Low status jobs: for ‘failures and foreigners’ only?
In tonight’s Analysis programme I investigate two related issues about low skilled jobs. How, on the one hand, these ‘bad jobs’ have not disappeared in Britain, as many economists predicted they would, and yet, on the other hand, how so many British people have been discouraged from taking them.
The most basic discouragement flows from the fact that over recent years these jobs have become relatively less well paid and often more demanding. There is also the impact of the wider public and political conversation that has made it seem that these jobs are reserved only for failures and foreigners.
When it was decided that half of young people should go to university was any thought given to the impact this would have on the other half? And thanks to Labour’s immigration policy whole sectors of the bottom of the labour market have become filled with people from poorer countries – 20 per cent of all low skill jobs in Britain are done by people born outside the country.
In recent decades the terms of trade have turned sharply against low skill jobs not just financially (even employers, through the tax credit system, have been told that they do not have to pay a market wage) but also psychologically. The old idea of the dignity of labour, that any job however menial had a purpose and respect attached to it, seemed to die with the heavy industry and labour movement that inspired it (and sometimes abused it).
There is a gender factor here too. As the old relatively well paid male, manual jobs disappeared they were replaced at the lower end of the labour market with work in ‘personal services’ – looking after young and old people or serving people in shops, hotels and restaurants – jobs strongly associated with female work.
Moreover, wider cultural changes including the expansion of the welfare state and the advance of women's equality have meant that the old altruistic motive for male labour, the idea of the family breadwinner, is no longer as valued. The sociologist Geoff Dench, who runs the charity Men for Tomorrow, points out that this impulse has not died completely; about 70 per cent of low skilled men with partners have jobs compared with just 40 per cent of low skilled men without partners.
Given this backdrop we should not be surprised that people, especially young men, no longer want to do basic jobs – jobs that are neither well paid nor a source of creativity are no longer esteemed by the wider culture.
But we still desperately need people to do these jobs, which are some of the most essential in modern Britain: offices and streets need to be cleaned, supermarket shelves stacked and care home residents looked after. As the Government is now trying to reduce immigration flows – at least from outside the EU – these jobs will increasingly have to be done by people born and educated in this country.
And the number of these jobs is rising not falling. When I was employment editor of the Financial Times back in the early 1990s almost every week another report would land on my desk predicting that most people in the future would have a fancy job in business services or the creative sector and that unskilled jobs would fall to a few hundred thousand. In fact according to Caroline Lloyd of Cardiff University between one quarter and one third of all jobs in the British economy today – about 9m – are low skilled and many sectors, such as care work, are expanding.
So how, if at all, can these jobs be made more attractive? Paying more for them would be a start, and there is welcome pressure in many industries to pay a living wage not just a minimum one. But progress on pay is not going to be fast.
Giving more thought to job design and how to make even quite basic jobs more satisfying is easier to achieve. Good employers do this already. ‘If people like what they do, they will do it better,’ as one boss of a company which employs a lot of minimum wage call centre workers told me.
The supermarket chain Iceland wins awards for employee satisfaction and talking to staff at a south London branch it was easy to see why. They pay attention to fundamental things: listen to employees, reduce the monotony with some job rotation, offer some sense of progression to those who want it.
It turns out that despite the poor image of basic jobs the people who do them often rather like them, especially when they involve a degree of autonomy and working in small teams. Andrew Oswald, from Warwick University, says that job satisfaction levels are just as high, if not higher, in basic jobs as they are in the jobs done by the highly educated.
Yet talking to employers in areas like social care and hospitality it is clear that there remains a huge perception problem for these basic jobs, especially for younger people raised in a ‘you can be whatever you like’ culture. As Bill Mumford, head of the care home charity Macintyre, put it: ‘there's a view now that if you can't do anything else you do care.’
For Geoff Dench this is part of a bigger story about a necessary devaluation of the ordinary in a system built around aspiration and upward mobility, as Michael Young warned 50 years ago. (Young coined the term meritocracy in his book the Rise of the Meritocracy but warned against the practice.)
When governments and educational institutions relentlessly stress moving on and up to university and into high skilled work, it is hard for those left behind not to feel like second class citizens - especially as, unlike in Germany, the alternative vocational tradition has withered in this country.
To Dench this is a zero-sum game, good jobs seem to need bad jobs. But surely that is too pessimistic; it is a question of balance. Of course no one is against people rising as far as their talents will take them, regardless of background. And those old working class communities that Michael Young so admired were insular and limiting. But must everyone aspire to be like the mobile, graduate elite who run Britain? Aren't there other ways to live a fulfilled and happy life?
Having worried so long about reforming higher education and getting as many people as possible into the high skill knowledge economy jobs, politicians do seem to be waking up to the issue of the bottom jobs too. Even Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, who has been an effective lobbyist for social mobility in recent years, admitted to me that he now worries about the unintended consequences of his mobility drive on those of only average ability, who are not going to make it into the charmed circle of the top professions.
If all are led to believe that they are destined for a top job we will create a huge gulf between expectation and reality – one of the greatest causes of human unhappiness – and the jobs at the bottom will be hard to fill. That is bad psychology and bad economics.