3 Questions: Joshua Cohen on qualities of good jobs

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future research brief examines what makes for “good jobs,” and the public-private policies that can help shape them.

Photo of Joshua Cohen leaning on a railing

“Good jobs have familiar features that we look for in work: decent compensation, stability of hours, health and safety protections, and opportunities for acquiring new skills and responsibilities. All of those conditions are incredibly important, but they are not ambitious enough,” says Joshua Cohen.

Joshua Cohen, a member of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future Research Advisory Board and a distinguished senior fellow in law, philosophy, and political science at the University of California at Berkeley recently wrote a research brief, “Good Jobs,” that describes the qualities inherent in “good jobs” and how they fit into a larger world of education, training, consumption, finance, firm organization, and worker representation.

Here, Cohen describes some of the main takeaways from his brief, including what exactly a “good job” is and how private-public policies and leadership can foster the creation of good jobs.

Q: Your brief refers to “good jobs.” Can you define what that means?

A: Because the nature of work is changing so much – and because it is so important in so many of our lives – we have to embrace a broad and ambitious understanding of “good jobs.” On this broad understanding, good jobs have familiar features that we look for in work: decent compensation, stability of hours, health and safety protections, and opportunities for acquiring new skills and responsibilities. All of those conditions are incredibly important, but they are not ambitious enough. Good jobs also ensure collective worker voice, so that people can protect themselves and not be subject to arbitrary authority. They serve a worthy purpose, so that people feel that their time is well-spent and are more motivated to attentive performance. Moreover, good jobs have a kind of complexity that makes work more engaging and enjoyable – thus more powerfully motivating. Goods jobs allow for greater chances for experiences of freshness, enable people to find their own distinctive ways of doing the job, create greater possibilities for creativity, and provide possibilities for a sense of evolving mastery in the face of a challenging task. In his 1973 book “Working,” Studs Terkel interviewed a woman named Nora Watson who complained about jobs that “are not big enough for people.” A good job, in brief, is a job that is “big enough for people.”

Q: What private-public policies can we recommend that will foster the creation of good jobs in the United States – especially related to how we shape technologies?

A: Good jobs are good for the people with the jobs. Firms are not always motivated to create good jobs, because the benefits flow to workers and to the larger society. To increase those motives, we need a favorable public policy environment, including minimum wage laws, which diminish the attractions of “low-road” strategies that do not provide good jobs; social protections (including income security) that reduce incentives for workers to accept bad jobs; active labor market policies that ensure appropriate skills, both cognitive and emotional, including the essential ability of learning how to learn and to collaborate; support (including tax incentives) for new firms using new, more productive technologies; and a research and development environment (including research grants and strong public R&D labs) that assists technological innovation by incumbent firms. Along with the policy environment, firms have an essential role to play. Zeynep Ton, in operations management at MIT Sloan, argues that a firm-level “good jobs strategy” requires a series of coordinated and mutually reinforcing strategic decisions: both investing in employees (good hiring, decent compensation, clear performance standards, and well-defined career paths) and developing operational strengths, including focus, cross-training, and a willingness to operate with sufficient slack to adopt to changing circumstances.

Q: Your brief makes the point that new technology might enhance the capability of providing good jobs. Can you share how private and public sector leadership could effect change?

A: Private and public sector leadership can focus on developing the kinds of policies I just described. More than that, we need them to think in a different way about technology, and about work. First, they should reject the technological determinist idea that the course of technological change is fixed, and that job design must simply adapt to it. In the case of artificial intelligence, for example, this means focusing very deliberately on the design and development of “humanistic AI,” which is understood as an augmentation or amplification of human capabilities, not as a substitute for them. Second, they should think about jobs in the way that Nora Watson did: as big enough for people. Jobs are an important part of human life; good jobs are jobs that contribute to living well. They should think about what they love about their own jobs, and aim to create jobs that other people can love just as much.

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