Good work should be at the heart of a productive economy

January 17, 2020

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by Sarah Davidson, CEO, Carnegie UK Trust

Yesterday the Carnegie UK Trust published Can Good Work Solve the Productivity Puzzle, a new series of challenging and insightful essays, linking the moral and social imperative of good quality work with one of the major economic concerns plaguing policy makers: the UK’s weak productivity performance.

For over 100 years, the Carnegie UK Trust has sought to advance the wellbeing of people across the UK and Ireland. Paid work has a fundamental role in supporting our personal, community and societal wellbeing, enabling us to provide for ourselves and our families; buy the goods and services we need; build connections in our communities; and establish our individual and collective sense of purpose and identity. Our wellbeing is affected not only by having access to work, but by how we experience it. As the What Works Centre for Wellbeing puts it, when it comes to wellbeing: ‘having a job is good and having a good quality job is miles better’. [1]

It is well understood that the current levels of record employment in the UK can mask huge differences in the quality of work experienced by workers in different industrial sectors, in different regions, and in different demographic groups. Specifically, we know that workers’ experience of key aspects of work, such as terms and conditions; pay and benefits; physical and mental strain; job design; support structures; voice and representation, and work-life balance, can vary enormously across the UK labour market.
As well as serious inequalities in who has access to good quality work, the UK also has chronically low productivity growth, constraining living standards and wages. The latest figures show UK productivity flat lining at 0.1%, compared to historical average yearly growth rates of 2%. [2]

There is of course much debate about the concept and measures of productivity. This includes debate about how we measure productivity in an increasingly digitalised and service-based economy where, for example, inputs and outputs are becoming less tangible than in the past when many more people worked in industrial sectors. And, as with so many measures, an average value can mask significant inequalities – as many of our essay contributors so eloquently highlight in the relationship between productivity and good work. More fundamentally is the question how much importance we should attach to productivity amidst the range of other important economic, social, and environmental indicators. The Carnegie UK Trust has been active for many years in the push to look beyond purely economic indicators to measure and value social progress. We advocate the use of wellbeing frameworks, which measure the success of society not only in terms of its material wealth but also extend to, for example, indicators on quality of work, health, the environment and our sense of security and cohesion. Solving the productivity puzzle, and unlocking the benefits in living standards this can help deliver, must be addressed within this wider need to rebalance the measures through which we understand and assess our progress.

The idea that all citizens should be able to access and participate in ‘good work’ is at the heart of the Trust’s Fulfilling Work programme, and this idea has enjoyed a much-needed increase in policy attention in recent years. Yet there remains much to do: we need to continue to explore and advance the range of different levers that might be deployed to extend the availability of work that improves wellbeing for all. Placing this agenda at the heart of the efforts to tackle the long-standing productivity puzzle in the UK is an important part of the jigsaw.

That was the task that we embarked upon in bringing together our new essay collection, published with the RSA. We are extremely grateful for the wealth of rich and thoughtful perspectives expressed by the organisations contributing to this collection. No single set of stakeholders can address alone the challenges we face in supporting the creation of more good and productive jobs. The solutions to such complex, multi-layered challenges will only be found by bringing people together from different backgrounds and experiences. For that reason, we are delighted that the collection gives voice to perspectives from policy; business; academia; and trade unions, as well as contributions ranging from a UK-wide angle to a specific focus on how this agenda is being taken forward in Scotland, Wales and in North-East England.

We were open-minded about what our writers would tell us: we did not expect to find a silver bullet for poor quality work and low productivity. What the authors in this collection have provided are some clear priority actions for how we can rise to the challenge, with a particular focus on tackling ‘bad work’ among the UK’s long tail of poor productivity performing firms, and focusing on empowering workers to use technology in a way that makes work more fulfilling and productive. Meanwhile, innovative new thinking continues to emerge on how manifold aspects of work quality – like fair pay, genuine two-way flexibility, and effective training – can lever important productivity benefits.

These issues are ripe for further exploration. We look forward to working over the coming year with all those with a stake in this agenda, including governments, to understand how the ideas set out in these essays can be implemented to deliver more fulfilling work for many more people.

You can read Can Good Work Solve the Productivity Puzzle here.

 

[1] Submission by Nancy Hey, Director of What Works Wellbeing, to the Carnegie UK Trust, Sept 2017, see https://whatworkswellbeing.org/product/job-quality-and-wellbeing/ for more information.

[2] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/ukproductivityintroduction/julytoseptember2019