Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its eagerly anticipated jobs report. Cue the headlines. Job numbers up? Good—well done, politicians. Job numbers down? Bad. Weak economy.
Interpreting data this way misses the real story. Do these jobs allow you to own a home, eat, pay bills, or start/support a family? Will there be time for leisure? Joy? Do these jobs provide a predictable schedule? Stability? Peace of mind? In short: Are they good jobs?
This is all-important work. But these new jobs are not all good jobs. Already, 44% of the workforce have stressful, precarious, low-wage jobs. Economists predict that, if left to its own devices, the market will continue to create either high-wage professional jobs or more of these low-wage service jobs. And the conventional future-of-work narrative—these workers just need better training to get better jobs—ignores one key fact: What better jobs? Why not make these jobs good jobs?
Reporting more fully on the jobs report is just one example of how we need the right data, collected and applied in the right ways to understand the present in order to shape the future. In the podcast, convenings, and road map we produced at the Better Life Lab, we discovered that “the future is a choice,” and everyone has a role to play in making that choice.
Here are six key choices that policymakers, business leaders, journalists, and storytellers could be making now to ensure a better, more equitable future of work and well-being:
TELL TRUER STORIES
Like with the jobs report, dig into the disparate impacts beyond rosy averages.“Measuring well-being means really thinking about distributions, and who is worse off and how they’re faring,” says Jed Kolko, undersecretary for economic affairs at the Department of Commerce. “You have to know where to look for the data. It’s often not published in the headline [of a] press release.”
COMMIT TO GOOD JOBS FOR THE LONG TERM
Warren Valdmanis of Two Sigma Impact is a private equity investor investing in companies committed to creating good jobs and long-term value. For too long, Valdmanis says, companies have focused on cutting labor in order to deliver short-term profits to shareholders versus ensuring they have the right pool of workers. “The biggest problem that almost every company that we talk to has is [that] they don’t have enough motivated, skilled workers to grow.”
Valdmanis’ organization applied research from the field (including the Good Jobs Institute at MIT) to redefine what makes a good job:
● Promising future: the ability to grow and progress
● Psychological safety: the ability to share ideas and feel heard
● Sense of mission and purpose
But defining is one thing, believing is another. Valdmanis said the business community needs to heed data that shows supported workers drive positive business outcomes. Workers agree. In a virtual convening we held, we asked people—warehouse workers, homecare aides, rideshare drivers, tech workers, lawyers—to imagine a future of work where they were motivated and fulfilled. They all named respect and feeling valued as top motivators.
SEE CARE AS INFRASTRUCTURE
Most businesses don’t know the caregiving status of their employees. Yet 73% of workers have some caregiving responsibility and feel it has adversely affected their careers. Systematically collecting employee caregiver data could yield supportive policies and a culture that spur productivity.
Policymakers, too, must respond to the caregiving crisis. Consider Washington State: Faced with an aging population, escalating Medicaid costs, surging care needs, and a shortage of homecare workers, the state’s leaders, the private homecare industry and SEIU 775 worked together to fix the problem by using data differently. Instead of seeing care workers as a cost to taxpayers to minimize, leaders looked to quality data. By focusing on making care jobs better jobs—raising wages, improving scheduling, and establishing benefits for homecare workers—the group was able to reduce rampant turnover and attract more care workers. A more stable workforce meant better care. As a result, more people were able to receive care in their own homes, rather than being sent to expensive nursing homes. The innovative public-private sector partnership improved job quality, improved the quality of care, improved quality of life, and cost less—saving taxpayer money.
Homecare worker and SEIU 775 member Brittany Williams now makes $20 an hour, about twice the national average, and has health insurance, retirement benefits, free training, and mental health support as a result of the partnership. And because she lives in Washington State, she has access to the state’s paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and first-in-the-nation long-term-care benefit programs. “I really like my job,” she said.
COUNT WORKERS AS ASSETS
As global leaders grapple with centering human capital accounting, U.S. businesses find it hard to break the habit of viewing investments like paid leave, professional development, youth apprenticeship, and caregiving support as liabilities instead of as assets and value creation. Wharton’s Peter Cappelli argues that sharing data on worker-centered investments could make companies more attractive to investors.
First up? Shareholders must reimagine ROI. Whereas currently, investments are measured in profit and production, might companies consider the ways in which providing good jobs and supporting workers’ health and well-being enriches the communities where they are based? Communities from which companies benefit by drawing resources, land, and tax credits? Next: policymakers. One lever is to overhaul a tax system that taxes labor investments at 25% to 33% and investments in capital equipment, software, and technology at 0% to 5%. The current system accelerates investment in automation and contributes to the view that human labor is a liability. “That’s a clear market distortion,” Rep. Jim Himes, (D-Connecticut), chair of the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, told us. “These ought to be relatively easy shifts.”
MEASURE OUTPUT. DON’T SPY ON INPUT
Since the 1880s, workers and employers have understood the concept of clocking in and clocking out as a means of accountability and accounting. But as workers’ lives grow more complex due to technology, caregiving, commutes, gig work. and multiple income streams, direct oversight—or, in a more aggressive form, surveillance—may not always be necessary or appropriate.
Workers we interviewed reported that employer surveillance bred a toxic atmosphere of mistrust. “It makes me extremely distrustful of the company and also just feeling like a child getting monitored all the time,” said Madi Swenson. She became so anxious from “bossware” monitoring—software that took screenshots of her computer every 10 minutes—that she quit her job as a virtual creative director. “What are we trying to measure here? Is it that the work is getting done, or is it that we’re sitting at our desks all day?”
“We have a ton of empirical evidence that shows that surveillance of employees leads to bad healthcare outcomes,” says Ashley Nixon, a management professor at Willamette University.
MAKE WELL-BEING THE METRIC
How will we know if our choices as employers, policymakers, or community members create a more just future of work? Current metrics—like gross domestic product (GDP), which narrowly measures goods and services—don’t convey the full story. That limits our ability to make better choices for the future. So, efforts are underway around the world to develop measures focusing on human and planetary well-being, including The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and OECD’s Better Life Index.
New America’s Elizabeth Garlow, who is working with the Biden administration on one such effort, said that shared prosperity is a choice we can make. “If this narrow narrative around growth is just exacerbating disparities, we have an opportunity to course correct. We have an opportunity to decide: What kind of society do we want to create?”
That opportunity begins right now, with leaders committing to use better data that challenges status quo thinking and can help them see the bigger, longer-term picture more clearly. That’s a critical first step toward making the better decisions that will create the better jobs and policies that will set us all on the road to a better, more equitable future of work and well-being.
“How Healthy Is the Future of Work?” is an essay series featuring people working at the cutting edge of their fields, sharing how emerging trends will affect the health of our country’s workers and workplaces in the future.