The postpandemic future of work is about job quality

September 16, 2021

Dear Changemakers,

Before the pandemic, the phrase “the future of work” was as ubiquitous as “essential worker” was in 2020. Back then, we worried about a bifurcated labor market that produced high returns on education for some and low-paid, dead-end jobs for others. Technological innovation seemed to be reducing quality jobs for middle-skill workers and leaving stagnant wages for the middle class who remained in the workforce. Innovation was creating jobs, but, according to a 2020 report from David Autor and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, these new jobs followed the same bifurcation:

Amidst a technological ecosystem delivering rising productivity, and an economy generating plenty of jobs (at least until the COVID-19 crisis), we found a labor market in which the fruits are so unequally distributed, so skewed towards the top, that the majority of workers have tasted only a tiny morsel of a vast harvest.

The pandemic has exacerbated many of these troubling trends. Not so long ago, we banged pots on our doorsteps to laud as heroes our frontline workers in health care, supply, retail, restaurant, and other industries—many of whom are people of color. But, unless we all remain their champions, our economy will continue to offer essential workers an uncertain future of low economic mobility.

To provide fairness, economic mobility, and security to our essential workers, we need to focus, with an explicit equity lens, on improving the quality of jobs the economy produces for low- and middle-wage workers.

What constitutes a quality job? My Urban Institute colleagues are digging into this question, offering evidence to probe the relationship between job quality and economic mobility to help inform policy solutions, advocacy, and employer-led efforts to create good jobs. In a recent analysis, Urban experts found the following set of job quality elements were the most important to different groups of employees:

  • Job security and stability. A good job provides people with a decent, reliable living wage and predictable schedules. It also offers opportunities for progressive wage growth and access to benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, and paid leave.
  • Purpose and autonomy. A quality job is one that people enjoy, that provides a sense of purpose and the power to change aspects of their workplace environment.
  • Safe working environment. A quality job provides safe working conditions that support—or don’t negatively affect—workers’ physical and mental health and is free from harassment and discrimination.
  • Advancement opportunities. Good jobs offer skill-development opportunities through training associated with a specific job, cross-training on skills for related jobs, and educational benefits such as tuition assistance.

Unfortunately, most low-wage jobs are not designed to sustain working families. A family often needs multiple jobs, two working adults or one with more than one job, plus other supports, such as access to child care, to make ends meet financially and to effectively manage work and family.

Though we’re still navigating COVID-19, businesses are essentially back in business across the country. Yet job vacancies stand at a record high, and workers are demanding more: better pay, more respect, and access to health care and paid sick leave. They want safe working conditions and more opportunities to build their skills and advance. Meanwhile, employers are recognizing that many employees need more training, particularly in digital skills—or to switch careers entirely—for workers and businesses to thrive.

How do we create high quality jobs? In the postpandemic economy and beyond, evidence shows creating quality jobs that respond to the needs of both workers and employers will require a holistic approach that considers wages—which have been relatively stagnant for 30 years—and other elements that make jobs rewarding for employers and employees. Through our WorkRise initiative and other research on America’s workforce, Urban’s experts are analyzing how working conditions, business culture, and job design affect people’s economic well-being and job mobility, how high-quality jobs can advance racial equity, what conditions lead some employers to offer higher-quality jobs, and how workers’ ability to influence elements of job quality affects outcomes like health and economic mobility, among other issues.

How do we ensure equitable access to quality jobs? As my colleague Steven Brown writes:

Workers of color earn lower wages and experience higher unemployment and job turnover, and they are increasingly working in nonstandard work arrangements that offer less protection and support than more traditional employment relationships. These gaps are not the result of individual failures; instead they reflect the effects of a host of structural disadvantages and discriminatory practices, such as long-standing racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, mismatches between where people of color live and where good jobs are located, the quality of schools in neighborhoods where people of color live, the decline of unions and weakened worker protections, the deleterious consequences of mass incarceration in communities of color, and wealth disparities that arise from a legacy of racism.

If we are to take a racial equity approach to job quality, we must overcome centuries of occupational segregation, root out discriminatory employer practices, and ensure equitable access to training and jobs, as well as to benefits and career advancement.

What’s next? My colleagues are studying how the changing structure of work—think the exploding platform economy and the fissured workplace—affects protections and benefits for independent contractors and temporary workers.

The goal of all this effort is, of course, finding solutions. What aspects about the future of work most inspire and concern you? What models can employers and worker advocates advance that would offer holistic solutions—and be replicated around the country? I would be interested in hearing from you to help inform the actionable research Urban pursues on work, the workplace, and job quality.

Warmly,

Sarah