This is a guest post by Deryn Thomas, PhD Student in Philosophy, Benjamin Sachs, Senior Lecturer, and Alexander Douglas, Senior Lecturer, at University of St. Andrews. It discusses their recent research on a future with fair work for all and some of the trade-offs it involves. 

Two years into a world turned upside down by lockdowns, travel restrictions, and viral mutations, the way people work and make a living has changed dramatically. New challenges are being presented by rising childcare costs, increases in automation, the digitisation of the workplace, and the gig economy. So we need to ask: how do we make the future of work better for everyone?

At the Future of Work and Income Research Network, we’ve been thinking hard about this problem. As part of these efforts, we recently participated in a consultation for the Scottish Government on its Fair Work Goals, set to be implemented by 2025. The consultation document and stated goals offer an optimistic vision for the future of work in Scotland. But it risks being too idealistic: many of the stated goals conflict with each other.

We noticed at least four sets of incompatible goals. As it stands, the documents say nothing about how these compromises will be decided. But we think this leaves out an important step in the process. Therefore, we offer some reflections from philosophy about how to weigh up the values at stake.  In the end, we think that decisions like these need to be made in the context of a national conversation about the trade-offs surrounding work.

Full Employment vs. Desirable Employment

To begin, the Government states that everyone should have access to work and employment. But it also suggests that work and employment should serve a valuable purpose or provide opportunities for personal growth. This set of goals reveals a conflict between full employment and desirable employment.

If the Government wants to provide everyone the opportunity for work, it must make sure that there are enough jobs for everyone. This means creating jobs for which there is no existing demand. But if these jobs are, so to speak, pointless, it is hard to imagine how a person could see their job as serving a valuable purpose or contributing to personal growth.

Perhaps the Government could create jobs, not based on labour market demand, but on meeting important social needs. That way, the jobs created would not be pointless. And the Government might turn out to be better than the market at identifying those needs. But this would likely require radical structural changes to labour policy. It will also challenge existing beliefs about the appropriate reach of the state.

A Real Living Wage vs. Effective Unions

Next, the Government states that it will require more employers to pay the Living Wage. But it also intends to increase union membership and collective bargaining coverage. This set of goals highlights another conflict. If the Government is in charge of holding employers accountable for their wage rates, this could sideline unions.

That’s not a serious problem if higher wages are the only goal of unions. But unions serve a much broader purpose in bargaining for other goods. And one might think union membership and direct worker representation are valuable in themselves. Being a member of a union allows workers to play an active role in negotiations with their employers and with the state. And it can be valuable for workers to do this together, as part of a collective.

The Gender Pay Gap vs. Flexible Working Practices

In addition, the Government promises to decrease the gender pay gap. But it also promises to increase the availability of flexible and family-friendly working practices.

One way to interpret the gender pay gap, as the consultation document does, is as a gap in median hourly earnings. But earnings per hour is not the only metric we should care about. Over a lifetime, women spend far fewer hours in paid work than do men. This is likely affected by social norms which disproportionately pressure mothers, rather than fathers, to take time off work.

Practices such as working from home or flexible leave may encourage these norms to persist, by allowing partners to choose who takes on the burden of childcare. Solving the gender pay gap will then require limiting certain types of flexibility. Iceland and Sweden have shown one way to do this, by giving fathers an equal allotment of parental leave and limiting how much can be transferred to the mother.

The Interests of Works vs. The Interests of Employers

Finally, the Government suggests that promoting fair work is a win for both employers and workers. Better working conditions have been shown to lead to increased productivity, higher retention rates, and innovation. But worker well-being and employer interests don’t always line up.

Changes to the workplace that simply aim to increase productivity or output often make work worse. Employee tracking and monitoring can harm employee autonomy and violate privacy. Longer hours can harm physical health. When workers are treated as output machines, the workplace can become alienating and degrading.

How could this tension be resolved? Unions are an important piece of the puzzle, but they may be limited in the power they have to change the working conditions at individual companies. Workplace democracy is one possible solution. This involves restructuring work environments around democratic principles, which would give workers a more effective voice in their workplace.

A National Conversation About Fair Work

There are alternative solutions to those we raise here, and additional compromises that will likely present themselves. But in any case, we think that bold initiatives are necessary if we are going to make work better for everyone. What remains is for us to discuss and decide – as a nation and also as a broader society – which trade-offs we are willing to accept.