Who Wants A Bad Job?

No seriously. Would you like a bad job? There are all sorts of them to be had. I recently watched a guy at the Halifax airport walking up and down the arrivals parking strip, which is so heavily metered and fined you’d be crazy to risk leaving your vehicle for more than a minute over your allotted time. The risk is that you’ll get a giant parking ticket, and this man’s job is to stroll past your car in a bright yellow vest and remind you of that risk. Note that his job is not really to issue tickets – that’s likely a fairly rare event. I’m sure getting to issue a ticket is the highlight of his day because it actually gives him something to do

Or how about this: the recently implemented practice in large chain stores of having cashiers who don’t have any customers in line stand outside of their tills and wait customers who are not (apparently) clever enough to locate an empty line without this additional visual cue. Because standing behind your till waiting for customers isn’t boring enough.

Bad jobs are boring. Many bad jobs numb the mind while punishing the body. Bad jobs pay badly, and do not provide pensions or benefits. Bad jobs are insecure jobs; they don’t guarantee hours, so it’s your problem if you can’t make your rent this month. In return for this, they demand your full availability for all shifts, ensuring you can’t reasonably make up your needed income with a second, crappy job. Bad jobs offer little hope of learning, growing, or making more money in the future. Bad jobs are thankless:  the work, if valuable, is not valued, and the worker is socially invisible.

And there are a lot of bad jobs out there. Not all bad jobs will have all of the above noted “bad” features, but there are an awful lot of people out there who live, eat, and look after their kids by working at jobs that don’t pay well and/or that they would probably prefer not to have. Don’t get me started on educated immigrants: yes, there are foreign born engineers and economists driving your cabs.

The thing is though, there always have, and always will be, “bad jobs.” Someone has to clean the toilet. Someone has to work with industrial chemicals to clean the deep fryer. In fact much work that needs to be done by someone is inherently repetitive, difficult, dull, or dangerous. So who wants these bad jobs? Well, no one really wants a bad job, right?

The question then becomes: how do we decide who gets the “bad jobs?” I’m working with my own bias here: in my version of an ideal world, over and above being able to earn a living wage, everyone has opportunities to work and learn in ways that are meaningful, allow them to exercise and build on their skills and creativity, and are otherwise psychologically rewarding.

So if we begin with my assumption that all people are entitled to at least some opportunities for these rewards from work, the question of who gets “good” versus “bad” jobs becomes one of distributive justice. Distributive justice is really the principle behind all questions of economics. The basic question of economics – the first thing you learn in an elementary economics class – is this:

  • Scarce resources.
  • Unlimited demand.
  • Now what?

In other words, given that we’ve got more people than stuff, how do we decide who gets what stuff?

When the “stuff” is jobs, we tend to use education as the criteria to decide what is “fair” in terms of who gets what work. Our assumption is this: if you put the time and money in to get more education, you deserve a better job. That’s distributive justice: people get what, by our measures, they deserve. The problem with this argument, however, is that it very effectively masks all sorts of uneasy questions that we, as a society, would prefer not to talk about:

  • What about people who don’t have the smarts to get a post-secondary education?
  • What about people with disabilities?
  • What about educated immigrants who still can’t get the jobs that, according to this theory, they “deserve?”
  • Does all important, valuable work require an extensive formal education?
  • What about the fact that, regardless of native intelligence or ability, if your parents didn’t go to post-sec, you probably won’t either?
  • Does cost deter some people from getting education?
  • Should book learning alone determine entitlement to a “good job?” What about other skills, qualities and attributes?
  • And, perhaps the most puzzling question of all: if we all “get an education” as government policies keep advising us to do, does it follow that all the “bad jobs” will just go away because we will all deserve (and get) “good jobs?”

It’s this last point that really ought to give us serious pause. Because it isn’t true. Bad jobs will always exist, and we must always wrestle with fundamental questions of who (if anyone) “deserves” to be relegated to less satisfying and rewarding forms of work. So long as “education, education, education” drives our public conversations about labour, we will continue to neglect more foundational questions of distributive justice, as I’ve described above [1].  For the time being, such questions rarely enter public discourse, and conversations about the meaning and outcomes of work in our lives remain as impoverished as the 30 year old Filipino father working at the Tim Horton’s by my house to send money home to his family. He served a lot of coffee and doughnuts yesterday, and most of us probably didn’t wonder about his life at all, as we rushed through our own busy work days and nights.

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Notes and References

[1] “Education, education, education” was (rather famously now) cited by Tony Blair in 1997 as a key policy platform for his Labour government in Britain. The message is representative of a faith in education, at the policy level to resolve social and economic problems.

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3 Comments

  1. I don’t have many complaints, but I do think you grant “economics” too much authority. I think the groundwork you lay down is poisoned by the assumptions of that discipline leading to a kind if “economics fetishism.” I think It would be better to use “political economy” and thus at least allow into the conversation both the dominant principles of disciplinary economics and a critique of same.

    • I don’t disagree with you, except that this is terribly difficult to explain in a short column! Also, I think the charges of “economic fetishism,” while valid, also cause many critical positions to throw the economic baby out with the bathwater and disengage from that angle entirely. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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