One popular narrative is that employment is getting worse with the rise of insecure employment, such as zero hours, and increased pressures at work. Many see a polarised workforce, with more ‘lovely and lousy’ jobs at both ends of the skills and pay spectrum. However, analysis from the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) for 2015 suggests this is too simplistic.
Researchers have analysed the BSAS responses from people in work on job security, income, job satisfaction, job interest, opportunities for satisfaction and whether people think the job helps people or society. The researchers went on to classify good jobs as those having at least 4 positive attributes and a bad job as those having at least 3 negative attributes.
By this measure, the UK has a high share of good jobs which has been growing — from 57% in 1989 to 71% in 2015. This is in line with the findings of the recent CIPD report looking at the relationship between regulation, employment performance and job quality.
There was no evidence of class polarisation on some of these measures. The biggest improvements were for those described in the analysis as ‘working class’ where the shareholding good jobs increased from 42% to 62% between 1989 and 2015. Those described as the highest social class (‘the salariat’) were still more likely to hold a good job (72% and 77% respectively) but the gap had significantly narrowed.
There was also no evidence that recent generations entering the workplace were getting a raw deal compared with older workers on some of these measures. In 2015, nearly 70% of those under 34 said they had a good job compared with 63% of those over 54, while 77% of those under 34 said they had a secure job compared with just 53% of those over 54. Indeed, since 2005, job security has gone up among the young, whilst falling sharply for older workers.
What Workers Want
The survey also asked people what they wanted out of work. Not surprisingly, job security topped the list, followed by an interesting job and opportunities for advancement. Less expected however, was that control over hours or days of work was not seen as especially important. Only 10% thought this was very important compared with over 55% who viewed job security as very important.
When what people wanted was mapped against what they have, we found that there was a good match on some attributes such as working independently, helping people, being useful to society and personal contact. Almost all workers want a secure and interesting job, but only 65% and 75% respectively said they have one. However, there is by comparison a yawning gap between those who said advancement is important in a job (over 80%) and those who said they have it in their current job (34%).
Work has become more stressful over the past decade, with an increase in the share of workers who reported that their job was stressful all the time or at least often, increasing from 33% to 37%. This was mainly driven by those in routine and semi-routine jobs, where the share reporting stress always or often went up from 20% to 29%. There has also been an increase in ‘discretionary effort’, with the share saying they work harder than required to help the organisation succeed increasing from 61% to 69% over the same period.
Much has been said about increasing hours flexibility, but overall, more than half of all workers said they had no control over when they start and finish, and only 9% said they had full control. These proportions have not changed significantly since 1997. However, it should be noted that most workers reported having informal and occasional flexibility and could take an hour or two in the working day to deal with family or personal issues with either no or comparatively little difficulty.
Most workers said they had some say in how they organise their daily work, but since 2005, those in routine and semi-routine jobs have been subject to more employer control, with managers and professional workers significantly less. In 2015, nearly 60% of those in routine jobs said they had no say, compared with only 12% of managers and professionals.
To sum up, the UK labour market has a lot of good jobs and the share has increased over time, especially for those classified by the survey as working class. In contrast to older workers, younger generations in the workplace have high and improving levels of job security. Many jobs give workers what they want.
However, the labour market is coming up short on job security and interesting work and there is a huge gap between the desire for progression and the share of jobs that offer progression. For workers in routine and semi-routine jobs, work is becoming more stressful with less discretion on daily tasks. There has, overall, been little progress on hours flexibility over the past 20 years.
This is a mixed picture, with significant progress made in some areas in UK workplaces. But it is also clear that significant minorities of workers have poor quality jobs and for some, work is getting worse. Major challenges remain in improving workplace practices in areas such as progression, discretion, and flexibility.