Technology and "Good Jobs"


I got a number of comments and e-mails regarding a recent post on technological change, jobs that produce goods, and "good jobs". This is a follow up meant to clarify some points and solidify others.

  1. The entire point of my post was to say that the exact tasks people do is unrelated to whether they have a "good job". Working in manufacturing does not make a job "good", and working in services does not make a job "bad". Yes, "good" and "bad" are fuzzy terms.
  2. I'm not denying that technology is replacing manufacturing jobs. It is. It will. We may well end up with robots making everything. If so, then you want to make sure that the jobs that people do have are "good jobs".
  3. Service jobs are not, even to a first approximation, poor people doing things for rich people. So no, we won't run out of jobs because rich people can only get so many massages or restaurant meals. The vast majority of workers in the US for the last 60 years have been non-rich people doing service-like things for other non-rich people. [Teachers, cops, firemen, nurses, waiters, store clerks, everyone in HR, everyone in accounts payable, secretaries, receptionists, every computer programmer, truck drivers, warehouse workers, chefs, everyone who works on any TV show, record, or movie, claims adjusters, insurance agents, financial analysts, everyone at your local bank, your IT guys, everyone working in state or federal government, priests, librarians, florists, pizza delivery guys, photographers, personal trainers, dietitians, optometrists, dentists, physical therapists, veterinarians, security guards, dishwashers, hostesses, exterminators, HVAC workers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, rodeo clowns, pit bosses, morticians, barbers, day-care attendants, real estate brokers, airline pilots, car mechanics, flight attendants, taxi drivers, and yes, even used car salesmen. Just to give a few examples.] We are very good at finding things to do for each other. We'll continue to be good at that
  4. No, you cannot "work any day you want to". Ask the day laborers that hang out at the Home Depot near my house how they are doing. Some days you pick the wrong parking lot. Some days it's raining. Some days there just isn't anyone with a job. The frictions and costs of working day-to-day are huge.
  5. Personally, I think that the following characteristics are associated with "good jobs". (A) Security/steadiness. As per #2, knowing that your job will be there next week/month/year is incredibly valuable. It allows you to undertake long-run commitments, like marriage, home-ownership, and schooling. (B) Family flexibility. You can deal with your life (i.e. all the crap you need to get your kids to) without the fear of being fired for it. (C) Pay/Benefits. Enough money to afford decent health insurance, or decent health insurance provided by the employer. In short, I think people want stability more than anything. The attraction of those mid-20th century union jobs for workers was that they had lock-it-down certainty about the future.
  6. Yes, it is possible to make any kind of job a "good job". I used the Costco/Wal-mart distinction as an example. Justin Wolfers and Jan Zilinsky just posted a piece containing further examples. In short, worker productivity is not a fixed value, and paying higher wages is associated with getting higher productivity from the same workers. Costco has a wage/benefit structure that encourages their workers to be productive. In return, Costco saves money from lower turnover. What Wolfers and Zilinsky show is that this works in a variety of settings.
  7. The original post made it sound as if unions were the only way to generate the conditions of "good jobs". That is not true, and not what I intended to say. Unions were one way to elicit those good conditions from employers, and manufacturing workers were particularly well placed to unionize and negotiate those conditions. But unions aren't necessary for this. Costco isn't unionized. [CORRECTION: About 15,000 Costco workers are part of the Teamsters. Roughly 174,000 total Costco workers. DV 1/20/15] We need companies to recognize the value of becoming a "good job" employer, but there are lots of ways to do that.

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