Remember what good things you hoped awaited you within a future job when you were very young and still preparing for one. And have you ever been unemployed long-term, worried that you’d not find work in the near future? Remember why this was distressing (if it was). Here I’ll talk about the things we can, and should, get out of work – and argue that these goods are so important that we ought to reorganise employment.
Unless you are independently wealthy, money will certainly be on the list. You also probably hoped that your job will be decent in other respects: not put you at unusual risk and be free of bullies. That you won’t have to work longer than somewhere between 35 and 50 hours a week.
But it’s likely that money, and avoiding the bads of some jobs, were not the only things you hoped from your employment and missed when unemployed long-term. There must have been others: A chance to get really good at what you’d be doing. An opportunity to contribute, through your work, to other people’s lives going well. Occasions to do things together with other people, in a common and coordinated effort which you can see as a common endeavour. And the respect of your friends, acquaintances and even strangers.
There may be other good things one hopes to encounter within one’s working life, but these four – excellence, social contribution, community and social recognition – are special. Or, at least, this is what Lisa Herzog and I argue in a recent co-authored article on the goods of work (other than money!). What makes them special is not merely the fact that so many people value them. You may also make a lasting friend at work, for instance – but it would seem inappropriate to consider friendship a good of work. What makes these four proper “goods of work” for you, me, and most of our contemporaries, is that our only reasonable chance to enjoy them is in the context of paid employment.
You may, in theory, be able to get very good at doing something by pursuing a life-long hobby. But how much time for hobbies do people with regular lives have – those who have to hold down a job (even a 40 hours a week one!), care for a family and deal with the usual daily chores? Probably not enough to be able to achieve excellence on the side. You may also be able to contribute socially outside your paid job – and many people do, to some extent, for instance by volunteering for causes they find important. But, again, a full time job will allow you very modest opportunities to make a difference to others if you also want to have a personal life. Similar considerations apply to the possibilities of experiencing community through collective creative efforts. And, not without reason, and not unrelated to the other goods of work, it’s largely through one’s job that an adult, law-abiding citizen, can gain social respect.
Now, assuming these goods of work really are highly valuable, yet are not available to most of us outside paid jobs, what does this mean? Lisa and I think this means that their distribution – more precisely the distribution of occasions to enjoy these goods – is a matter of justice. Just like it’s unfair that the organisation of work gives us such unequal opportunities to make money, it’s unfair that it presents us with enormously unequal opportunities to enjoy excellence, social contribution, community and social respect.
To see how we think about the implications of our argument in a bit more detail you’ll have to read the paper (pre-print here). We advocate regulations against jobs that severely undermine the goods of work – socially stigmatising jobs, jobs that avoidably involve dumbing routines and oppressive hierarchies. But we are also after the more ambitious goal of reforming the very nature of jobs as we have them now. Don’t be put off by the thought that – unlike money – these goods are not universally valued, nor do not they seem to be all-purpose means: Most of us want them, but some reasonable people don’t; and you can’t use them to get whatever else you want to get. If you believe in personal liberty and equality you’ll need good reasons why the state should coercively interfere with the distribution of things whose main – and disputed – value is not instrumental.
But we think that in the case at hand there are good reasons. The goods of work – as well as, possibly, lots of other important goods that philosophers of justice have mostly ignored so far! – are not all means-purposes, but neither can they be acquired through multiple avenues. They are properly accessible, for most of us, only through paid employment. We have to work in order to make a living, and we have to work for a very considerable proportion of our life.
The situation would be quite different if we lived in pre-distributive societies that entitle all citizens to an unconditional basic income enough for survival; or if we only had to spend 3-4 hours a day doing paid work. (And it’s possible that one of these is the way forward – rather than much additional job regulation.) But, as things stand, no amount of redistribution of income and wealth will give most people a decent shot at the goods of work.
A full understanding of what distributive justice requires may not, after all, be possible without understanding what makes life good. Thinking about work is central to this discussion, and philosophers are already deep into it.