair wages make a good economy. A living, rather than a minimum wage would help. There is a lot of inequality of wages, and there is a sense of injustice in this.’
Themes emerging from the Citizens' Economic Council included the importance of fair pay - firmly within the context of a discussion of what it is we value, and how we communicate that (through fair pay and reward systems). Some participants in particular highlighted a widening gap between levels of executive pay and median wages of workers, with one asking, ‘CEOs earn so much more than an average worker. Is that an optimal system that people are willing to live in?’.

5) Good work is balanced

‘I want to put something in about work-life balance. That is really important to me. Everybody in society should be able to participate in leisure activities.’

Balance emerged as a key priority. Citizens focused and discussed why people work - what is the purpose of their work, if not to enable a more balanced life? Work-life balance, the opportunity for leisure time and their own personal development and growth outside of work, the chance to think differently about issues through leisure and travel emerged as a theme. Some participants in both our London and Manchester workshop entertained the idea of a shorter working week, whilst others emphasised the importance of choice.
‘I experienced a big change from having Sundays off to having Saturdays off too. There is a value in not having long working days. We need to put more value on creativity for example.’

6) Good work is part of who we are

Citizens expressed the need to feel like they could be their authentic selves in the workplace - and the extent to which they felt their work shaped their personal identity and agency. Strongly connected to this was a desire for greater autonomy;
‘There’s a very close connection for better or worse between your workplace and you…for the majority, the workplace is where you get your money to do everything else.’
Bad work to some participants was where they felt unable to be themselves - either in terms of the perspectives and the views they had, or in terms of their individual identities:
‘One of my mates was sacked from their job for holding left-wing views’ (Participant, Manchester)

7) Good work is work that is readily available

‘My job was a job for life where I worked for 32 years – but that’s changing’.  (Participant, London)
When asked what they valued, some of our citizens felt that ‘strong levels of employment’ mattered – the sense that the quantity of jobs and high levels of employment had an impact came through strongly; particularly in Manchester, a region that has historically experienced record levels of unemployment: 
‘A part of the economy I never expected to be in was the job centre. I’ve been working since I was 16 and I never expected to be there.’
Many participants also highlighted how they had witnessed or experienced the effects of job losses in particular sectors on communities and industries - and explored the negative effect that sudden unemployment had on community cohesion as well as a range of other social outcomes.

8) Good work is valued, and values contribution fairly

The importance of valuing all kinds of work - including unpaid work such as care emerged as a strong theme across both London and Manchester workshops: 
‘We value work as in waged employment but we should value all types of contribution. For instance, being a parent is also considered valuable, even though it is not measured monetarily.’ (Participant, Manchester)
So too did the question of what pay says about what we value in a society and our economy. Some participants questioned a perceived gap between pay and values as well as priorities in a society:
 ‘Should a nurse be paid more than a solicitor? What are we going to value more highly?’ (Participant, Manchester)

9) Good work is something we choose to do, and that we can make choices about

Participant 1 - ‘I don’t feel I have much of a choice. I have to work to pay rent.’
Participant 2 - ‘Would you not work if you had a choice?’
Participant 1 - I sell my labour, but that’s not what I’d like to do with my life all day. Doing sums all day.’
Participant 2 - ‘ Could you change that?’
Choice - the genuine ability to choose whether to undertake a job and to work or not; as well as choice and autonomy within the work itself were core themes. In an ideal world, suggested some of our participants, we would have a genuine choice about and over the work we did: 
‘More machines mean less people,  so maybe we can spend our time differently. That raises the question of why we work.’

10) Good work faces profound challenges

Our citizens have grappled extensively with the challenge of an increasingly globalised world, shifts in the labour market, and shifts away from a manufacturing based economy towards a service-based economy focused on skills and training. Automation raises as many questions as it answers, as the following two perspectives from our citizens suggests:
‘People who have been replaced by robots are now on the dole. We need to provide them with other work.’ (Participant, Manchester)
‘Robots in Japan have been hugely popular and useful, providing valuable services to senior citizens.’ (Participant, London) 

11) …But good work is something we can still hope for

There is a general sense of hopefulness from our citizens, though - automation has been highlighted as a historical phenomenon, even though the pace of automation has picked up:
 ‘In the industrial revolution, we thought there would be far fewer jobs and people wouldn’t need to work. Instead, we created new areas. The nature of work may change, society as a global thing…We will create new industries.’

Citizens also suggested that there would always remain a role for human beings in shaping a better society: 
‘Robots can’t do all the jobs. Even the best robot can’t deal with human beings like a psychiatrist or judge can.’

12) Good work is something we have to have a plan for in the future

Above all, the most compelling message from the Citizens' Economic Council's deliberations to Matthew Taylor, who attended and responded to a dialogue with the Citizens' Economic Council on the world of work, was the pressing and urgent need for a longer term plan to deal with the significant, longer term shifts anticipated for the future of work.So I'll leave you with a compelling question to answer from one of our citizens - echoed by us:
‘What is work – and what is it worth?’

Let us know using the hashtag #GoodWorkIs, or in the comment box below.

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  • "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might..." Ecclesiastes 9:10. I think the time has come for all of us to change our attitude towards work. For long work has been readily available to us, especially those of us in the West (with the exception of perhaps those in manufacturing and mining industries in the 1980s' England), that in the last 50 years, we have taken the privilege of work for granted. There has been an assumption in the West that there will always be work, or failing that, there would be one form of social security or other to fall back onto; but the world is changing, to the extent that we have to rethink the whole meaning of work, how it is measured, valued and remunerated.

    This rethinking may have to take place against the background of the rise of artificial intelligence. AI has brought many benefits, but it has also brought many disadvantages. The chief disadvantage is more and more people will be excluded from the world of work as one robot for instance may be able to do the work of 500 people. The issue may boil down to education. And the question I have is this: are we educating our people to embrace the idea found in the Bible, namely, whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might...!?

  • Interesting stuff. I have written a small book called Humanising Work (publ Rainmaker Books 2015) and several subsequent articles, including a chapter called The Brutality of Reality in the forthcoming (Sept 2017)